Opinion

“Strong Like Her” Celebrates the Game-Changing Women in Sports

Through the book "Strong Like Her", Seattle-based journalist Haley Shapley invites us to celebrate the powerful — and largely untold — history of female athleticism.

Strong Like Her: A Celebration of Rule Breakers, History Makers, and Unstoppable Athletes shines a light on history’s rule breakers. From the Greek mother who disguised herself as a male trainer and coached her son to victory in the early Olympic Games, to the circus strongwoman who made a name for herself in the 1900s by out lifting the most famous bodybuilder in the world — all of these fearless women helped mold the female athlete of today.

As author Haley Shapley writes, “Without the women who were willing to swing a kettlebell before it was socially acceptable or learn to ride a bike in a corset and a full-length dress, we wouldn’t be where we are today, in an age where strength sports are growing at a record pace.”

 

 
 
 
 
 
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A post shared by Haley Shapley (@haleyshapley)


The fascinating historical accounts are punctuated with stunning portraits (shot by photographer Sophy Holland) of 23 modern athletes. The athletes include bodybuilder Dana Linn Bailey, powerlifter Meg Gallagher, paralympic swimmer Jessica Long, and strongwoman Kristin Rhodes. Strong Like Her was published in April of 2020 by Gallery Books.

“About five years ago, I noticed that it seemed like more women were lifting weights than ever before. I was seeing muscular women on social media and television, and it felt like a change from when I was growing up, or even just a few years earlier,” Shapley tells BarBend. “I was curious about how that had evolved — I wondered whether the acceptance of women pursuing physical strength was something that had grown slowly over time or if there were periods of history where it came into and out of fashion. I read several books on the history of fitness and discovered that precious few pages were devoted to women. I knew then that there was a story I could tell that hadn’t been widely covered before.

These collective portraits and stories remind those living in the post-Title IX era just how long women have fought for their spot on the playing field. And yet, Shapley reminds us we still have a way to go. While more and more women are discovering and celebrating their physical strength than ever before, our culture hasn’t caught up yet. As Shapley notes in the intro, her own journey into bodybuilding brought out archaic comments about how she would inevitably hurt herself, not words of encouragement.

“And why was I suddenly getting so many comments wondering whether I was worried about how I was appearing to the opposite sex, as if that had anything to do with my new hobby at all?” she asks. “I was seeing all kinds of strength being modeled by women in the public eye, and yet the topic was still so divisive.”

 

 
 
 
 
 
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A post shared by Haley Shapley (@haleyshapley)


By sharing the stories of brave women throughout history, Strong Like Her challenges us to confront our own biases about the strength of women, and in so doing, help shape a better future. Because as anyone who’s ever lifted a heavy barbell, finished a grueling race, or beat an opponent can tell you — physical strength inspires self-confidence. And confidence is a gateway to bigger, better things.

Or, as Shapley writes: “Strength begets strength — and not just in the athletic sense. When women shed the cultural norms surrounding their appearance and pursue physical goals, they develop an incredible toolkit that serves them in all arenas of their life, well beyond the field, court, or gym.”

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

Featured image: @haleyshapley on Instagram / photos by Sophy Holland