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May 18, 2020
In preparation for her thesis proposal, Monica Nelson has prepared a copy of her abstract (below) for review. Please submit your comments to her advisor, Dr. Jette (jette@umd.edu) prior to the proposal presentation meeting on Tuesday, May 26th, 2020. Dr. Jette and Monica welcome your comments and questions.

 
It has been well documented that physical characteristics of human bodies are assigned differing social values; some bodies are awarded high social, economic, and moral value while others are viewed as deviant and immoral (Lupton, 2012; Shilling, 1991). The association between social value and physical attributes creates a societal body ideal that individuals are therefore incentivized to achieve, a pursuit which ends more frequently in failure than success (Bordo, 1993; Lupton, 2012). Scholars have documented how, in contemporary Western societies, the ideal female body is “firm but shapely, fit but sexy, strong but thin” (Markula, 1995), characterized by low body fat and minimal musculature, while the ideal male body is “mesomorphic” and “athletic” (Watson, 2000) with low body fat and musculature concentrated in the upper body. The extent to which these body ideals are pursued and achieved by varying populations, as well as the tendency for individuals to develop disordered bodily practices (i.e. eating disorders) while pursuing body ideals have been well-documented and theorized by social researchers through the use of both qualitative and quantitative methodologies (Byrne & McLean, 2001; Grogan, 2017).
 
In addition to this extensive literature on societal body ideals, there is a smaller but growing body of research that indicates that competitive athletes subscribe to a separate, sport-specific body ideal that is associated with maximal performance, and are therefore frequently able to avoid the impacts of attempting to achieve a social body ideal (Greenleaf, 2002; Petrie, 1996). However, existing literature on sport-specific body ideals fails to address the experiences of athletes participating in weight-class sports. Olympic Weightlifting serves as a particularly interesting case: athletes can compete in weight classes that range from the ultra-lightweight (45kg/99lb for women, 55kg/122lb for men) to the superheavyweight (+87kg/192lb for women, +109kg/240lb for men), therefore negating the possibility of a singular athletic body ideal that is associated with performance. Furthermore, Olympic Weightlifters are structurally incentivized to increase and decrease their bodyweight: athletes may become more competitive by temporarily decreasing their bodyweight or by slowly increasing their bodyweight and strength. Due to the lack of a singular athletic body ideal, in combination with structural incentives that enable strength athletes to choose a lighter or heavier weight class, Olympic Weightlifters may therefore be able to take into consideration their physical appearance and its fit with social body ideals in a way that athletes in other sports may not. 
 
The goal of this project is to examine how male and female Olympic Weightlifters navigate competing discourses about gendered body ideals and sport-specific athletic performance when choosing their weight classes, thus addressing a significant gap in the empirical knowledge base.  Drawing on a feminist post-structuralist theoretical framework, I will conduct semi-structured, in-depth interviews with 14-20 male and female Olympic Weightlifters (evenly split by gender) from a variety of weight classes and ability levels. Data analysis will entail a two-part process: (i) thematic analysis to establish overarching themes across interviews; and (ii) feminist poststructuralist discourse analysis to examine how Olympic Weightlifters construct their bodies in relation to dominant or alternative/resistant discourses pertaining to social and athletic ideals of gender, body weight, and athleticism. In order to complement a poststructuralist framework which emphasizes discursive elements of a phenomenon, I will also examine how material experiences of the strength-training body – which will undoubtedly vary by sex and ability level – interplay with varying discourses, offering a biosocial understanding of how strength athletes choose their weight classes.
 
 
Related People
Monica Nelson, Shannon Jette