Elisabeth Akinwale Talks Body Image and a Problem with With “Strong Is the New Sexy”

Elite CrossFit® athlete Elisabeth Akinwale knows fitness. Not only is she a five-time CrossFit Games competitor and two-time North Central Regional champion in the sport, she also has three USA Weightlifting National qualifications and three American Open Weightlifting Championship appearances.

A gymnast from age 4, her career was cut short by a series of knee injuries in college. (She’s had a total of three ACL reconstructions.) She found CrossFit in late 2010 and was competing in the CrossFit Games just six months later in March of 2011. Over the years, she won events like “Killer Kage” in 2011, “Cinco 1” in 2013, and “Soccer Chipper” in 2015.

BarBend caught up with Elisabeth to hear more about her latest project.

So, you just became an advisory board member of Girls Gone Strong, a strength training site that focuses a lot on body positivity. What does your role entail?

It entails writing content, being part of the planning processes, putting together events —we have a retreat planned in Seattle this April — adding to the diversity of voices on the board. There’s no one else who’s coming from my exact experience of competitive CrossFit, and there’s a lot of moms on the board so that’s a nice common trait. At elite level CrossFit, there are so few moms. It’s really refreshing to be around women with that similar kind of life experience, because it’s such a huge part of your life.

Cool. You’ve written quite a lot on your site about the difficulties with meshing motherhood and CrossFit, this problem of “mommy guilt” over pursuing activities outside of motherhood. Do you think you’ve reached a happy medium?  

I would never put it in those terms because I don’t think it’s ever something where I could say, “I’ve reached it, I’ve achieved it. This is it, and it’s gonna stay that way.”

I really think of it as scales that actually move when you’re balancing things on them, because it’s a constant adjustment on a day-to-day basis. If your child gets sick, the scale leans that way, if everything’s running smoothly at home but you have a competition, the scale might tip that way. It’s a constant adjustment.

My biggest piece of advice for moms is to allow for that. And when you feel it, don’t think it’s a failure. Just be ready for that ebb and flow and accept it as part of the process. If you keep on track to your goal, the overall arc will continue in that path, but you have to be prepared for those back-and-forth moments.

Much of Girls Gone Strong’s content focuses on body image and body positivity. Would you say that with this role, you’re taking a more active role in improving the body image of female strength athletes? 

That is a huge draw for me, it’s such a different perspective than the mainstream fitness industry. I strongly feel that whole industry is based on people feeling insecure about the way they look, and I think Girls Gone Strong works at a much broader perspective of what beautiful is.

So that was another piece of me coming on as a woman of color, adding that type of diversity, adding physical diversity. And having a broad spectrum of lovely, intelligent, productive women who like to enhance their body through training is a huge draw for me and something I really want to promote.

One of our female readers wanted to ask you how you deal with negative comments about your body. I know your social media gets swamped sometimes.

You know, as much as I would like to say it never bothers me, it does bother me! When I worked out on my own and worked an office job and raised my son, no one was commenting negatively on my body. But when I became a Games athlete and people saw my pictures and I didn’t have control over some of the places my picture might be, those kind of things started to seep in and I realized that I had to self reflect. Why does that bother me, how does that bother me, how am I going to react to it? It’s definitely been a self growth process.

Honestly, as a society it’s something we have to look at. I don’t think men are immune to it, but particularly for females, whether you’re an artist, a writer, an actress, an athlete, the physical degradation is sort of constant.

For me, one thing that’s been really effective is that as soon as there’s a negative comment, I delete it. I’ve gone back and forth with that because in theory, I do want to have a space for some kinds of dialogue, but I don’t want young women who are interested in fitness to come on there and see those comments and then think that if they train and get muscles, they’re gonna get a negative response from people too. I don’t want that negativity to be a deterrent for young women.

It’s also about my own wellbeing and self care. You’re not going to come into my house and disrespect me. If you don’t like something you see here, you’re free to keep moving.

And you know what? When it’s not on there, people find somewhere else to go. When it is there, people see it as permission to come on there and do the same thing. And even if it’s just one person, then people go to defend you and it highjacks the entire thread. It’s not worth it. So I’ve found that deleting and basically censoring has been pretty positive!

Since you started competing in 2010, do you think anything’s changed with how strong female bodies are perceived by the public at large? “Strong Is the New Sexy” seems to be much bigger now.

I do, I do. I definitely think it’s become more accepted in the mainstream. There are a few clothing catalogues that come to my house and I’ll now see different female bodies doing strength activities in those fitness clothes. Or even in some of the magazines, I see more and more functional movements reflected there.

But it’s still like, in some communities, thin is what you have to be and in other communities, you have to have a fourteen inch waist and forty inch hips. I just don’t want any expectations anyway, so I don’t personally promote “Strong Is the New Sexy” or anything like that. It’s anything you want to be! That’s sexy. Just go with that.

Definitely. You mentioned before that you’re glad to be part of Girls Gone Strong as a person of color, I also remember in the past you’ve expressed a little annoyance by the fact that people always ask you about race in CrossFit, like the way you’re often framed as the sport’s African-American representative.

I don’t want to say it’s annoyance, it’s just interesting to me. That shouldn’t be a topic just for me. You know what I’m saying? Especially in the CrossFit world. There are other people who are more entrenched in the CrossFit world than me. They might work at HQ, they may do their seminars, they’ve been around longer than me, and those people aren’t asked about diversity in the community.

So it’s that aspect of it that I think is interesting. But at the same time, I understand that I am the brown face or the black face for a lot of people in certain spaces. I don’t want to sound like it’s annoying from that perspective, because it’s not.

So, do you think diversity in CrossFit is a topic that needs to be talked about more, or do you think there’s not much more to say?

I don’t think it’s done. But I think it’s basically a microcosm of American society as a whole. Whether it’s Hollywood acting opportunities, whether it’s the yoga community, the CrossFit community, church on Sunday, there’s a lot of spaces that aren’t well integrated.

For me, it matters because I don’t want people to miss out on things that are great. I don’t want people to not have opportunities that will better their lives. So when it comes to fitness, let’s say you’re a black person and your local affiliate is all white, you might be a little uncomfortable there. I don’t want someone to not have the benefit of that service because integration hasn’t happened yet. And I do think the conversation has to go deeper than it’s gone.

I think a lot of people just have this very stereotypical image that black people just can’t afford it. That’s problematic on a lot of levels. There are black people in all sorts of socioeconomic groups, so that can’t be the cop-out. I think if we care about health and wellbeing, then we have to go deeper than that and ask how we can serve more people.

A lot of your blog focuses on deeper issues, not just race and identity but gratitude, passion, nature, self-exploration. It's a little unusual as far as what you typically see on the blog of a strength athlete. Why do you think athletes don't often cover these topics? 

On one hand, sports and athletics can become such a part of your identity that you might not spend as much time thinking and exploring those other areas of your life. If you’re spending six hours a day training and four hours a day recovering, you might not have that much else to talk about at the moment. You know what I mean?

There’s also pressure on athletes to not discuss those topics, especially whenever they talk about politics or social issues, people will tell them to just stick to their sport.

And then, people can also think that if they post something like this, it’s not going to get any likes. I know very well that if I post a picture of my abs, it’s going to get a lot more likes than if I post a blog about co-parenting. I don’t care, but if you’re really driven by that immediate feedback then that might be a deterrent from talking about other things.

But fitness is a way to explore yourself, it’s a natural progression for any thoughtful person. We’re not gonna stay in one place our whole life. And at a certain point, for a lot of people, it’s not that stimulating to talk about bicep curls. So having the space to broaden your interests, and have an audience of people who are allowing you to make that change and make that transition and come with you, is a great thing, I think. And for me, it ties into why it’s so exciting to be a part of Girls Gone Strong because when people know you for one thing, sometimes it’s exciting to be able to branch out and get a little broader with it.

It’s way deeper than just transforming your body, and that’s the beauty of it. My background is in social work, so for me, being a lifelong lover of sports and activity and then pairing it with my desire to help, which is why I studied social work, it’s been a really amazing journey.

Thanks so much for taking the time to chat, Elisabeth.

You bet!

This interview has been edited for clarity and length.

Featured image courtesy of Allison Gamble.