Female powerlifters say stereotype is too much for them to stand up to

Despite it being one of the defining imagery of Australia – the lone blonde of the nation’s battlers – female powerlifters say they rarely get the scrutiny of the actions of Arnold Schwarzenegger, the world’s most famous Austrian male action star.

The stereotype is “overdone”, says the native of Wyong in NSW. And one of the nation’s best female powerlifters, Georgia Holten, 26, says there is more to be achieved in competition than getting “the guy” with the biggest muscles – a quote made famous by Schwarzenegger’s Wrecking Crew character in Conan the Barbarian.

More than half of Australia’s national powerlifting team is female. Photograph: Rodd Scott/Getty Images

This is not only partly due to the physical nature of the sport, but partly because the Australian powerlifting team – in which more than half of competitors are female – is almost completely unrecognised by society.

“I think there’s a stereotype that female powerlifters are meant to look like, which I don’t really agree with. The media never really focuses on the females,” Holten said. “And one of the biggest stereotypes is that male powerlifters look like Arnold Schwarzenegger. You get the stereotype that you’re going to turn into Arnold Schwarzenegger with a wig, which I don’t think we ever are.”

Nearly two weeks after starting at the Aussie Powerlifting Combine near Melbourne, Holten has just won a bronze medal in the squat event, although she says she is happy to win a silver at the Commonwealth Championships in Brisbane on Sunday.

Holten, who is in her fourth year in the sport, estimates her age as being between 35 and 45. Her biggest strength – of about 10 kilos – is in the upper body, while she has just 14% body fat.

The 25kg bench press allows her to get past the stiff upper body of most female competitors and into the sprint for the heaviest weights, where her lean mass puts her at an even advantage over most men, despite the fact that she weighs around 50kg less than most men.

After weightlifting, Holten’s priorities are to graduate to Olympic weightlifting and become a personal trainer. She hopes to be able to afford a house of her own after several years in competitions.

She is already taking classes at St Joseph’s College, Blacktown in Sydney, and is training with Barbara Kelly, who was ranked sixth in the world in middleweight and highest in the world in highweight powerlifting in the spring of 2012.

Kelly said she had been exposed to issues such as insecure working hours and disappointing pay, as well as a rigorous training regime, but advised anyone who was new to the sport to give it a chance. “Get out there and have a go. It’s a lot of fun,” she said.

She added that common myths about powerlifting, particularly that it attracts men mostly because of the high body weight, were wide of the mark.

“Women are sometimes more comfortable in their own skin – they haven’t got a strong barrier there. Whereas men can be really anxious, they’re scared to lose a competition,” she said.

“Women powerlifters have high standards and it doesn’t matter if you lose. Your goal is still to get better. I think that is a mental challenge because you have to be able to work your way through those situations.”

Jasmine Marini, 19, from Sydney, said she did not struggle for motivation, telling Guardian Australia, “I still have some of the same confidence, this is just the way I look.”

Marini, who coaches various weightlifting clubs, said women needed to be encouraged to enter the sport. Her barbell is in a waist-cinching style and she is looking forward to cutting even more weight.

Gym owners who also coach have become effective marketeers. Anthony Atkins, from the Wheldrake Gym in Sydney, has targeted women’s interests, using selfies of ripped young women as his Facebook profile picture.

“In the last 12 months, the competition level has definitely increased from the sportsperson to the hunk,” he said. “Women have shown up at different competitions and they put up a good fight.”

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