Powerlifter Shannon Kim Wagner Aims to Help Everyone Embrace Their Power

The founder of the powerlifting club Women’s Strength Coalition discusses its mission: activism, advocacy, acceptance, and barbells.

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Aug 13 2018, 2:35pm

Photo courtesy of Reebok

There came a moment during the Washington DC Women’s March in January 2017 when Shannon Kim Wagner, disheartened over the recent national election results, decided it was time for her to speak up and fight for her own beliefs, and those of her community. She began at her gym.

Wagner, a longtime weightlifter and eating disorder survivor, had experienced firsthand the transformative effect of the sport. Her first deadlift was a game-changer for Wagner, shifting her priorities from shrinking to strengthening, from form to function. In the days after the Women’s March, she wondered what it would look like if she could somehow connect the women in her world and harness their collective strength as a tool to effect progressive change. And she noticed the need for a bold voice within the strength-training community itself—a voice that would promote the importance of women feeling safe in their bodies and comfortable where they exercise them. And so in the spring of 2017, the Women’s Strength Coalition was born. This past June, its members raised over $120,000 for homeless LGBTQ youth at the Coalition’s Pull For Pride events, held in seven different cities around the country.

Photo courtesy of Reebok

The Brooklyn-based organization offers a positive environment for social interaction, education, and outreach, and also raises funds for organizations like NOW, Planned Parenthood, and others. Trans women and gender non-conforming people are included in the company’s efforts and events as a matter of course; Wagner is clear—and outspoken—about the fact that most people don’t have the option to leave their identities behind when they enter public spaces.

We asked Wagner about the positive effects of lifting weights beyond building bigger biceps, and how she plans to turn gym culture on its head.

This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.

On staying “body-positive
Early experiences with sexual abuse left me feeling powerless and hateful toward my body, but when I started lifting, I stopped feeling fragile. I felt strong for the first time in my life. Strength training gave me agency over my body, and it allowed me to create real power. I was able to redefine myself, break the cycle, step outside of diet culture, and live in the moment.

Body-positivity is the belief that your body is good and worthy, no matter what it looks like. It does not mean that we need to feel positive about the way our body looks every single day. Body-positivity is often incorrectly presented in the media as body-focused. It is important that the conversation remains focused on people’s inherent worthiness, and not just their external appearance.

On engaging with those who disagree
There are many weightlifting and powerlifting gyms and coaches out there that act as beacons of support for their members, and have a zero tolerance policy when it comes to sexism, racism, and transphobia.

Still, there are many more members of the fitness community who push back against our efforts and claim that we are using “identity politics” to divide people. Others claim that politics don’t belong in the gym, because that’s where they go to escape from daily life. Or that these conversations are not relevant to fitness.

Choosing how to engage with both sides is of critical importance. We cannot ask the oppressed to be the only ones rising up against the oppressors. Recognizing your privilege means doing the work of combating ignorance when you see it, so that the ignorant voices are not the loudest. At a time when people are dying over these issues, the default cannot be silence.

Photo by Alex Lau.

On embracing all possibilities
While one can control the images they see on Instagram, one can’t control the images they see on billboards, in magazines, and on television. What happens when we represent only a select race, body type, or gender identity? It begins to feel like those are the only possibilities, or like those are the people who matter the most in the world. Those whose appearances and stories are not represented are marginalized, their needs ignored, and challenges trivialized.

Fighting for social justice and equality means listening to the full spectrum of lived experiences, and shaping our society and culture around the needs of the whole population, not the privileged few. That starts with representation. Inclusive representation allows for more people to be accepted, understood, and respected, while envisioning new possibilities for themselves.

"The strength you build over time expands the mental boundary of what you thought was possible for yourself."

On taking the long view
The repetitive nature of strength training is one of the reasons it is so therapeutic and beneficial. It teaches trainees that consistency is key, and that success comes from long-term strategies and planning.

Going into the gym and training in a repetitive fashion builds grit and an ability to persevere through challenges. The strength you build over time expands the mental boundary of what you thought was possible for yourself. Looking back at where you started and seeing how far you have come is incredibly fun and rewarding.

Strength training’s repetitive nature also teaches you that it’s ok to have bad days. One day, you’ll be able to squat a certain amount, and some days, it’s just not there. This, of course, can be due to a number of training variables, but it also can simply be a “bad day,” and that’s ok.

This “bad day” concept is an important one to remember. I had my own struggles with disordered eating and body image and I still wake up sometimes thinking negative thoughts about the way I look. I still find myself, at times unconsciously, restricting my calories and food intake in an effort to get smaller. But that’s ok. It doesn’t mean all of the work I’ve done so far has vanished. Very much to the contrary. It’s just a bad day.

On the responsibility to advocate for others
Our community is extremely diverse because the world is extremely diverse. Working to reconstruct the social narrative to be more representative of all identities is an important element of intersectional feminism. It helps to demonstrate the ways in which people experience oppression differently, and the ways in which oppression and discrimination can be compounded for some, and not others.

As a cisgender, white feminist, it’s extremely important that I acknowledge the exclusionary elements of some previous and current feminist iterations. As a conventionally attractive, thin woman, I have an added layer of privilege that makes my voice and thoughts more palatable and more accessible. My personal history and struggles don’t change those facts, and I work to amplify voices, not speak for others.

Like body-positivity, we have to make sure that inclusivity is more than just a trend to serve those already in positions of power. If you come from a place of privilege, it is your responsibility to educate yourself and work towards equity for all people, however possible.

25 Strong is a new series highlighting people who have broken barriers and changed culture in 2018. Created with Reebok.