Why doesn’t Sarah Robles, the highest ranked American weightlifter, have all the athletic sponsorships?

Sarah Robles
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.

Photo via BuzzFeed

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.

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18 Comments

  1. Posted July 3, 2012 at 1:23 pm | Permalink

    I am glad that this story is being shared, but I can’t help but ask: prior to Robels, who was the country’s strongest person, and if it was a man, did they have an endorsement deal? The popularity of sports has something to do with who gets endorsements and why, that’s Marketing 101. I am not saying there isn’t bias there, because there definitely is, it’s just that I have never heard squat about ANY famous Olympian weightlifters, so it would seem that raising awareness of this event/sport, would be a good place to start.

  2. Posted July 3, 2012 at 1:56 pm | Permalink

    Maybe because at the end of the day weightlifting isnt a popular sport? I think that female indycar driver was not doing bad on money, or any of the successful female MMA fighters.

    I cant name 5 weightlifters out of the top of my head, male or female. Can you?

    • Posted July 3, 2012 at 1:59 pm | Permalink

      And Chris Cyborg did not exactly Ooze feminity either, yet she was popular, until she got busted for roids, now she is a bit less popular.

  3. Posted July 3, 2012 at 3:14 pm | Permalink

    It’s unfortunate that she has to scrape by for food, etc., but it’s not like she’s out of options. The story says that she can get free boarding at the Olympic training facility–she just doesn’t want to leave her coach. That’s a decision she has made.

    And the lack of sponsorships and endorsement deals? Again, tragic, but are companies supposed to sponsor someone out of the sheer goodness of their “hearts”? Usually, companies want something in return, i.e. exposure. Weight-lifting doesn’t get a lot of exposure, so companies aren’t exactly lining up to pay her thousands of dollars. As Nina said, it’s just not a marketable sport.

    “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.”

    Bullshit. She doesn’t play the type of sport that secures lucrative endorsement deals. Let’s remember that sports is an entertainment industry. People are generally paid–in salary and sponsorships–by how much entertainment/viewership/ticketing they sell/attract. For better or worse, it’s like its own free market. If someone entertains less, they get paid less. Weight-lifting isn’t as popular as swimming, basketball, or tennis. If she were hot, she might get a little more money, but she wouldn’t secure “lucrative endorsement deals.” She lifts weights. It’s not a sport people follow much.

    And as for the kind of body that secures endorsement deals, I’m not going to pretend there’s no emphasis on beauty for females. There is. There is for males, too, but probably not to such a degree. But that’s because men don’t care how handsome men are and, well, most sports fans are men. If men want to see the fastest/strongest athletes, they’ll watch men compete. Therefore, women’s sports are left to fill more of a niche of watching athletes who are also beautiful. That’s just the breaks of the game, based on who watches sports.

    If women were more into sports, then I’d guess they’d boost the viewership of women’s sports a lot more than men do. Therefore, if women want to see women’s sports less as a niche and more alongside men’s sports for just the sheer “athletic competition” aspect, then women need to put more into the system.

  4. Posted July 3, 2012 at 3:32 pm | Permalink

    I thought I did a pretty good job of preemptively agreeing with all the comments like this…

    “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.”

    Yes, clearly the fact that weight-lifting isn’t a particularly popular sport in general is a factor in this particular case. And yet:

    “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.”

    The broader point–that female athletes generally have to fit a pretty narrow ideal of athleticism compared to men–is pretty hard to argue with, I think.

    • Posted July 3, 2012 at 5:34 pm | Permalink

      Maya, I think you’re right: female athletes do, generally, have to fit a narrower ideal of athleticism. And, as you say, most women would rather not look like weightlifters. So what’s wrong with this?

      And I ask why you think something is wrong with this because, as you say, “[T]here’s just no excuse for the strongest person in the country not to have endorsements coming out their ears.” Except, there is an excuse; you just made it–women don’t want to look like her. So why would she get sponsorships?

      (aside from the completely valid other reason that she just doesn’t participate in a popular sport.)

      • Posted July 3, 2012 at 5:59 pm | Permalink

        “So what’s wrong with this?”

        Well, I just don’t think it’s fair that female athletes have to look like women that men want to fuck and women want to be in order to get media attention and sponsorship. And the fact that male athletes don’t have the same pressures–at least not the same extent–is reflective of the fact that we value male athletes for their athletic skills, while female athletes are valued only if they are also considered sex objects. There’s an example of this in your own comment:

        “If men want to see the fastest/strongest athletes, they’ll watch men compete. Therefore, women’s sports are left to fill more of a niche of watching athletes who are also beautiful.”

        So you admit that you only watch women’s sports if you find the women attractive? In that case, does it even matter if they’re playing a sport? That would be what I mean by “the devaluation of women’s sports.”

        • Posted July 3, 2012 at 6:25 pm | Permalink

          I’m going to have to agree with Maya here. You pretty much just said what’s wrong with it in your own post.

          Male athletes are held to a standard of skill. Appearance is secondary. No one watches male athletes to judge their physical appearance and level of beauty on top of their skills. When someone talks about a male athlete, they talk about things like their achievements, their career, what team they play for if it’s a team sport. Records they may have set. Things like that. When people talk about Brian Wilson, they say “Fear the Beard.” Talking about how masculine it is and it’s now a chant whenever he goes up to play, because it’s a mantra of his skill as a player. You fear the guy with the masculine beard because he will kick your ass on the field.

          But female athletes? They are held to a standard of both skill and beauty. You could be the best female athlete in the world, but if you don’t look good enough to be on the cover of Sports Illustrated Swimsuit issue, no one cares. And the swimsuits on the women who do model would fall off in the water if they tried to do athletic swimming. Family Guy even makes a joke about this kind of standard. Peter sits down on the couch with a “Women of the Olympics” Playboy issue and comments that they have broad shoulders, small boobs and one of them had balls. I don’t have to go into analytical detail for the implication behind that joke to be understood here.

          Female athletes have a double-high ladder to climb if they want to get any kind of recognition or attention for their careers. And saying that women’s sports are more interesting when the women are attractive is telling of social attitude toward them.

          • Posted July 3, 2012 at 10:59 pm | Permalink

            Veronica, your example of Brian Wilson and his “Fear the Beard” slogan could not be more misapplied. The “Fear the Beard” slogan shows that Brian Wilson is known MORE for his appearance than for his on-field exploits. I would say that trying to use this example is just plain stupid but I really just think you’re unlucky. It’s one of the only examples you could have used that contradicted your point. I’m guessing you are from the Bay Area, don’t follow a ton of men’s sports, but are casually familiar with the Giants and the pitcher’s slogan. I’d even venture to guess your boyfriend or husband owns such a shirt (a shirt which, by the way, just shows that Wilson is more known for his physical appearance than his saves and strikeouts):
            http://studiotees.com/images/sh20/98628.jpg

            But I digress. I actually agree with you, if you read my comments above. I DO think female athletes are held to the standard of “to get media attention/sponsorships, they have to be good AND attractive.” I think attractiveness does help for male athletes but clearly not as much as females.

            I think that’s why you and Maya said that I “pretty much just said what’s wrong.” Au contraire, I’m recognizing it, but I’m not saying it’s “unfair.” I’m saying it’s called business. I think my post below explains my reasoning better. Men have the dominant comparative advantage in attracting viewers (bigger/stronger/faster). Marketers for women’s sports have used the best comparative advantage women have (sex appeal) to attract viewers. I recognize this as business, and not unfair, because it’s an entertainment industry, and no one, man or woman, is automatically entitled to fans’ attention.

        • Posted July 3, 2012 at 6:30 pm | Permalink

          The only women’s sport I really watch is tennis, and even then, I don’t necessarily seek it out (and within women’s tennis, the #1 factor for whether I keep watching is how good they are, and probably #2 is if they’re attractive). However, not surprisingly, I do seek out a lot of men’s sports.

          Neither of us are probably surprised by this. You say that this isn’t “fair” that female athletes have an elevated pressure to look attractive. I’m a little hesitant about any argument that bases itself on “fairness,” especially when it’s an entertainment/free market industry.

          But I think you do make a really good point–perhaps “we value male athletes for their athletic skills, while female athletes are valued only if they are also considered sex objects.” I don’t think it’s quite that harsh, though. I think we do value female athletes for their athletic skills, but we also place a lot more emphasis on looks than for males. So, I agree to a more limited extent that female athletes are seen a little more as sex objects.

          You called this the “devaluation of women’s sports,” and (ah, ok!) I think I now see your fairness argument. But I’d argue that it’s not “unfair”–it’s business. People watch sports to see impressive feats of athletic achievement. Men, by virtue of sexual dimorphism, author more impressive feats (i.e., run faster, jump higher, hit the tennis ball harder). Should everyone have to give equal attention to men’s and women’s sports? I don’t think they should–it’s an entertainment industry. That would be like saying when you buy a ticket to the new Spiderman movie, you also have to buy a ticket for every other movie showing.

          That’s why I say women’s sports have sort of evolved into their own niche market. On the basis of athletic feats, women have a physiological disadvantage. People don’t have unlimited time/attention/money, so they’re usually going to only want to watch the best. Therefore, women’s sports normally wouldn’t even be able to compete for viewership. But, their marketers have capitalized on women’s sports’ comparative advantage–sex appeal. By marketing their stars based on sex appeal, women’s sports use this comparative advantage to steal some limited attention/money/sponsorships away from men’s sports, whose comparative advantage of bigger/faster/stronger traditionally wins out.

          • Posted July 3, 2012 at 11:56 pm | Permalink

            Well, but… that’s kind of what some people have a problem with. I mean, you say “that’s not unfair, that’s business,” as if that automatically makes it alright. I don’t think it does.

            This is kind of what sexism *is*. Sexism isn’t necessarily a bunch of bald old guys sitting in some secret meeting room, plotting the subjugation of womankind. Sexism can be things like simple cultural double standards — like, male athletes being admired more for their skill, and female athletes more for their looks. How is that *not* unfair? It’s a double standard that affects people’s lives in negative ways, and makes it arbitrarily harder (or impossible) for a person to become who or what they want to be, despite the hard work they put in and the skill levels they achieve, on the basis of the chromosomes they were born with.

            Why the heck shouldn’t cultural double standards like that be criticized? I think that’s kind of a big part of feminism… Culture can’t be changed easily. Talking about it, bringing issues up, in short — talking about unfairness when you see it, is one of the few things you can consciously do to shift cultural norms forward a bit, I think.

            You can’t really say such criticism is futile or pointless, I’d say, since cultural norms when it comes to women in sports (and other issues) obviously *have* changed over time, and are changing still — just not as much, or as quickly, as some of us may wish. Bringing awareness to the issue seems like a good thing to do. It won’t solve the problem overnight, but standing up and saying, “hey, you know, the strongest weight-lifter in America is a woman, and she achieved some awesome stuff despite difficult circumstances, and, you know, sexism is kind of part of the reason why her circumstances *are* as relatively difficult as they are, and wouldn’t it be nice if that wasn’t the case?” can’t hurt…

            Also, I’d just like to point out that you’re basing your whole point on how women just can’t compete in sports on the same level as men due to sexual dimorphism… And you’re commenting on an article about a female weight-lifter who’s stronger than any male weight-lifter in her country. Also I think there’s a logical problem in that you yourself said you don’t watch women’s sports except for a rare bit of tennis… So how are you judging women to be relatively lacking in skill and ability?

            And I’ve recently come across a comment elsewhere on the Internet from someone who said they enjoyed women’s basketball more than men’s basketball precisely because the women tended to rely more on technique, teamwork, and skill, rather than on raw physical power…

        • Posted July 5, 2012 at 3:05 pm | Permalink

          Are we going to correct the headline, Maya? Even a cursory Google search shows that Sarah Robles is NOT the strongest person in America. It may even be the case that she’s not even among the top 1000 strongest people in America, which is completely irrelevant, because Sarah Robles doesn’t need to be the strongest person in America for her situation to be newsworthy, outrageous, and a legitimate feminist critique! Most everyone will be sympathetic to what is being stated, but is it not true that repeating this headline and statement as fact will only serve to undermine what are otherwise valid arguments? In fact, Meh Aloe’s excellent rebuttal (above) to ihopeiwin247′s assertions is somewhat weakened by repeating this false claim as fact! Why let that happen? The merits of the argument are perfectly strong without needing embellishment or the dissemination of a misstatement. Right? Thank you. :)

    • Posted July 3, 2012 at 10:04 pm | Permalink

      “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.”

      I think you are getting confused with male bodybuilders. The men and women who compete within a certain weight range, they might have a muscular athletic look. The men who compete as heavyweights are a bit on the chubby side, like that woman.

  5. Posted July 3, 2012 at 5:28 pm | Permalink

    I thought there might be an error in the headline “the strongest person in america”, so after doing a bit of research, I found that USA is sending a man to London who is stronger. His name is Kendrick Farris, he competes in the 187 lb. weight class, and his personal best is 355 kg (782 lb.). Sarah weighs 275 lb. and her personal best in the combined (snatch + clean and jerk), while amazing, is 258 kg (568 lb.). If Mr. Farris lifted over 200 lb. more while weighing approximately 100 lb. less than Sarah Robles, I can’t help but imagine that there are men her size in America who can lift a far, far greater amount. Nevertheless, I hope this exposure will help her and I’ll be cheering her on in London!!

  6. Posted July 3, 2012 at 7:15 pm | Permalink

    Does anyone know what organizations/companies generally sponsor in this sport? I was thinking about putting together a petition to Nike (who always advertises supporting women in sports) or some other company to sponsor her.

  7. Posted July 4, 2012 at 6:00 am | Permalink

    I think it’s annoying that even when there’s hardcore evidence that women can be as fast/strong as men, people still deny it (most people need to read The Frailty Myth)

  8. Posted July 4, 2012 at 4:18 pm | Permalink

    With regard to the discussion on women not wanting to look like athletes… can we talk about the fact that it’s fucked up that the beauty standard for women values weakness? I know women who get upset if they gain muscle definition and say it’s “gross.” How can something that makes you stronger, healthier and longer-lived be gross? Why do you aspire to look like a muscular person could snap you in half?

  9. Posted July 16, 2012 at 1:12 pm | Permalink

    It’s great to hear that she’s now being sponsored by Solve Media!

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