Beyond the Binary: The Fat Female Athlete by Joy Bauer

03bodies04_500When women’s weightlifting was contested as an Olympic Sport for the first time in 2000, the notion of the “athletic body” of a female athlete was turned on its proverbial head. Tara Nott (now Tara Cunningham) won the only gold medal in weightlifting for the USA. To say that her body did not conform to perceptions of a “typical” weightlifter is an understatement: this 5’1” former gymnast and soccer player could have been the new face of women’s weightlifting; the tiny media darling (you know NBC loves those!) of an emerging sport. Nott and her victory received due attention, much of which was due to her deviation from the normative perceptions of a weightlifter’s body. However, another “body” received even more attention: the body of Cheryl Haworth. At 5’9” and 300 lbs., Haworth represented the US in the 2000, 2004, and 2008 Olympic Games as a weightlifter in the super heavyweight category. She earned a bronze in 2000 and placed in the top 6 in 2004 and 2008. Haworth’s large body and great athletic ability illustrate a notion that is generally not embraced and certainly not understood by American society: the fat female athlete.

The media was quick to adopt Cheryl Haworth as a novelty act of sorts. In detailing and glorifying her body, they reinforced the hegemonic views that the fat female athlete, especially the fat female elite athlete, is an oddity. While many believe the attention lavished on Haworth has promoted pride for “big girls,” I believe it has in a way fetishized the fat female athletic body. How can one body, in society’s eyes, be so “wrong” (read: obese) yet so “right” (read: Olympic athlete)? To locate this, I turn to two articles that appeared in popular media outlets at both the onset and the apparent conclusion of Haworth’s Olympic weightlifting career.

Jack McCallum wrote an article profiling Haworth published in Sports Illustrated’s September 11, 2000 issue titled “As Big As She Wants To Be.” One can assume the title is a play on Dennis Rodman’s 1997 biography Bad As I Wanna Be, as both Haworth and Rodman exhibit bodies that can be viewed as transgressive and deviant. McCallum’s writing reflects the novelty that Cheryl Haworth was in the athletic world in 2000. He attempts to address the issue of her size: “It’s not easy being a young woman of substantial girth in a society that worships pretzel models” (p. 162). Being a young woman of “substantial girth” in an athletic society is equally as challenging, if not more so.

It seems somewhat offensive for McCallum to write that “There are no doubt times when Haworth wishes she had a different body” (p. 162). Most athletes would wish this due to the wear and tear caused by elite level training regimen, but the assumption made in this case is that a thinner body would promise an “easier” life for Cheryl Haworth. McCallum marvels that Haworth “seems to be a well-adjusted young woman” (p. 162).

Haworth’s status as an elite athlete is seemingly justified only after McCallum details additional accomplishments beyond the realm of weightlifting: clearly, holding national records in that sport isn’t sufficient. Haworth has a 33-inch vertical leap. She can do splits. She can run the 40-meter-dash in under 6 seconds, keeping up with athletes half her size. The final objectification of Haworth is when her own mother tells the reporter to “‘Go ahead, touch her thighs.’ The touch is made; the thighs are indeed tabletop hard” (p. 162). This highlights the idea that the fat female athlete couldn’t possibly be housed in a hard body. To prod Haworth as if she were a steer at a state fair is not only insulting, it also reinforces the fat female athlete as novelty; a “bearded lady” in the circus of modern athletics.

Eight years later, what has changed? In 2008, the New York Times published “Extra Powerful Role Model Will Return to Weight Lifting’s Biggest Stage” written by Mike Tierney. Tierney writes that in 2000, Haworth became an “overnight sensation bearing the burden of XX-sized role model” (p. 2). Haworth is positioned as “no longer a news media novelty,” which may show some progress on the acceptance of the fat female athlete (p. 2). However, she is clearly still a novelty, and Tierney labels Haworth as “a catalyst for societal change” (p. 2). Haworth’s weight is still given deviant status: “She has carried her size well — visual evidence for girls that a slim shape is not essential to achieve goals” (p. 2). This discourse solidifies her weight as a hindrance, an obstacle, in leading the life of a female.

There are some positive outcomes of Cheryl Haworth’s media exposure. In reports that do not even see the pages of the sport section, Haworth is noted as the “rare” fat person who is actually fit. Even though the novelty had worn off in Olympic reporting, the idea of a female who was both fat and fit was (and still is) new to the general American public. The New York Times published a 2000 article in which Haworth’s body serves the purpose of opening the public’s eye the fact that fat and fit are not two opposite ends of a binary. The public health implications of this idea are huge: being “overweight” does not preclude any person from becoming (or already being!) fit. As the article states, “while everyone can’t become lean, becoming fit is possible for anyone willing to make the effort” (Brody, 2000, p. 7). However, eight years later, it is clear that the fat vs. fit binary still flourishes in society (for a number of reasons unrelated to actual health) and has continued excluding those who are fat from being considered fit. Those subscribing to and enforcing this binary should realize that they are feeding into, not “curing,” negative health consequences amongst the fat population. Their “war on obesity” is in actuality a moral war against individuals.

There are many lenses through which Cheryl Haworth’s body can be viewed. Her body is transgressive and disciplined, fat and athletic, overweight and fit, all in the same corporeal entity. Haworth’s oft-quoted mantra to young girls is “It’s fun to be strong.” The increased approval (slow as it has been) of the muscular female form provides hope that notions of “acceptable” female athletic forms are not static. Unfortunately, at this point, regardless of how strong a female may be, it is still not “fun” to be fat. Hopefully, the fun of “being strong” will no longer be limited to girls and women who possess “athletic bodies” of a certain size or weight.

Works Cited
Brody, J. E. (2000, October 24). Personal Health; fat but fit: A myth about obesity is slowly being debunked. The New York Times, pp 7.
McCallum, J. (2000, September 11). As big as she wants to be. Sports Illustrated, 93(10), 162.
Tierney, M. (2008, May 31). Mighty role model will return to big stage. The New York Times, pp. 2.


3 thoughts on “Beyond the Binary: The Fat Female Athlete by Joy Bauer

  1. Interesting post, Joy….it is fascinating that the one occasion that the “bearded ladies” are allowed to come out and play is the Olympics. It is not just a Parade of Nations that is on display the opening day, but a Parade of Phenotypes as well. It is unfortunate that such a celebration gets forgotten a few minutes after the final television commercial.

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