CrossFit Teens Face Harassment Online and In the Gym, Further Expose Ugly Trend
“Whether or not I’m wearing baggy clothes or booty shorts, they will always look. If I’m dancing or if I’m deadlifting I will always feel their eyes on my ass,” 18-year-old Emma Spath proclaims, citing a recent incident in which a fellow female gym-goer told her to stop dancing between sets because men will look at her.
Spath, who has been doing CrossFit at CrossFit West in Soquel, CA since they were 11-years-old, can recount many times in their (Spath uses the pronouns she/they) career that inappropriate sexual behavior has ruined an otherwise normal moment in the gym. She’s just one of a growing number of teens that are experiencing sexual harassment in CrossFit, and they’re getting fed up.
The Teen Division Emerges
The teen division in the Games began in 2015 and since then, 189 athletes ages 14 through 17 have had their moment on the biggest stage in the CrossFit universe. And while only a small fraction of teens have made it back to the Games in the individual division, succumbing to either burnout, starting new athletic journeys, or getting their ticket to Madison snatched away by the hands of COVID-19, elite CrossFit teens are becoming some of the biggest influencers in the sport.
Big-name teens — especially teenage girls – -like Paige Powers, Sophie Shaft, and Haley Adams are sponsored by international companies like WIT, 2POOD, and Reebok. Regardless of their age, teens are becoming marquee names in the fitness industry. And for the teens that aren’t there yet, it’s tempting to leap at any chance to get that legitimization. Plus, who doesn’t want free gear?
That’s a trap 2018 Games athlete Maddy Espinoza fell into. As she grew in her CrossFit career, Espinoza received many crude DMs on social media, asking for pictures of her flexing, inquiring as to how much she lifts, saying she’s strong for a girl, and lots of odd requests to arm wrestle boys. In fact, that request — arm wrestling — is something countless teen CrossFit girls have experienced.
When a DM request came into Espinoza’s inbox asking to interview her for a CrossFit publishing site, seemingly a chance to move up in the hard-to-quantify Instagram influencer race, the teenager was excited. However, the legitimacy of the request was soon found to be a subterfuge.
“They set up a Skype interview, but they weren’t turning their camera on, they were using the little chat box. . . towards the end they kept asking me to flex. I was fourteen at the time,” Espinoza recounts. Then, less than a week later, she started getting messages from friends saying someone had added them on Snapchat in Espinoza’s name, asking them personal questions and pretending to be her and using her answers from the Skype meeting as responses.
This kind of scam wasn’t the only thing Espinoza faced during her time in the competitive CrossFit world, of course. She was subject to the creepy comments, online and in person, that many teens are. And it always resulted in a sour feeling.
“When it happens, I always feel kind of angry, because there’s a bunch of people asking these weird questions, they’re not good people, and nobody’s putting a stop to it. It’s frustrating,” Espinoza admitted.
The Social Media Paradox: Exposure and Vulnerability
The offensiveness of these comments get even worse when you put a CrossFit athlete into the regular world of teenagers: TikTok. On an app where 16-year-old Charli D’Amelio is the face of the entire operation, commenting on a teens’s dance moves is now the norm. And while teens across the world are doing the Renegade and throwing-it-back, 18-year-old Paige Powers has seen the innocent nature of the app turn in a different direction. As the most decorated current teen athlete in adult competitions, having racked up experience in multiple elite-level Sanctionals, a top 150 placement in the 2020 Open, and a top 25 placement in the 2020 Quarterfinals, Powers has gained fame as a force to be reckoned with in the sport. But on TikTok, she’s just another teenager. Albeit, one with big muscles.
Powers has observed the difference between comments she gets on different social media platforms. TikTok’s algorithmic feed, called the For You Page, compiles a list of new videos customized to each user’s likes. If a user likes dance videos, the For You Page will feed them an endless supply of other dance videos by people all across the app.
For Powers, this means that people who aren’t accustomed to seeing girls with big muscles often find her page by chance, resulting in some surprised, vile comments. Out of the context of CrossFit, Powers knows her body type can be surprising, which leads to hurtful comments, like “you are a man,” “that ain’t Paige that’s Peter,” and “girl muscles just don’t look right,” in addition to the creepier comments, like “me after watching this video (pregnant emoji)” “step on me,” and “I’d let her choke the life outta me.” Thankfully, Powers has grown accustomed to this rhetoric and over her lifelong career in competitive sports, she has developed a thick skin to these issues.
“I’ve always been different, I’ve always had muscles and to some people that’s not normal. I’ve learned to block it out,” said Powers.
She admits that because of her childhood background in elite gymnastics, during which time she was overseen by Team USA doctor Larry Nassar, she’s not thrown by weird comments and situations. Thankfully, Powers was never personally endangered or harassed by Nassar. Now on the other end of her long career filled with gross judgments and remarks, she’s built up immunity for herself and tries to squash social media comments in an effort to stop the behavior for other girls.
Powers has clapped back to some of the hateful comments, in true TikTok fashion.
On Instagram, however, where people follow her because of her success in CrossFit, Powers says the comments and direct messages she receives are more targeted. She described the prevalence of a single person targeting and messaging many teen CrossFit girls at the same time. These mass texts, which often include inappropriate requests or lewd comments, have become almost normal, one that teens shrug off, warn their friends about, and delete from their inboxes.
Powers doesn’t harp on this too much, and is able to joke about it with her friends. She does worry, however, that the stigmatization of girls with muscles, in part perpetuated by the creepy DMs and comments, is creating an even steeper uphill battle for girls in CrossFit.
“I think (the comments) are really hard to hear, especially for teenage girls because we are emotional, we let things get to us,” Powers admitted. “I think for it not to be normal for girls to have muscles, it might drive a young girl away from CrossFit for fear of looking different.”
Bullying and Worse
Espinoza has had to deal with repercussions of looking “different” in a painstaking way. As a younger athlete a few years back, she got bullied incessantly by her peers at school for her appearance. Now at 17-years-old, Espinoza has grown more comfortable with and proud of the body that has taken her to international weightlifting meets to represent the United States.
While the inappropriate comments she still receives, along the same lines as Powers’ TikTok comments, aren’t something that phase her as much anymore, it can still sting. But now as a full-time olympic weightlifter, this occurs less often.
“When I was younger, I got so many comments from older people asking questions that just didn’t need to be asked, but as I’ve gotten older and gotten into weightlifting, I rarely get any,” Espinoza said. “Which is weird, I didn’t expect that would happen.”
Clothing and Comments
One aspect of the harassment debacle Espinoza dwells on is clothing. She admits that, personally, she doesn’t like wearing the booty shorts and sports bra uniform that’s become somewhat of a CrossFit staple, and is much happier in leggings and a long sleeve shirt for her training sessions. However, she recognizes a key issue: the fashion culture of CrossFit might be leading to some objectification.
“A lot of CrossFitters are known to work out with [almost] no clothes on, and when you see a girl working out in a sports bra and shorts it’s like “oh, she doesn’t care about herself,” whereas a guy can workout without a shirt with no issue,” Espinoza said.
And, the difference in responses between men and women might contribute to a larger issue of clothing, one that outspoken 18-year-old advocate Emma Spath could talk about for hours.
“The womens clothing (at the Games) is clearly different from the mens clothing. We don’t get the baggy shirts and basketball shorts,” Spath pointed out. She mentions women’s football uniforms, and how the difference in sports attire isn’t exclusive to CrossFit. “There’s a clear distinction (between how men and women dress) and it’s definitely an indication of the sexualization of women’s clothes in sports. It’s really telling.”
Spath prides themself on being an advocate for body positivity on social media, which comes after years of their own experience with eating disorders. CrossFitters wear the clothes they do, especially women, because they’re proud of their bodies, she says. Booty shorts and sports bras are common in the sport not just because they’re comfortable (which Spath jokingly contests) and fit muscular bodies better than skinny jeans, but Spath knows the importance of appreciating the body that works so hard on the competition floor.
“We do show off our bodies, first of all, because we can. It doesn’t matter what you’re wearing, we have beautiful bodies, awesome muscles, we should be able to show them off!” Spath says. “(We) all have big muscles, we all look different, and it’s empowering.”
However, they recognize the issue that this confidence can raise: it can be misconstrued as “asking for it.” Spath guffaws at the idea, and quickly clarifies that no piece of clothing is ever “asking for it” but is quick to identify the issue anyway.
It’s hard to imagine the young girls swinging on rings and power cleaning absurd amounts of weight in their sports bras and Reebok short shorts being perceived as “prey” but the reality is, that’s what’s happening. Spath has been doing CrossFit for six years since she was 12-years-old, and now as an adult, they can recall the creepy comments they’ve gotten online and in person, and that experience, along with that of her eating disorder, being a Games athlete, and growing up in the harsh online world, has given her an interesting perspective about the issue.
“Most of what I do online is talking about how women are objectified, and to promote body confidence, and (these comments) make me feel like people are getting the wrong message because yes, I think my body is beautiful, but that’s not something you can take advantage of me for, it doesn’t make me an object,” Spath stated. “Women becoming empowered and thinking their bodies are beautiful doesn’t give men the right to comment on their bodies”
A Final Word from the Athletes
While this harassment plagues the DMs of the youngest athletes in our sport, nothing is currently being done, which frustrates Powers, Espinoza, and Spath. So, what do the current prodigies of fitness think can fix the issue?
“I think we need to talk about it more. It’s not really talked about at all, and it’s kind of sad, but if we’re open about it we could fix it faster,” Power said.
“I think teen athletes should maybe be expected to wear more clothes, especially at the Games, when you don’t know who’s watching, who’s taking pictures,” Espinoza said. She also suggested that the lack of attention the Games and media give the teens lends itself to having these important issues be ignored, and that by paying more attention to the teen competition, this problem would be more easily recognized and resolved.
“It’s hard to solve it, because it’s not just CrossFit. And, most gyms have a really good culture that keeps CrossFit safe for women, which is important,” Spath said. She also champions the importance of halting all comments on people’s bodies in general. “Even if you’re complimenting someone, it can be creepy. And, people are more than their bodies. You never know what’s going to come from a comment, you could be creating insecurity.”
The general consensus? Talk about it, teach, and believe people when they say something is wrong. Not only do these things help to break the cycle of sexist and harmful rhetoric and behavior, but they keep the next generation of fitness athletes, like Powers, Espinoza, and Spath, safe.