I mentioned this story about American weightlifter Sarah Robles already, but I think it deserves a whole post. The twenty-three-year-old is the highest ranked weightlifter in the country, beat out every female and male American at the world championships last year, and can lift more than 568 pounds–which is apparently equivalent to one large adult male lion. And yet Robles scraps by on $400 a month from U.S.A. Weightlifting and donations from friends because she doesn’t the kind of body that secures lucrative endorsement deals.
Track star Lolo Jones, 29, soccer player Alex Morgan, 22, and swimmer Natalie Coughlin, 29, are natural television stars with camera-friendly good looks and slim, muscular figures. But women weightlifters aren’t go-tos when Sports Illustrated is looking for athletes to model body paint in the swimsuit issue. They don’t collaborate with Cole Haan on accessories lines and sit next to Anna Wintour at Fashion Week, like tennis beauty Maria Sharapova. And male weightlifters often get their sponsorships from supplements or diet pills, because their buff, ripped bodies align with male beauty ideals. Men on diet pills want to look like weightlifters — most women would rather not.
There’s no doubt that some sports–both men’s and women’s–are considered sexier than others when it comes to sponsorships and media attention. And certainly only the most famous Olympic athletes are able to bring in the big bucks through six-figure endorsements. But for women like Robles, who don’t fit the thin ideal of women’s athleticism, it’s particularly difficult. As she notes, “You can get that sponsorship if you’re a super-built guy or a girl who looks good in a bikini. But not if you’re a girl who’s built like a guy.”
In fact, if you’re a guy, it’s probably way easier to get a sponsorship even if you’re not super-built, because the kind of athleticism that’s considered marketable is not as narrow for men as it is for women. Which obviously has to do with the stricter standards for female beauty across the board, but I think also reflects the devaluation of women’s sports in general. While some are sex objects too (see my favorite example here), overall, male athletes tend to be treated as athletes first. Their ability is not treated as luck, their appearance is not constantly commented on, and they aren’t sexualized at every opportunity. That means, for example, Tiger Woods can sell Nike shoes on the strength of his skills–and adorable little kids–instead of by taking off his shirt.
There’s just no excuse for the strongest person in the country not to have endorsements coming out their ears. Robles even has her own mantra already: “Beauty is strength.” I mean, the ads really just write themselves. Or, ya know, just have her lift five Ikea couches because she can do that.
Note: The headline has been corrected to reflect that Robles is the highest ranked American weightlifter, male or female–not the strongest person. Thanks for the heads-up in the comments.