I’ve been pretty upfront that my work here is all about men being men, and that I generally feel it’s up to women to work up what it is to be women. As such, I often don’t get into some of the more bizarre instances of feminism I see out in the wild.
However, over the weekend, a friend sent me a link to a paper’s abstract that had me scratching my head.
In particular, this line:
That is, women in fitness—particularly those who seek muscular strength in the weight room—may find their bodily agency limited not by biology but by ideologies of emphasized femininity that structure the upper limit on women’s “success.”
The implication here is that women aren’t held back by any biological factors, but by society limiting them to acceptable standards.
This line is immediately followed by this:
Results show that nonlifters and moderate lifters uniquely negotiate the glass ceiling by avoiding, holding back on, or adjusting weight workouts.
Now, this is true. I’ve spoken with a lot of novice women who are new to lifting through the years, and the near universal from them is a fear of getting “bulky” from lifting free weights.
I’ll also concede that much of that concern is probably because of what society considers feminine and attractive, which is generally not a woman with a lot of muscles. I have a friend who is a bodybuilder who competes in figure competitions. She routinely has people attack her for her muscular physique, simply because it doesn’t conform to what some people find attractive.
They’re idiots, mind you, since I’ve noted that kind of thing is right up my alley.
However, that’s not the limiting factor to women’s strength or muscular development.
When you look at the world around you, it’s easy to say that the average male is stronger than the average female, and that’s true. The author of this piece, Shari L. Dworkin, would probably argue that the average for women is low because of societal pressures.
However, I find it far more useful to look at the high-end athletes. After all, they represent the pinnacle of their respective genders with regard to strength. In fact, I did that previously when I looked at weightlifters at the Rio Olympics.
Yes, I’m going to quote myself here:
In weightlifting, it’s not just how much weight you lift, but how much you lift in comparison to your body weight. As such, Olympic weightlifting has weight classes.
The largest men’s weight class is 105 kg and over, while the women’s is 75 kg and over. That’s a 30 kg difference or 66 lbs.
Now, for comparisons on strength, we needed to find two weight classes that were similar. They do exist, with the men’s 62 kg class versus the women’s 63 kg class.
However, the 62 kg class is the second smallest class for men, but it’s the middle of the pack for the women’s classes. Why? Because men run bigger.
Since we have two classes so close together in body weight, we can make a fairly straightforward comparison.
In Rio, the gold medal for the 63 kg weight class went to Deng Wei of China who set a world record with her lift of 262 kg, or 576 lbs. Pretty impressive, since that’s over four times her bodyweight.
How would Deng Wei have done in the 62 kg men’s event?
She’d have placed 13th.
The win went to Óscar Figueroa of Colombia who lifted 318 kg, or 699.6 lbs. That’s over five times his body weight. So, weighing 2.2 lbs less than Deng Wei, Figueroa essentially lifted another whole person.
Now, this shouldn’t take anything away from Deng Wei’s effort. I sure as hell can’t lift that much, after all.
What one should note, however, is that her world record lift wouldn’t even have medaled in the men’s competition, where there was not a record set.
These are elite athletes. Deng Wei isn’t likely to have skipped training because of a fear of being “too bulky” with her weight lifting. After all, elite athletes like her routinely go against any societal pressure that work contrary to their goals.
The very best athletes are the ones who ignore pressures to conform because they’re driven to be the best in their sports. They aren’t likely to slack off on training out of a fear of not being attractive. Yet, she’s still not as strong as Óscar Figueroa and eleven other men despite being the strongest woman in history.
The reality here is that it’s not society that limits the upper levels of a woman’s muscular development, but biology. Men will never be able to give birth to a child, but women will never be able to reach the same upper limits guys can.
Before closing, I’d like to address one last line in the abstract.
As women increasingly flock to fitness sites, daring to cross into the previously male-only territory of the weight room, we must ask whether a contained and “held back” musculature for women is now the (heterosexy) standard that simultaneously creates “new” womanhood as it re-creates “true” womanhood.
I get tickled by the phrasing here. “Daring” to enter the “previously male-only territory” makes it sound like entering hostile territory rather than going to lift weights.
The reason I find it funny is that I’ve spent many, many hours in weight rooms in my life, and women have always been not just welcomed into that little world but encouraged to enter it. It’s been the guys in that “male-only territory” that have tried to suggest to women that weight training would help them reach their goals faster than cardio.
Sure, there may be some random guy who acts like an asshat towards women who come to lift weights, but he is far and away the exception rather than the rule.
Of course, those guys also know that women aren’t going to need to worry about getting bulky from lifting freeweights, no matter what a sociologist says.