It’s dark backstage.
In the distance, the sound of several voices singing melodies blend together into an indistinguishable hum. The smell of hairspray fills the air. The train of an evening gown glides by in her peripheral vision.
But Mackenzie Christie is focused.
With a deep breath, she steps out onto the stage and into the spotlight. She’s ready for her lifts. And although this setup is familiar to her, this is no ordinary weightlifting meet.
It’s pageant night in Hanover, PA. The 51-year-old local tradition gives high school seniors the chance to participate in a traditional beauty pageant competition featuring all the usual areas of focus: interviews (both on-stage and in-private with the judges), evening gown, scholastic achievements, and of course, talent. And while most of the 15 other competitors prepared choreographed dance routines or practiced their best vocals, Mackenzie took the chance to put her passion for the sport of weightlifting on display in a rather unorthodox setting.
“When I registered for the pageant, I knew that my talent had to be weightlifting. Since I’m not a singer or a dancer or anything, the process of introducing Olympic Weightlifting into a pageant that is inherently designed to emphasize the performing arts was daunting. I knew that people didn’t show up to the pageant to watch a sporting event, so the idea of giving the audience a taste of something they didn’t expect got me excited to perform. Not to mention, since female participation in weightlifting is still relatively unorthodox and unique in the sporting world, let alone my small town, I felt that my talent in this pageant would be breaking barriers on a local scale,” Mackenzie said.
What she didn’t expect was the intense outpouring of support she’d receive both in-person and online. And how it would make her reflect back on her own experience as a young woman in a predominantly male-lead sport.
A world of support.
Almost immediately after posting about the pageant on her Facebook and Instagram, the messages started flowing in.
“I thought that the hundred or so people in the audience would be the extent of the people I could reach, and I was happy with that,” Mackenzie said. “To make a difference to one person, just one girl in the audience who questioned her own capabilities, would have been enough. I’ve gotten teary-eyed more times than I can count after reading the facebook messages and Instagram comments from parents telling me about their young girls and boys watching me lift in awe and amazement.”
“I used to get so, so mad. I hated the duality of my experience in the sport; I want strong, muscular arms, I love the veins in my hands; to me, all these things represent my hard work, and I think it’s beautiful. But at the same time, I used to go beet red and hide myself when others would point it out on me.
It’s a welcome sentiment, considering the criticism and scrutiny Mackenzie has received in the past. It’s not easy being a high school student. It’s even harder when you’re known for being a girl who’s good at lifting weights.
“Things like walking into a room in a tighter shirt and hearing comments about my ‘man arms’ and ‘disgusting hands.’ People anonymously messaging me telling me that I’m a man. Underclassmen boys have approached my parents telling them how terrified they are of me. People in class have made eye contact with me, and they told their friends that they were scared for their lives, because ‘if I look at her the wrong way, she could kill me.’
If I had a dollar for the amount of times I’ve been challenged to strength contests over Instagram DM’s by random men, or when my lifting videos have been plagued by technique criticism with a subtle ‘it’s not bad since you’re a girl lifting’ I would be a rich woman.”
Unfortunately, that type of reaction is all-too-common for many women experienced in sports that celebrate strength. And although this was her first pageant experience, Mackenzie, at just 17-years-old, already has several years of experience under her belt in both CrossFit and weightlifting.
“My athletic background is broad, as I tried (and quit) almost every sport imaginable as a kid,” Mackenzie said. “During my freshman year of high school, I had the chance to watch my mom compete in a local CrossFit competition, and I absolutely fell in love.”
Since then, Mackenzie has:
- Competed at the 2018 Granite Games on a team of 3.
- Just barely missed qualifying for Wodapalooza by only 1 spot.
- Was 6 places out from qualifying for the CrossFit Games in 2018 in the teenage division.
- Competed at 2019 Youth Nationals and reached the qualifying total required to compete internationally in 2019 (though she’ll wait until next year to pursue international competition).
It’s taken her nearly four years in the sport to begin to develop the confidence and self-awareness to brush off the negative comments. And even though she’s grown comfortable in her own skin, it’s still a balancing act when it comes to the negative emotions associated with being judged on her strength.
“By combining Olympic lifting, a sport characterized as masculine and unorthodox, with beauty pageants, known for being fluffy and dramatically feminine, I feel I proved that you don’t have to draw a hard line between the two. I want people to know that strength, by definition, is not a masculine trait. Being strong, confident, and hard-working does not take away from a woman’s femininity or self worth.”
“I used to get so, so mad. I hated the duality of my experience in the sport; I want strong, muscular arms, I love the veins in my hands; to me, all these things represent my hard work, and I think it’s beautiful. But at the same time, I used to go beet red and hide myself when others would point it out on me. It took me the longest time to realize that I wasn’t self conscious over my arms or legs or hands. I was too aware that people saw me as something different, and some people are painfully uncomfortable with difference.”
Mackenzie didn’t walk away from the pageant with the first-place crown. But that wasn’t the point for her. Just participating in the pageant, and allowing the idea of women in weightlifting to be in the spotlight, is enough for her to look back on the entire experience as a success.
“The people who told me that they’ve ‘never seen anything like it’ in pageantry helped me realize that I genuinely pushed the boundaries and limits of what we consider feminine. I didn’t truly realize how many people had simply never been exposed to the sport of weightlifting, whereas to me, it’s my whole life. By combining Olympic lifting, a sport characterized as masculine and unorthodox, with beauty pageants, known for being fluffy and dramatically feminine, I feel I proved that you don’t have to draw a hard line between the two.”
“I want people to know that strength, by definition, is not a masculine trait. Being strong, confident, and hard-working does not take away from a woman’s femininity or self worth; in my eyes, it only amplifies them. I want people to admire strong women and find inspiration in their work, not fear, intimidation or aversion. Even though it’s cliche, I hope everyone, not just women, hear my story and find the confidence to go out there and pursue whatever it is they are passionate about, no matter what others think or say, and no matter how crazy their dreams are. Remember, you will never do big things if you let small minds determine your actions.”
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