I Like ‘Em Big, I Like ‘Em Proud.

I Like ‘Em Big, I Like ‘Em Proud.

By Meg Heery

August 4, 2012

Thankfully, it looks like Olympics fans are finally embracing big, and embracing it where it’s most visible: women’s weightlifting. The sport has trended sharply upward this Olympics, and not entirely because of Samuel L. Jackson’s tweets. The event’s raw athleticism and mystique has generated stories celebrating the sport, and the interwebs have been agog with the witty, brazenly positive and media-friendly U.S. super-heavyweight lifter Holley Mangold and her teammate, Sarah Robles, as well as Britain’s Zoe Smith. All the publicity has had the mostly delightful effect of bringing female lifters and the issue of women’s body size increasingly into the spotlight. (For those Sam Jackson comments, see Tuesday’s post.)

On Friday, women’s competition continued in the heavyweight 75kg class (for athletes weighing 165 pounds). Svetlana Podobedova of Kazakhstan and Natalya Zabolotnaya of Russia crushed the rest of the group, setting and Olympic records in the snatch (131kg) and the clean and jerk (161kg that’s nearly THREE HUNDRED AND FIFTY-FIVE POUNDS). This weekend Robles and Mangold will go against the likes of Hripsime Khurshudyan of Armenia, who lifts 285kg, and Russia’s Tatiana Kashirina, who has registered an entry weight of 300kg (661 pounds).

A quick pause for Weightlifting 101. The event is divided into two sections.

In the snatch, the lifter picks up the barbell from a squat position, hoists it over her head in a single motion with arms straight, returns to a low squat, and then stands up and holds the bar over her head until the judges are satisfied that she has control over the weight.

The clean and jerk is a two-part lift, first to the chest and then overhead; otherwise, the same basic procedure applies as in the snatch. (Note to anyone who has the sense of humor of a 12-year-old boy, as I do: Heh-heh. Now shut it.)

As women in this male-dominated sport, these Olympians have an invisible opponent: stereotype. “In order to be taken seriously you have to excel at your sport. But there’s that added pressure of having to…fit this petite/feminine image,” Team USA’s Sarah Robles has said. “I think being strong and confident and doing what you love makes you more feminine because you are not afraid to be yourself.”

Robles has been pushing for a big corporate sponsor so that she can train without living in poverty and so clothing manufacturers start producing more athletic wear that fits women her size. At 5 feet 10 inches and 270 pounds, she told Fox News, she rarely dons clothing that was actually made for women. She recently entered sports-gear company Under Armour’s “What’s Beautiful” contest and writes about the issue on her blog. Now she’s tapping her Olympics publicity to send a powerful message to women everywhere who have found themselves standing in front of a rack of exercise wear, perplexed that clothing manufacturers apparently believe that the fitter a woman is, the smaller she gets.

So do some sports fans, apparently.  After appearing on the BBC documentary Grrrl Power with two other female weightlifters, Zoe Smith (left) drew fire from some who slur-bombed her on Twitter. Smith unleashed a few choice words of her own about the  “closed-minded, ignorant twerps” and then silenced her haters earlier this week (I can’t seriously call them “critics”) by setting a new personal best.

Fighting back against such slurs does a service to all women by pushing back against the culture’s unrealistic standards on body size (including the new and equally unrealistic for most “fitness ideal“). But while the weightlifters can end a verbal attack by lifting twice their body weights, others must endure such attacks without such a defense especially when girls already compare themselves to the idealized images they see in the media as early as age 11. A report commissioned by Dove found that nearly 60 percent of girls ages 11 to 17 describe their looks as average, ordinary, unattractive, or ugly.

Holley Mangold, for one, would like to do something about that. Mangold, seen in video above, has been the subject of both unfortunate Conan O’Brien tweets (for example, predicting she’d “bring home the gold and 4 guys against their will”  and positive network features. She speaks frankly about the rewards and travails of weighing 350 pounds in a world that seems to demand that we all are skinny.

“I’m a big girl and I’m comfortable with who I am,” Mangold has said — so comfortable that she does a cartwheel before every lift. She hopes her soaring self-image rubs off on “small, pretty” girls: “I want people to wake up every day and be happy with what they’re doing.”

It should come as no surprise that if a woman is competitive in the Olympics she is not likely to be tiny (the lithe beach volleyball champ Kerri Walsh Jennings still stands 6 foot 3 inches tall). She’s also less likely to have hair and makeup at the front of her mind while lifting the equivalent weight of a Harley over her head.

That’s why activism from Robles, Smith and Mangold could be as world-changing as their medals. Such athletes need to feel free to look however they want, to wear clothes that make them feel good, and most importantly, to be treated with respect. Remember, they can crush you. 

(Photo: Zoe Smith at the London Youth Games, 2011. Wikimedia Commons)