Sexism in Strongman

Why heavyweight achievements deserve better than lightweight journalism.

Joanna Montgomery
Aug 3, 2014 · 7 min read

Yesterday one of Newcastle’s regional newspapers, The Chronicle, published an article titled Blonde bombshell and her two pals take strongman and strongwoman world by storm”. Today, the Sunday Sun ran the same piece, titled “This bombshell can pick you up!”. This post is in reference to these pieces of journalism.

The tale of how I ended up as a competitive weightlifter in my spare time is a story for another day, but to cut a long story short; I just don’t do anything by halves. I liked Bodypump classes and the next thing I knew, I was in a warehouse flipping tyres and squatting double my bodyweight.

I train at Spartan Performance, a gym in Consett, County Durham. I love my training: for over a year now I have been challenged, changed and pushed to my limits. It keeps me sane and it drives me to always better myself. It has, for the most part, been a happy place, filled with a diverse mix of people of all shapes, sizes and abilities. All are dedicated, committed and the level of camaraderie and support for their teammates is unparalleled. This is why I joined, why I kept going back and why I was bold enough to take my first tentative steps into the world of competition.

Last weekend, I competed in Strongman Bolton’s first ever women’s class and won.

Mark Topham and Jenny Todd. Photo by Helen McCrae.

Two of my friends and training mates also competed the same weekend, in two other competitions in Scotland.

Their contests were of a much higher calibre than mine, with Mark winning Britain’s Strongest Man Under 105kg and Jenny winning Europe’s Most Powerful Woman.

As you can imagine, three different athletes winning three different competitions was quite the success story for Spartan Performance and our coaches. The local newspaper were keen to do a feature on the gym and its weekend of champions.

I’d like to start by clarifying that I had absolutely no modicum of influence over this piece of journalism. My coach provided some basic information to the journalist; I never met nor spoke to her. I was photographed alongside Jenny and Mark by an independent photographer. The people sending me angry Facebook messages about how selfish I am for ‘making the story about me’ (you know who you are); you can stop now.

It was a friend of mine who sent me the link. When I clicked on it, the last title I ever expected to read above an article about a gym producing three champions in one weekend was this anything with the words “blonde bombshell” in it.

Whilst flattered, I am disappointed by the title and the theme that continues throughout the piece, which seems to evolve solely around me and the way I look. Within the title alone, my own achievements — let alone those of my “two pals” — are coming second to my hair colour.

I believe, or at least I hope, that the piece was written with good intentions and I am grateful for the coverage it should have garnered for our gym. But the combination of the title and the use of language is disrespectful and insulting to all three of us.

We are strength athletes. We don’t bodybuild or scuplt our beach bodies, we train to perform and to excel. The thing that’s difficult about our sport and our training is the level of effort and commitment it takes, both physically and mentally. All three of us — and every competitor that each of us had the privilege of sharing a battleground with — worked themselves into the ground with the sole goal of turning up that day and competing. I was training six days a week, not curling my hair or manicuring my nails, trying to turn myself into a bombshell.

Another day of training at Spartan Performance

I am aware of the stereotype; people think that strong women, or weightlifting women, are generally large and cantankerous. The cliches are tall, stocky women, packed with muscle, perhaps unlucky in the aesthetics department and usually carrying a little “more to love”.

I am aware of that stereotype and I know I do not fit within it. Not that it matters — strength is relative and size is irrelevant; anyone can be powerful beyond their expectations.

Any competition is a challenge, but Strongman Bolton was particularly challenging to me because there were no weight categories; it was one class, open to women of all shapes and sizes. By chance, I was the smallest and lightest athlete competing. I am 5”1 and generally weigh around 55-56kg. I sincerely did not expect to place at all, let alone win, but I had trained hard and gave a good performance on the day.

One of the best things about winning was the impact it had on other women. Even before I’d been announced as the winner, women were approaching me to tell me they’d loved watching me and it made them want to give it a go. “I thought strongwomen had to be really big and manly, but watching you made me realise anyone can be strong” said one lady. When Strongman Bolton posted a photograph of me sporting my trophy — and an even bigger smile — I felt so proud reading the comments from ladies who had watched myself and the other girls competing. The women’s class and the variety of girls involved has inspired an influx of ladies to enquire about entering next year’s competition.

The Strongman Bolton girls. Photo by Joanna Matejko.

And that’s the beauty of strength sports; they can be for everyone. It’s about performance. Would all those women be thinking about entering next year’s competition if they thought they were going to be judged on how they look? Probably not, yet I doubt that fear has even crossed their mind due to its sheer ridiculousness.

I want to be judged on my merits, just like everybody else does. Just like Mark and Jenny did when they agreed to be in a newspaper article. Whether someone is breaking an archaic type-cast or not couldn’t be any less relevant. My best event in my competition last week was as many deadlifts as possible in 75 seconds. I won the event with 26 reps but, shock horror, I would have done 26 reps even if I was a brunette. Whether I’d been short, tall, fat or had three eyes, I still would have done 26 reps.

If the article had exemplified me as an independent, strong woman, breaking the mold in the world of strongwoman in a positive way then despite the insult of shadowing my teammates, I probably could have accepted it as a bid to inspire others. But no, I’m just a “pint sized” novelty with the right aesthetics to be shoe-horned into a sexist story slant. The ironic thing is, I’m not even that good looking.

What edged all of us slightly ahead of our competitors last weekend was our attitude and our determination. That mindset was backed up by months of hard work, training, blisters, ripped skin, blood and bruises. When our moments came we stepped up to the challenge and pushed ourselves to our limits, physically and mentally. That’s what the experience was really about and that’s what the newspaper should have opened with, instead of pitifully marveling over my height or my hair colour whilst Britain’s Strongest Man was relegated to the third paragraph.

Sensationalist headlines and story angles like the ones I refer to today do the sport a disservice. My experience of the strength training world so far has been an exponentially positive one; I don’t have anything to compare it to, but I’m not sure how many other sports there are where a competitor comes off the platform and then goes back to cheer on his or her rival. All the people I have met along the way — both my gym buddies and those I have met at competitions — have been warm and supportive. Putting me on a pedestal for my looks goes against everything the sport stands for.

Like I said, I know I don’t fit the stereotype. I don’t care and neither does the barbell, my coach or my fellow competitors. And if someone wants to use that to inspire then sure, go ahead. But letting aesthetics take precedent — or even be relevant — to achievements is genuinely tragic.

To close, I would like to add that I have been here before. I have been misquoted, taken out of context and wrongly portrayed in the press more times than I care to remember, but it’s just the world of journalism and that’s how it works. You can’t lose sleep over it. The press love a sensation and I just happened to be the best they could manage in this situation. Tomorrow I’ll be back in the gym and someone will be serving fish and chips onto my blonde bombshell face.

    Written by

    Interaction designer; creating a world where being a human becomes first. Founder of start-up @LittleRiotHQ and creator of product 'Pillow Talk'. Weightlifter.

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