How CrossFit is teaching women to love their curves

Camille Leblanc-Bazinet (Photo: Reebok CrossFit)

Thanks to veteran tennis star Serena Williams winning her 6th Wimbledon championship this summer, the conversation surrounding her powerhouse figure has surfaced yet again. Subsequently, the old proverbial question about whether a strong appearance is attractive has been a popular debate among public commentators and published columnists. A number of recent articles imply that Williams’s muscular frame is unfeminine and unappealing. Last month, a New York Times piece went viral thanks to it’s inclusion of comments from other top female tennis players, admitting that they choose to avoid putting on that kind of mass in order to maintain what they perceive as an attractive body type - even if it means losing the match. 

As for what Williams, who covers the most recent issue of New York Magazine in a form-fitting black dress, has to say: “I’m really happy with my body type, and I’m really proud of it. Obviously it works out for me.” Indeed, her impressive trophy collection speaks for itself and it’s clear that she is not only grateful for what her body can do on the court, she’s also more than content with how she looks on the carpet too. But, while Williams leads the way towards changing the narrow perception of beauty in tennis, it’s clear that as a whole - the game, and its players, still have a long way to go.

One sport that is making major headway in the fight to expand beauty standards is CrossFit. Though I’m not an avid CrossFitter, I recently attended the Reebok CrossFit Games in Los Angeles. As an outsider, I was absolutely blown away by the outpouring of body positive messages embedded within the community of athletes.

Annie Sakamoto (Photo: Reebok CrossFit)

The first thing I noticed – almost all the women in attendance, of all shapes and sizes, proudly paraded around in very loud, very colourful and very skimpy exercise attire; each of them confidently showing off their physiques, regardless of the size of their waist or the size of their biceps.

For those few women in the stands who wore shirts at all, some of the popular tank tops had extremely inspiring and unapologetically sassy slogans on them – one reading, “The bigger the thighs the better” and another, “The thighs don’t lie!” This is when I realized that the CrossFit community sees their muscles, particularly their bulging quads, as badges of honour; trophies for the hard work they put in at the gym. Sound familiar, Ms. Williams?

And it’s not just the adult participants who are finding confidence in their curves thanks to the CrossFit community – the teen competitors are too! During an interview with 17-year-old teen competitor Ashleigh Wosny (who came in second place in the Teen Games!) she opened up about the ways the sport has helped her embrace a new idea of what is beautiful.

Ashleigh Wosny (Photo: Reebok CrossFit)

“At first I got made fun of for being muscular, some would say I looked like a man and at first I hated CrossFit for it. I felt good on the inside but felt like I looked awful,” she says. “Looking up to the women in the games helped a lot, seeing how strong they were but they’re also very beautiful. I just fell in love with the way I looked. I love having big legs and big arms I just love everything that comes with it. I honestly don’t care about what anyone thinks anymore. As long as I feel beautiful that’s all that matters…CrossFit makes me feel beautiful.”

As for how the sport’s top female stars feel about being role models for young girls, they are both proud and jealous of the positive influence. During a CrossFit Games press conference, last year’s Canadian champion, Camille Leblanc-Bazinet, explained: “It’s so freaking cool to see the teens wanting to be strong. I wish I had that in my life when I was at their age. I used to hate my body and now that I do CrossFit all this perception for me completely changed. Now I’m completely in love with what I’m made of. It’s so great to see that now teenagers have an option to look up to girls with quads and muscle.”

CrossFitter Sarah Briggs and a fan (Photo: Reebok CrossFit)

For one of the original CrossFit Games competitors, Annie Sakamoto, she has seen the positive influence in her young daughter for many years, telling me, “When my daughter was about five she was having to wiggle her butt and thighs into her jeans a little bit and she was like ‘It’s hard to get my pants on because I’m strong like my mama!’”

Its not just the individuals who have embraced this unwavering acceptance of the strong body type, the corporate side of the sport is right there with them. Andi Archer is the apparel designer for Reebok, CrossFit’s leading sponsor and outfitter. She explained to me that Reebok no longer uses straight sized fit models (usually a size 2-4) like most clothing companies, when designing the female gear. Instead, they scan the bodies of real life participants, making sure they capture and consider all those CrossFit curves in order to suit the athletes aesthetically, practically and comfortably. She tells me, “We knew it had to fit them differently and it had to accommodate different body parts and different muscles.” An accomplished CrossFitter in her own right, Archer explains, “There’s a relief in knowing I’m not the only one out there who can’t find a bra that fits my lats. I’m not a b-cup I’m not a c-cup it’s my lats that make up that measurement difference. We’re really able to accommodate that.”

Andi Archer (Photo: Reebok CrossFit)

Another part of the CrossFit business model that rejects the unhealthy obsession with the superficial, is the fact that the gyms, or “boxes” as they are called in the community, rarely have any mirrors. Andi tells me that unlike regular gyms where everyone is constantly watching themselves, their bodies and scrutinizing every inch of flesh, the CrossFit philosophy is all about turning the focus away from what you look like and onto what you can do. “We’re not doing it for the aesthetic we’re doing it because we can and we want to be the best we can be.”