Where Women’s Empowerment Means Deadlifting 300 Pounds

This post was originally published on this site

There is nothing quite like watching a five-foot-tall woman in rhinestones deadlift more than twice her body weight and then celebrate with a high kick. While spectators cheered her on, an announcer shouted, “She smashed the patriarchy with that lift!”

The playlist was more Beyoncé than Black Sabbath at the Lift for Planned Parenthood, the first female and nonbinary powerlifting competition organized by the Women’s Strength Coalition, a new weight lifting group that combines feats of strength and political activism. The event, which took place on April 23 at the Brooklyn Athletic Club in Williamsburg, had 35 participants and about 150 spectators.

Many lifters replaced the traditional singlet with whatever outfit made them feel most comfortable. Children zipped through the crowd on scooters. One woman triumphantly hoisted her giggling son into the air after a nearly 300-pound dead lift.

Shannon Wagner, 31, the founder of the coalition, describes her relationship with powerlifting, a sport where competitors deadlift, squat and bench-press as much weight as possible, as a “revelatory experience.” After years of battling eating disorders, she stumbled across the sport in 2014 and taught herself to lift. “Once I realized what it was like to focus on getting strong versus getting thin,” she said, “it really helped heal me.”

Ms. Wagner, who became a strength and conditioning specialist, said she decided to share this knowledge with others on a larger scale while participating in the Women’s March on Washington in January. As she walked, she brainstormed about what more she could do to work through her feelings of powerlessness after the presidential election. And then it dawned on her: It was finally time to start the organization she had been thinking about for a while, one that would embolden women and make them stronger, literally.

“Protesting didn’t feel like enough,” Ms. Wagner said. “I wanted action rather than reaction. I wanted to create a powerlifting charity that could really help women.”

Two months after creating the coalition, Ms. Wagner organized its first official fund-raising event in Williamsburg: the Lift for Planned Parenthood. She was shocked at the response. Registration sold out in six days, and the event was flooded with first-time competitors vowing to raise a dollar for every pound lifted. Volunteers lined up to help. In the end, Ms. Wagner was able to donate nearly $15,000 to the national nonprofit.

One of the first-time competitors, Sayeeda Chowdhury, 22, had only recently started to lift weights. “Being a Muslim woman,” she said, “the election cycle was one of the worst things, and dealing with that while going through medical school at Mount Sinai was just another level of tension and trauma.”

Ms. Chowdhury said she had been in desperate need of a confidence boost when a friend offered to train her in powerlifting and mentioned the Women’s Strength Coalition. Ms. Chowdhury signed up immediately. And she progressed rapidly.

“I’m a 5-foot-1-inch woman who wears a hijab,” she said. “It’s not the easiest place to be in the gym. It’s a testosterone-filled room with everyone benching really heavy weights.”

“After a while,” she added, “I learned to take up my own space and I started lifting more than they were.”

While wearing a vibrant red hijab at the Lift for Planned Parenthood, Ms. Chowdhury skillfully completed all of her lifts. “Lifting gives you that confidence to take over a room,” she said. “I have a narrative, I have a voice I have a unique story to tell and I’m not as afraid to tell it anymore.”

Last month, the coalition held an event called Pull for Pride at the Murder of Crows Barbell Club in Crown Heights, Brooklyn, with sister events in Minneapolis, Washington and San Francisco. The four dead-lift-only competitions raised over $30,000 for vulnerable lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender people. “There were no judgments and plenty of high fives and rainbow flags,” said Katie Zanin, 28, a participant in the Brooklyn competition.

The next event, an Adult Field Day on Sept. 10 at McCarren Park in Brooklyn, will raise money for Rise Youth Athletics, a nonprofit that provides fitness instruction to children.

Lifting, Ms. Wagner said, “takes a certain amount of tenacity and perseverance to add weight to the bar and to fight for each pound.”

“These women know what it’s like to try and to try and they’re not afraid of failure,” she added. “That perseverance translates over into other areas of life.”

Lara Hogan, 31, an engineering director at Etsy, has spent her whole career “in rooms full of dudes.” But when she started powerlifting a year and a half ago, it shifted how she felt at work. “There’s something about feeling physically strong in an intimidating room or a room where you’re unsure,” she said.

A few weeks before competing, Ms. Hogan was in a challenging executive meeting. “I felt out of my league,” she recalled. At one point a heavy whiteboard needed lifting onto a stage. A man at the meeting who she said trained in CrossFit was singled out to help, but he couldn’t lift the board on his own. He asked Ms. Hogan to assist him. The two of them moved it.

“That changed the whole dynamic of the room,” said Ms. Hogan, who added that it changed her experience of the meeting as well. “Because I felt physically strong, I was able to power through it. I was able to look and feel like a leader. I was actually able to act that way too.”