Raising the Bar: Women in Powerlifting

by Cristian Cano | 4/11/18 2:20am


Courtesy of Cheryl Chang.

Imagine what a powerlifter looks like and it is probably someone muscular. Someone whose extraordinary strength shows with every lift, the weights much heavier than the average person could manage.

For many, the stereotypical powerlifter is a man. Powerlifting remained an almost completely male-dominated sport until just two generations ago. How are women powerlifters’ experiences affected by their gender? To learn more, this week the Mirror interviewed three female students on the Dartmouth Powerlifting Team and asked them their thoughts.

Cheryl Chang ’18 was one of the founding members of the team in the spring of her freshman year. She was approached one day by Tony Choi ’16, who asked her if she would be interested in helping him start the team. Because Chang first lifted in high school for her swim team’s strength and conditioning sessions and later found that she genuinely enjoyed lifting as its own activity, she said yes. Having stayed a member throughout the past three years, she is currently the club’s vice-president.

Chang noted, however, that not all female students stick with the team like she has.

“A lot of females will come to the info meeting and then they’ll see what we’re about,” Chang said. “They’ll maybe come to the first practices, realize that this isn’t quite what they’re looking for and then drop out.”

Olivia Bois ’21 is not one of those students that left after the first practices. She joined the team this past fall and remains an active member. She started off lifting with her father using weights they had at home. After initially lifting as a supplement for running and eventually for personal enjoyment, she came to Dartmouth knowing she wanted to join some sort of lifting club or team.

Bois expressed gratitude for having learned to lift with her father at a young age. She added that for female students, starting out can be a source of anxiety.

“I know for females who decide they want to start [lifting], sometimes it can be kind of scary because there are [gender] stereotypes,” Bois said.

When it comes to gendered stereotypes, Natalie Mendolia ’19 has a unique perspective. She has not only been a powerlifter since her sophomore fall, but she has also completed an ethnographic project on the powerlifting team for Anthropology 3 “Introduction to Cultural Anthropology.”

Focusing specifically on gender dynamics within the Dartmouth College Powerlifting Team, Mendolia explained how her project allowed her to take a step back from something in which she actively participates. She mentioned how some of her own beliefs about gender in powerlifting were, in fact, misconceptions coming from external sources instead of the team itself.

“The big academic conclusion was that, even though we embody so many gendered stereotypes, they don’t prevent anyone from being part of the team,” Mendolia said. “We can have really hypermasculine men and very, very feminine women, but it doesn’t get in the way of our commitment to each other and to the sport that we absolutely love.”

During their respective interviews, the three powerlifters discussed the topic of body image and the possible effects of sports, like powerlifting, where athletes compete in specific weight classes.

Chang brought up the fact that many people confuse powerlifting for bodybuilding, even though the two sports differ greatly when it comes to body image. Powerlifters are primarily focused on becoming stronger and lifting heavier weights, while bodybuilders are primarily focused on physical aesthetics.

Chang also said that the team encourages new members to not worry about weight class, especially because competitors can have a same-day weighing before most competitions.

Mendolia expressed similar sentiments, adding that powerlifters and bodybuilders tend to have different relationships with nutrition.

Bois discussed the existence of different stigmas in different sports when it comes to eating. As a runner in high school, she felt that runners often try to look as skinny as possible and consequently can feel pressure to eat less, while powerlifters can instead feel allowed to eat whenever they want by society.

In spite of the different challenges and expectations that female powerlifters face, all three women emphasized the sense of community that they gained from Dartmouth’s team from both their male and female teammates.

Chang told the Mirror that she’s received “100 percent respect” from all of the men on the team, while Bois described everyone as “friendly and chill” when she first arrived. Mendolia, to emphasize the sense of support she feels on the team, shared an anecdote of how, just before speaking with the Mirror, she had set a new personal record while being cheered on by her old captain.

Chang’s experience as a female powerlifter hasn’t always been perfect — in the past, she has had some negative experiences that she doubts she would have had as a man — but she still encourages women to try out powerlifting for themselves. She acknowledged that things can become intimidating in a space where so many men are lifting such heavy weights, but advised others not to play mind games with themselves. After all, she said, it’s unlikely that other gym-goers are actually as judging as often as one might think.

Bois mentioned that she wants to teach lifting to her younger sister, a soccer player. She added that powerlifting has many benefits, even for people who play other sports or just want to more easily carry heavy objects. She admitted that she sometimes worries what others might be thinking of her at the gym, but she knows that those worries are really just “silly.”

“I know there’s stigma around female lifters and girls starting to lift who have never lifted before, but I just really recommend it,” Bois said. “There are tons of people there to help who are not judging you.”

Mendolia, toward the end of her interview, explained how she hopes that there is some 18-year-old girl who might spend less time worrying about how she looks and how others view her because she lifts — because she can wake up, have something to look forward to and always strive to be stronger.

Mendolia believes that her experiences are evidence that the Dartmouth Powerlifting Team is a supportive community and hopes that everyone can find a community as uplifting as hers.

“It doesn’t have to be powerlifting, but find something that makes you strong in your own way,” Mendolia said. “Just do it. It will make you happier.”