Instagram, Race, Gender, and Powerlifting: A Platform for Gains
By Parsa Najmaie
From having competed in a few USA Powerlifting meets, and from scrolling through my Instagram explore page, I have come to realize something painfully obvious about the sport that I, as an Iranian-American woman, love the most: there are very few women who look like me who powerlift. We live in an age in which many people choose to represent different aspects of their lives on social media accounts. None of my friends in my daily life powerlift, and there are so few women in strength sports (let alone women of color). So, I have looked to social media platforms like Instagram to find and watch women who look like me powerlift. Many conversations surrounding Instagram use and women in the strength world tend to have negative connotations. I argue for a more positive perspective. Instagram is a platform that women of color who compete in powerlifting should use to gain agency in the world. In doing so, we can show our physical and mental strength to a wider audience than just the powerlifting community. To demonstrate this, I will be drawing from four interviews I have conducted with four accomplished women of color powerlifters from different racial backgrounds who frequently use Instagram.
I first interviewed Cynthia Leu (@cynthialeu). She is a Taiwanese-American woman, University of California Davis alumnus, who works at Facebook. Cynthia has been powerlifting for over 4 years and has set multiple records in the United States Powerlifting Association in the 60 kilogram weight class. Then, I interviewed Kimberly Walford (@trackfu), a Jamaican-American woman and 6-time International Powerlifting Federation world champion in the 72 kilogram weight class. Kimberly has been powerlifting for over 17 years. Next, I spoke with Arthi Nithi, (@arthi.nithi), an Indian-American and recent industrial engineering graduate at the Georgia Institute of Technology. Arthi currently holds the American record in the 63 kilogram weight class raw junior division for the USA Powerlifting Federation in the squat. Finally, I interviewed Amanda Kohatsu (@haparican) a Puerto-Rican Japanese American, who is a certified trainer who coaches athletes worldwide. She was ranked in the top 20 67.5 kilogram female lifters in the world in 2017, and has been competing for over 2 years.
After interviewing these women, I have come to realize that Instagram has given a larger audience for female powerlifters of color because, as Cynthia Leu told me, “it gives everyone a voice regardless of background.” Unlike, attending a powerlifting meet in person, you can watch powerlifting performances from across the globe on Instagram. Anyone in the world with internet access can click on your profile and view your content. Since Instagram tears down the financial and location-related barriers that may otherwise be present in viewing interesting content, like attending powerlifting meets, those from marginalized communities can use this platform to share and view personal experiences to the world.
Kimberly Walford draws from her experience: “[Instagram] has given me a larger audience, especially with regards to serving as a mentor for a lot of black females in the sport. You don’t see many black women in the higher echelon of success. I myself could only rely on one black female powerlifter, Jackie Pierce, in the past.” In showcasing her strength on Instagram, Kimberly Walford has been able to reach an audience that is larger than the powerlifting community. Instagram has given her a platform to easily show that she can be a world champion and a black woman, something that wasn’t the case in the past.
Because Instagram is accessible to everyone, when women of color who powerlift share their content on this platform, they can show the world how they combat culturally-sensitive stereotypes that discourage women from lifting weights. Although the powerlifting community is a very niche community, Instagram itself is widely used by millions worldwide. This means that even though one may have an account dedicated to only lifting, those who are in your everyday life are still likely to follow your Instagram simply because they know you.
Arthi Nithi shares her perspective: “When women of color see other women of color become successful, they recognize and support each other. Through Instagram, the world can see that there is potential for women of color in the sport. For South Asians in general, there are stereotypes that women shouldn’t lift heavy. Seeing my content can trigger someone to change their minds.”
Similarly, Cynthia Leu states: “When I first started, there weren’t any women in the sport let alone Asian women. Now there are a lot of Asian women in the sport. A lot of Asian women reach out to me mentioning how specific posts about body image and diet habits really resonated with them because they came from a background in which they were told that they shouldn’t lift or eat a certain a way.” These two women from two different ethnic backgrounds reach women in their respective ethnic group who are subject to stereotypes about lifting weights. Just by sharing their experiences as powerlifters of color on their Instagram accounts, they have the ability to positively impact the lives of other women of color.
As more and more women of color who powerlift post their content on Instagram, more and more women of color may be encouraged to give powerlifting a try because they can easily see other women who look like them do it. Because Instagram is used by the general public, not just powerlifters, it can expose others to different hobbies that they wouldn’t have found otherwise. This becomes especially important for women of color when we want to choose a sport. Kimberly Walford says that in posting on Instagram she has “helped and inspired fellow black women to give the sport a try. Traditionally, stereotypically, you see black women in Track and Basketball. They’re expected to be in these sports. It’s great to see their presence in Powerlifting or Weightlifting, and, if anything, it allows women of color to look at Powerlifting as a possible choice to see other ways to push their minds and bodies with regard to athletic pursuits.” By sharing her accomplishments in powerlifting on Instagram, Kimberly Walford’s shows the world that there are options for women of color in athletics. Specifically, other black women can see her content and be inspired to try other sports, like powerlifting, than those that are expected of them, like track and field.
This even becomes the case when the racial background of the person followed on Instagram is not so obvious. Amanda Kohatsu, who is multiracial, says: "What’s interesting about me is that people don’t really know what I am but they identify with me. Asian girls, black girls, latina girls, they all identify with me. After opening about my struggles with stereotypes and self esteem, I started to receive dozens of messages from other women who related to my story. It became apparent that I was making an impact on at least a small group of people, and I started to be aware of a level of responsibility that comes with that."
Amanda Kohatsu’s story is another example of how representation is so important for women of color trying to choose a sport. Because she is mixed race, and not obviously mixed between two specific races, women from a variety of racial and ethnic backgrounds can relate to her. In sharing her training videos on Instagram, a platform widely accessible to all types of people across the globe, Amanda Kohatsu provides a platform for women across multiple racial backgrounds to engage with her content. In doing so, she has had a significant impact on these women’s lives.
Regardless of our personal racial or gender identity, I think it’s vital that we take a step back to recognize the fact that our Instagram posts really do impact people. This is especially for women of color, who have often been stigmatized for our differences by both their racial and gender identities in strength sports. I believe it’s necessary that we use our social media platforms to prove the world otherwise. The more others can see us women of color making incredible strides in strength sports, “the more that brands, publications, sponsors work with women of color in the sport” (Amanda Kohatsu). This will increase our financial and executive power in the strength sports community. In doing so, we will have more of a voice in addressing our concerns to the community that is still predominantly White and male. It’s necessary that, regardless of our own background, we take a step back before following someone to reflect on why we are following them. What do they stand for? What does following them means to us? Additionally, we need to be conscious of what we post on these platforms and understand how it affects people and communities at large.
Parsa Najmaie is both a 57 kg Junior Powerlifter and a senior at Barnard College of Columbia University. She currently holds the New York State record in the deadlift in her weight class and division. She is also majoring in Psychology and is minoring in Women, Gender, Sexualities Studies.