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The Pitfalls of Using Gendered Terminology in Fitness

When I first began powerlifting I was told I had to use the 20-kilogram bar for competition.

For those of you who aren’t familiar with bar sizes, in most Olympic weightlifting gyms there are two bars, the 15-kilogram bar and the 20-kilogram bar (roughly 35 and 45 pounds respectively). Women typically use the 15-kilogram bar for the clean and jerk and the snatch because, typically, they have smaller hands making it easier to grip the smaller circumference of the bar.

Because of this generalization, the 15-kilogram bar is often called the female bar. Herein lies my issue.

From the moment I started structured strength training, and had this option between bars, I just thought I was supposed to be using the 15-kilogram “female” bar because, well, I am indeed a female. When I was told I would have to switch to the larger bar (in the sport of powerlifting everyone uses the same size bar) my stomach dropped and I thought, “I have no idea how I’m going to grip that big of a bar for deadlifts.” I was already conditioned to think I couldn’t do it and I wouldn’t be successful for no other reason than a gender label we’ve put on an object. Terminology is so important.

The way we talk about strength training and how we approach certain exercises, pieces of equipment or nutrition advice should have no gender barrier.

Certainly there are some exceptions where gender is important to note (pregnancy, stress urinary incontinence during maximal lifting, etc.), but it’s when the gender becomes a label to describe something “less-than” that it becomes a problem.

Below, I delve a little deeper into this and how it transcends into even more issues — exploring all the ways it affects females in the fitness space — while also offering suggestions on how we can begin to stand up to gender labeling and connotations that limit what girls and women think they are capable of before they even have a chance to try.

Why This Is a Problem

Words matter deeply and they profoundly affect the way we show up and present ourselves to the world. Marina Salman, MS in Counseling with a Specialization in Sport and Health Psychology, says that verbal communication can construct powerful (positive and negative) meanings and symbols to any particular event or person. “Given how women have been portrayed historically with labels such as ‘weak’, ‘easy’, or ‘promiscuous’, such attitudes have prominently carried over into all fields of society, including sport and fitness. With a phrase like ‘girl push-ups’, such verbiage can cause feelings of exclusion and a decrease in self-efficacy.”

Salman, who has had extensive experience counseling a NJAA D2 women’s basketball team, elite Paralympic athletes, and high-risk school students in health and fitness says she frequently sees these narratives at play among the female teenagers with whom she works.

“There continues to be a gap of mental approaches among the genders part due to the anxiety of conforming to social norms and perspectives,” says Salman. “The overall masculinity perspective constructs the idea that the male gender approaches training and fitness as a means to become stronger and to stay fit whereas the feminine perspective instructs the female gender to focus more on the ideal body image.”

By placing gender labels on equipment and exercise, not only are we continuing to exacerbate this problem but worse, we are equating the female gender with “less than” and “easier” types of exercise.

According to Salman, this creates an inferiority complex in the female gendered athlete and exerciser and can cause a shift in behavior, mood, and performance.

Sherry Schweighardt experiences this often with the girls she coaches in gymnastics. She often has girls ask her all the time to do “girl push-ups” when they are tired or not up to the regular ones. There’s also a disparity in the types of events that are picked for men as opposed to women in the competitive aspect of the sport.

“I think the biggest problem at play here is not that girls think they are incapable but that they have to be stronger, like the boys are,” says Schweighardt. “The terminology offers some reinforcement for the idea that girls are different and although it’s not overtly portrayed as less-than, they can look over and see that it takes a lot of strength to do the boys’ events and they have to be stronger like them.”

Schweighardt, who has a doctorate in Kinesiology and Sport Psychology, says she sees her athletes as more than just gymnasts — often asking herself how she can make them mentally stronger and capable outside of their sport. She says it starts by eliminating certain vocabulary.

“This is even a bigger problem when we look at non-binary and transgender athletes,” says Schweighardt. “When we equate certain exercises or equipment to a gender, and even power with a certain gender, we are making a statement that one gender is more powerful than the other. This is a stifling complex for those who may be male identifying as female because then they ask themselves, ‘Do I really want to live like that?’”

Schweighardt urges us to look at who are in positions of power in sport. There are so many more opportunities for women since Title IX but chances are women aren’t team owners, head coaches, or athletic directors. Who is making the money? It’s not women.

Who Is Affected by This Problem?

This problem is everywhere and no one is immune to it. Terminology, and the very way we talk and communicate about gender roles in training and sport, is monumental. Schweighardt sees it largely at play with her gymnasts, Salman sees it with her basketball players, and I’ve experienced it in the niche of Olympic weightlifting and powerlifting.

Rain Bennett, filmmaker and personal trainer has seen it affect freestyle calisthenics. “The beautiful thing about calisthenics is that it breaks down socioeconomic barriers, body weight, old, young, black, white, female, gay, straight, etc. But you still have the ‘girl push-up’ terminology and I think that is detrimental to women starting in this sport.”

Bennett began to see it more as he taught group classes that were 95 percent women, often having to explain to his clients that those were modified push-ups — and not “girl push-ups” — and that everyone has to start somewhere.

“Plenty of women I know do crazy superman clap push-ups and, as we start to see more and more badass women paving the way, I think [this term] starts to disappear but we have to be adamant about not making room for it,” he says.

Hannah Newman, PhD researcher at Loughborough University in the United Kingdom, researches the culture of Strongwoman and says that many women who train in the sport are still stuck in the mindset of training to lose weight. It’s only when they start to shift their focus to what their body can do, as opposed to what it looks like, that their goals change. That’s also when you see some change or resistance in the urge to use gender labels.

“Gender labeling of equipment or exercises contributes to the concept of the ‘glass ceiling’ on women’s strength,” says Newman. “That is, more women are engaging in strength and muscle-based training than ever before, but limits are often placed on just how strong or muscular women can be before it is deemed ‘unacceptable’ — a.k.a. women can be strong, but not too strong.”

She also says this is reinforced in the use of “femininity rules” in bodybuilding. In a sport where the primary purpose is to build muscle, women can be penalized for having muscles that are “too big.”

Schweighardt sees the same type of thing in her gymnastics classes where even in the way boys and girls behave is different. Boys are generally a bit more rowdy, and the tolerance for disruptive and often rude behavior is high. Girls, on the other hand, are expected to be quiet, to listen to the rules, to stand in line, not to ask questions, and be upright and gentle about how they conduct themselves. There’s a gap in terms of what the expectations are for boys and girls and it all starts with what words come out of our mouths.

What We Can Do to Combat This Problem

“We must refuse to stay silent,” says Bennett. “But most importantly we need to get to the women who are hearing it first as opposed to the men who are saying it. We need to empower women to stand up for themselves and demand more.”

Schweighardt agrees, saying we have to set young girls up for success. “I tell my girls that if anyone is advertently (or inadvertently) taking the space I gave you or the space you gave yourself you need to claim it. Claim you strength and claim your value.”

She says women need to demand equity as opposed to equality and realize that this whole thing is a microcosm for what is going on in our world at large and it’s not unrelated to what goes on in other industries.

Newman and Salman both agree that exercises and equipment should be labeled based on ability level as opposed to gender. “Inclusive language can serve as a key starter in diminishing gender division and promote social acceptance for females in the field of sports and fitness,” says Salman. “I strongly believe that young girls and women play a key role in shifting the culture — not only to challenge discriminatory language and behaviors of their male counterparts, but also in challenging the conditioned ideas and language of their own gender.”

So…it starts with us ladies. We must demand more. Next time, what will you do when you hear someone call push-ups from your knees “girl push-ups” or the 15-kilogram bar a “female bar?”

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