Booty Shorts & Bare Chests: Negotiating the Naked Body in Powerlifting and CrossFit

Editors note: Katie Rose Hejtmanek, Ph.D. is a cultural anthropologist conducting research on the culture of strength sports in the United States. This is the fourth of an in-depth series introducing readers to her research and preliminary findings. This is an op-ed; all observations, data, and opinions come from her own research. You can read her first article here, her second here, her third article here, and her fourth article here.

If you’re a fan of strength sports and want to look at their growth from a cultural, anthropological, and/or analytical perspective, we recommend this series. 

“Hi. You just started powerlifting? It took me a while to wear booty shorts, too” was the greeting I received upon being introduced to a competitive powerlifter; Jenna, I’ll call her. I looked down at my knee length tights and back at Jenna. She continued, “I used to care what I looked like in them. Now I don’t. I lift heavy weight with these legs, I’ll wear what I want.” I didn’t even have a chance to respond about why I wear what I wear, Jenna and our mutual friend changed the subject to the “dudes in the gym.”

During my first month of research at a CrossFit gym, someone posted on the box’s daily blog, wondering if there could be a “shirts stay on” policy during classes, as “not everyone is comfortable with it.” This posting prompted over one hundred and fifty comments, mostly mocking, teasing, and even a comment about the anthropologist needing to “pay attention” to the “gold mine” of data on display. I was paying attention; yes, a gold mine.

This article reflects on the nakedness of female powerlifting and male CrossFitter bodies, and argues that the way nakedness is engaged with reveals positions of power, helping us understand cultural beliefs and values in these sports.

Powerlifting, Booty Shorts, and the Peach Emoji

What’s interesting about the above comment by Jenna is that it doesn’t leave room for any alternative interpretation – I only wear capris because I care about what I look like in booty shorts. If I didn’t care, I would be confident enough to wear them. Perhaps this encapsulates her own experience, as she explicitly told me. However, her assumption that her experience is mine led me to think further on what this might mean.

As I talked about in my first article, cultural beliefs, meanings, values, and so on are often tacit, which means they are implied or understood without having to be said. Part of the reason we can all function together is that we understand a lot about the world without it having to be said. One of the best examples of this is personal space. Personal space differs in different cultures and we learn this as we grow up. We are taught explicitly by our care-givers, we learn to observe responses to being too close to someone, we see how people step closer to us if we are too far away. We follow the “rules” of personal space all of the time but no one explicitly states, “I’m allowing you just the right amount of personal space.” That would be weird. A lot of our lives is made up of this kind of tacit cultural information. In fact, it seems “natural.”

But if you just go to a different country, you quickly realize that personal space is not at all “natural” but rather cultural.

In other words, Jenna’s comments to me do not just reveal Jenna’s personal trajectory, although she does use her own in our conversation, but rather a tacit powerlifting cultural framework – “If you don’t wear booty shorts it is because you don’t feel comfortable. Therefore, let me empower you to have the confidence to wear what you want!” I didn’t realize at the time how important the booty short framework was, as I was new to the sport and to Instagram. But after two months of research, I cannot escape it.

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I follow Girlswhopowerlift on Instagram and am a member of a powerlifting Facebook group. All over these sites are women in booty shorts, sharing personal stories of not feeling comfortable in their bodies and then throwing off the yolk of fear and insecurity and embracing the booty short. Girlswhopowerlift (GWPL) started as an Instagram page and developed into a website and online forum for women powerlifters. One can also buy GWPL gear, including the currently sold out booty short with “[peach emoji] gang” on side. One can see image after image of women posing, showing off their gains via peach gang booty shorts. One post on Facebook asks: At what point do you get over your insecurities and just say screw it, I’m wearing shorts? Dozens of answers later reveal that it is a common experience for women in strength sports to eschew wearing shorts because they aren’t confident AND to encourage one another to not worry what other people think and wear shorts!

These are patterns in the anthropological data — it is part of the tacit culture of powerlifting for women to fear wearing booty shorts and to actively encourage one another to do so. The point that powerlifters on social media and Jenna in person want to make is that wearing booty shorts is liberating and empowering for women, and that those who don’t wear them are somehow not confident, and that it is our job as women to build up one another’s confidence.

Policing Women’s Clothing and Bodies

This conversation is much bigger than booty shorts, much bigger than powerlifting, and it centers on cultural beliefs about and policing of the female body – what it supposed to look like, what it is supposed to do, and, for our purposes here, how to cover it correctly. How to cover it correctly is critical in the conversation about women’s athletics. In some cases, in order to make women’s versions of a sport more popular, the logic is to have them wear less clothing. For example, the women’s Legends Football League, commonly called the Lingerie League. Or when the FIFA president was asked how women’s soccer should be made more popular, he answered along the lines of, “Well, they should wear shorter shorts.” In other cases, covering of women’s bodies is confusing as evinced by the conversations regarding the uniforms of Egyptian and Germany in their media-labeled (Burka vs. Bikini) women’s beach volleyball match, or US fencing phenom Ibtihaj Muhammad’s story of trying to find a sport to compete in that would accommodate her religious dress code. These are just a few examples of conversations about women in sports, their uniforms, and their oppression or lack thereof. In other words, revealing the female body is seen both as a tool of patriarchy as well as a mechanism of empowerment.

These points are not new. This discussion is raging in the world of sports – right now, earlier, and will probably continue for some time – as women struggle for parity in athletics. I imagine many of you have engaged in conversations about female bodies, booty shorts, or sexism in sports. What I want add is something that I realized while reading a blog about CrossFit men’s bare chests.

Stopping the Conversation – Shame and Power

As mentioned above, one anonymous CrossFitter posted on a box’s public blog wondering if there could be a “shirts on policy” for classes due to feelings of being uncomfortable. What followed was a whirlwind of posts letting the anonymous poster know that the policy would never happen and in what can only be read as a process of shaming.

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The posts included jokes: “What would happen if Weezy stopped by? Hasn’t the man suffered enough?” And “It is scientifically proven by the Brofessor that taking ones shirt off during a workout results in a 12.6% increase in performance. Studies have shown that this increase only happens if shirt is removed mid workout, if done before in a pre-emptive shirt pop the results are not the same.”

And posts that explicitly stated tacit functional fitness cultural knowledge: “Shirts off is a cultural CrossFit thing, even though it’s so over-the-top. I’d have to take to the streets to protest if management banned 6-pack visibility. It’s one of the reasons I love coming to the gym.”

Others chastised Anonymous: “In all seriousness – we’re all adults, there isn’t anything offensive about the human torso, and it’s about to get real hot in that gym this summer.” And “I’m paying homage to the greats that people tried to oppress and say they have no business taking their shirts off.

Others overtly ridiculed: “If shirts off gets banned I will be forced to mount a massive social media protest! #FreeTheShirt #AllShirtsMatter, ‘HEY HEY HO HO ALL THE SHIRTS HAVE GOT TO GO’!” And “As a card carrying member of the Shirtsoff movement I feel it my duty to chime in. I would like to reach out and send my condolences to Anonymous, I fear there are some real issues left unresolved that might benefit from some long term psychodynamic psychotherapy, i.e., insecure attachments to parental figures, nipple trauma, painful images of less than perfect pectorals.” And “I believe this is a huge step back for female members of the gym. As we all know, it is legal for females to be topless in NYC. The entire post by Anonymous can be considered a gender-phobic bimorphic microagression in my opinion. Think of that female member of the gym who has been considering taking a giant step for equality and work out topless at the gym. It is a real shame that these posts have put a halt on the progress we could have made.”

The blog fed on itself as people responded to different comments, one-upping one another, nominating one another for president, making jokes about the anthropologist taking notes, and so on. Towards the end of the list of comments one person writes: “Turns out people don’t like to be body-policed.”

What is so significant, I think, about this list of comments can be encapsulated by the final quotation: people don’t like to be body-policed. I want to add to that: men don’t like to be body-policed and they will fight back, and in this case “win.” The method of fighting was shame. Shame is used to keep one another in line, to maintain a status quo through making people feel badly about transgressing social boundaries. Most of the comments made it known that Anonymous has transgressed social boundaries. The response to the initial policy question was not an extended, serious conversation about why men should be able to not-wear what they want, as there is for women’s nakedness. Rather men – those who identified as both “shirtsoff” and “shirtson” – took control of the conversation by making the initial comment seem ridiculous and then shutting the questioner and any serious conversation down. Anonymous’ voice was drowned up by jokes and shame. Few special Facebook groups, Instagram accounts, or serious blogs are needed to encourage men to go shirtless. Most just do it. And if anyone says anything about it, beware of the ridicule to follow. That is power. Men don’t have to be empowered; they just exert what they already have.

What does this mean? I think it means that negotiating naked bodies, female bodies in powerlifting and male bodies in CrossFit, is part of the “culture” of these activities. I also think it illustrates interesting and important gender differences in the “conversations” regarding naked bodies – having them for women or shutting them down for men. Those in power can shut down conversations; those who aren’t find ways to be heard.

Editors note: This article is an op-ed. The views expressed herein are the authors and don’t necessarily reflect the views of BarBend. Claims, assertions, opinions, and quotes have been sourced exclusively by the author.