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Staring and stereotypes: 'I love being athletic, but there is a darker side'

By Kat Merchant
Kat Merchant (L) on the microphone as a Premier 15s commentator

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I was asked to give an account of being a strong and athletic woman in the public eye and wanted to start by saying that I love being athletic! Feeling strong gives me a confidence that carries into my everyday life. I get lovely messages from people saying I inspire them to get into fitness or for their daughters to grow up strong.

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My housemate (a man) couldn’t open a jar and just absentmindedly handed it for me to do – which is awesome, and I felt strong and independent.

Now with all that said there are some unfortunate negatives and stereotypes that come with the territory.

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As a child I was always sporty. At ten years old as a classroom exercise we all had to weigh ourselves and do some strength tests. I was stronger than the boys which I was embarrassed about at the time and I was the heaviest girl. I was mortified. I’d never thought about weight but what I thought I knew about it was the women and girls were meant to be skinny and light. I didn’t understand then that muscle is heavier than fat. I saw magazine articles about how to lose weight with skinny celebrities on the front, so despite having defined muscles as a kid I developed a warped idea of body image.

I was fortunate enough to have a very successful rugby career and whilst playing at the top level I obviously wanted to be as good a rugby player as I could. In order to achieve this I lifted weights regularly and was fit for rugby. Once I retired I tried to ‘be less muscular’ as I wanted to look more ‘feminine’.

Two years ago I met my boyfriend Mike and he introduced me to CrossFit. I went in and was so impressed with the physiques of the women and what they could do and it inspired me to get as strong as possible.

So, I changed the way I trained and ate and put on lean muscle mass and my strength gains reflected that. I’ve had lots of positive messages throughout my training and that’s something I’m very proud of.

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Kat Merchant image 1

Now to the darker side…the trolling.

On an average week I’ll wake up to online abuse from angry men and judgemental women, get stared at walking to the shops, get unsolicited advice in the gym and if I’m lucky some ‘positive’ shouting.

Having an athletic physique as a woman seems to be an open invite to critique my physique, my femininity and even my sexuality.

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I’ll start with the ‘positives’ which have literally been shouted at me whilst walking down the street:

‘Wow, you must work out’

‘She’s strong!’

‘You’re bigger than me!’

‘Wouldn’t want to fight you!’

All seemingly positive comments- but I don’t understand why having an athletic physique as a woman makes people think shouting comments is acceptable. I’ve even had random strangers grab my arms to compliment them.

Why? Because it’s still not seen as normal for women to be strong. Having an athletic physique as a woman causes a lot of attention and seems to cause a disproportionate reaction.

I’m proud of my body- but I also know that if I wear a vest top or something similar I’m going to get started at or comments directed at me. Now I’m pretty confident but sometimes it can all feel too much and I just want to blend in and not have attention drawn to me. It used to affect the clothes I wore for fear of attracting attention- but now I just own it.

As part of my work, I post exercise videos and whilst I get many positive comments, I still get a surprising amount of negative ones.

Posting a simple bicep video can evoke a lot of anger in some people. Most the time I get men commenting that ‘I look like a bloke’ or must be on steroids. Both ridiculous statements that say more about their work effort or lack thereof.

Others, in an attempt at being supportive add comments like ‘very impressive, but too much for me’ or ‘I don’t find it attractive’. Did I ask or care whether you find me or other muscular women attractive? I was unaware that Twitter and Instagram are the new dating sites.

One man recently even commented that he wouldn’t want his daughter to look like me. This is one of the most concerning comments as why would he want to control how his daughter trains or looked? Is being strong and dedicated not something he wants in his child?

I also get unsolicited advice from men who despite not being in the fitness industry, or qualified in any way, want to tell me how to train.

For all of the above I just don’t understand what drives someone to comment rather than scroll or walk on by.

Less frequently but possibly more hurtful is the comments I get from women- one woman simply put ‘yuk’ and another claimed that there was nothing feminine about me. This one hurt as I try to lift other people up rather than put them down. Some people would describe femininity as having positive traits including being kind rather than a body type and the women commenting hurtful remarks certainly aren’t being kind. The other comment I get from women is ‘lifting won’t make me look like you will it?’ A seemingly innocent remark but still quite offensive. No, you will not accidentally look like me- believe it or not, this takes a lot of work.

Friends and family often ask why I put myself out there on social media and the answer is simple. I wish I had women who looked like me when I was growing up on magazine covers rather than the constant bombardment of skinny models. I want young boys and girls to see that a strong woman is perfectly normal, perhaps even find it motivational to go play a sport. The more athletic and strong women there are, the less these stereotypes will be held.

My advice to any girls and women out there who want to focus on getting stronger is to do it! Yes you might get a few stares and odd comments but so what? I feel strong and confident and found that when you are confident in yourself you are far less bothered about what other people think of you.

I feel more ‘feminine’ now than ever and am loving what my body can do.

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