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“We can be strong and powerful, feminine and beautiful”: Women and Weightlifting

Five members of GUWC discuss the relationship and trends associated with women and weightlifting. (TW: mention of eating disorders)

Following their triumph at the Scottish University powerlifting competition, where the University of Glasgow women won team gold, three individual golds as well as a silver and a bronze, The Glasgow Guardian spoke to five women who are members of Glasgow University Weightlifting Club (GUWC): Molly, Ellie, Hulda, Emerence, and Hannah, to discuss their perspectives on the relationship between women and weightlifting. From struggles with an eating disorder to a response to the negative environment prevalent in some female only sports, all the lifters have come to the sport via different paths but what was apparent was the transformative power it has had on the individuals. 

Central to the discussion were the ideas and myths surrounding food and weightlifting. With a number of them beginning their weightlifting journey due to unhealthy relationships to food and body image. Hannah started the discussion by her own experience which led to her starting the sport as she was given an ultimatum that it was either “the gym or the doctor” to combat her eating disorder. The effect the sport has had on Hannah’s frame of mind was clear, closing the discussion by affirming that: “Your body doesn’t exist for other people to look at. It’s for you.”

Prior to starting weightlifting, the girls often found themselves denying food to their bodies in the goal of trying to lose weight. “If you don’t eat, the weight doesn’t go up. If you wanna build that bum, you’ve gotta eat”, said Ellie. Molly corroborated this, describing her own experience: “food is fuel. I’ve hit my personal bests (PBs) and had some of the best sessions when I’ve had a nutritious meal the night before I do a morning lifting session.” 

As well as experiencing misunderstandings around women’s nutrition and weightlifting, many of the women agreed that men often don’t understand that a woman will not always be able to obtain a PB during certain times of their menstrual cycle. “I ended up wanting a female coach who understood my menstrual cycle,” Hannah said. It’s only been in recent years that research surrounding women and weightlifting has shown optimal performance a week after having a period.

The most prominent factor we discussed surrounding women may be experiencing a barrier when wanting to lift weights is the idea that the weights section is exclusively a man’s area. From the detrimental discourse of commenting on women who lift as having ‘manly’ figures has deterred many women from trying out weightlifting. “It’s an ironic thing to say that you don’t want to lift weights and look jacked, that’s the whole point,” Molly said.

All the women also commented on how men are unapologetic about claiming space, whereas women are often worried about doing this; indicative of patterns in wider society. Hulda mentioned that one of the club’s newer members who has begun benching only the bar is fearful that she’s taking up space for someone who could lift more than her. Furthermore, they all emphasised how some men will simply take equipment from them as they’re using it, or use another part of a lifting platform they’re using, or hovering and waiting for them to finish using certain pieces of equipment. They stressed that the community aspect from other women within GUWC has helped them to overcome the fear of claiming space. “Girls in the gym are getting pretty unapologetic about taking up space,” Hannah said.

Molly also commented on how gym bro culture has often led to testosterone wars in the gym. This has contributed to a negative atmosphere at times when training, despite many of the women in GUWC lifting more weight for their relative body ratios than a number of men inside and outside of the club. “One time I had a guy make direct eye contact with me just as I was about to squat loads of plates,” Hulda commented. “He seemed to give me that look of, oh you won’t be able to do that. I squatted what was 80% of my PB and he finally gave me the nod of approval”.

The women all emphasised the positive impact the other girls in GUWC have had on their mentality and attitude towards training. They all stressed the inclusive and welcoming nature of the club.

The club has also seen an increase in female membership. Hannah, the President of the club, said, “53% of our membership are women and there has been a steady increase of members that identify as women over the past three years”. Hannah also commented how she notices a number of women outside of GUWC who train in the Power Play section of The Stevenson Building. “I think TikTok and Instagram have been helpful in encouraging women to try lifting weights,” she said. Hulda added that there has been an increase of positive role models on social media platforms that have shown women that, “We can be strong and powerful, feminine and beautiful.”

Emerence suggested that trends surrounding body types have potentially seen for the increased number of women who now lift weights: “during Covid-19, more women were training at home to try and attain the hourglass figure. When gyms reopened after lockdown, many women stepped into a gym and discovered that there was a whole other section of the gym to train in”. 

However, Emerence and Hannah stressed that outside of university, particularly when they return home, they often find themselves the only women in, or even near, the weights section in the gym. The loss of the community aspect that they get from GUWC when they train at home can make their passion feel quite lonely.

The validating feeling, greater discipline, and purposefulness they all experience by lifting weights all contribute to making bad days good, and good days better. For these women, lifting weights isn’t just about how weightlifting makes you look, but it’s about crushing the barriers that prevented this success in the first place. It is an empowering way to reclaim your body, to move better, to obtain a healthy relationship with yourself and others.

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Patrick Boyle

Really interesting read, always great to make the gym a fun and inclusive place for everyone.