Sex In the Industry: Why Men Need to Lean In and Listen
Today’s post is a teachable moment. At least I hope it will be. It covers an uncomfortable albeit important topic and something that, up until this past weekend, I thought I’d never get called out for.
And that is….
The sexualization of women in the fitness industry.
Last weekend I presented at the NSCA Mid-Atlantic Regional Conference just outside of Philadelphia, PA.
It was a splendid event.
A record breaking event in fact, with well over 500+ attendees, making it the most highly attended NSCA event in the organization’s history outside of a national conference.
I was asked to present on both days of the conference, choosing to do the following 50 minute presentations:
- The Deadlift (breaking down my preferred hip hinge progressions and general coaching concepts as it relates to the deadlift, and how to go about choosing the right variations for people).
- The Shoulder: From Assessment to Badass (the main theme here was how to improve overhead mobility).1
I arrived back in Boston early Sunday morning feeling great about the weekend and pretty good about my performance overall.
While I could nitpick a few things I would have said or done differently, all in all, I felt I did a good job and was able get my message across. And the feedback I received from people at the conference was phenomenal.
Later that same day, however, while sitting at home, I received the following email from a female attendee, Amy:
“Hi Tony –
I just returned from the NSCA conference in PA. this weekend, where I was fortunate to hear you speak on both the deadlift and the super-exciting shoulder. I had the opportunity to meet your fabulous wife a couple of years ago when she presented the ‘I Am Not Afraid to Lift’ workshop with Artemis Scantalides in Severna Park, MD.
I follow you on the interwebs and really admire both the quality of the information you provide, as well as the generosity you show toward the coaches and trainers who are trying to get to where you are. I have to tell you, though, that I was thoroughly disappointed during your deadlift presentation when you chose to use a gratuitous and offensive ass-shot of a woman doing a cable pull-through.
None of your other slides featured women and you made some lame joke about Googling ‘cable pull through’ and that was the first hit that came up. It’s 2017.
I (and I know several other women in your audience shared my opinion) am fairly tired of attending strength seminars and workshops and being repeatedly confronted by presentations that (a) don’t attempt to equally represent women as examples/study participants/research subjects (b) objectify/sexualize women and (c) actually demean women in a public forum of fitness professionals.
I guess I was mostly surprised because I think you generally do a great job of supporting the strong women in your life. That slide and your presentation of it came across as exceedingly tone-deaf and I hope you will consider replacing it for future presentations on the deadlift. You have great information to share and you’re a talented and charismatic speaker. It’s a shame that you chose to offend a significant percentage of your audience in order to get a laugh.”
Needless to say, the second after I finished reading that I got a pit in my stomach.
It’s been four days since I received that email and I’ve been thinking about it a lot. I’ve emailed back and forth with the woman who sent the email (to apologize, to thank her for the constructive feedback, and to say this topic deserves discussion), I’ve discussed it with a few of my female clients, and I’ve broken it down at length with my wife, a psychologist.
I’ve purposely spent a few days digesting, un-packaging, and reflecting upon what Amy had to say in her email before I put fingers to keyboard.
So, I guess the best place to start is with the image itself:
In the middle of my presentation, as I was breaking down hip-hinge progressions, this is the image I used as an example of the cable pull-through.
Even though my first inclination was to be defensive – that’s Dani Shugart (the wife of my editor at T-Nation.com, Chris, and amazing writer herself), it was used in an article I wrote for the site titled “Pull-Throughs For Elite Strength,” the picture was taken at an angle, she’s wearing appropriate gym attire, and she’s demonstrating correct hip-hinge technique, that’s why I used it – Amy’s comments and feelings were/are valid.
I don’t feel it was about the picture per se. It’s fairly neutral in nature.2
However, what wasn’t neutral was my momentary lack of tact and professionalism.
By chuckling when the slide first appeared on screen, making light of the situation with my “Google image” commentary, and making a joke out of it…I can see how it came across as objectifying and demeaning.
I made it a thing by my actions.3
In our subsequent email exchange I clarified with Amy that I DID use another image of a female in my presentation – I included a slide of a woman attempting a heavy sumo deadlift – however, the mere fact I chose to use that picture for that particular slide should come under scrutiny.
More to the point, the bigger theme at play here, I think, is that my commentary colored Amy’s experience. Those 20-30 seconds influenced what she got out of my presentation and what she remembered.
It wasn’t good, and that sucks.
It’s my goal to train women. To empower them. To show them that strength has its roots everywhere (and that the weight room is a wonderful place to harvest it).
In the end this was a teachable moment for me.
The last thing I want to do is sexualize women. It’s not lost on me that what happened in that room, in those 30 seconds, was, in some ways, a microcosm of what’s happening in today’s society.4
I don’t want any woman I work with or speak in front of to feel embarrassed, uncomfortable, objectified, or ashamed.
It’s our responsibility, especially as men, to lean in, listen, and be open to change.
Thank you Amy.