Saturday, March 10, 2018

Jill Mills Interview (2009)

Size and Sexism in Women's Strength Sports:
An Interview with Jill Mills
by M. Andrew Holowchak 

Dr. Mark A. Holowchak is an Assistant Professor of Philosophy at Muhlenberg College in Allentown, Pennsylvania. Dr. Holowchak received his Ph.D. in Philosophy and History of Science from the University of Pittsburgh.

Jill Mills is a remarkable athlete and the wearer of many hats: strongwoman, powerlifter, wife, mother, and businesswoman. She was the winner of the first two of ESPN's World's Strongest Woman Contests (2001 and 2002). In her years of competitive lifting, she was also the holder of several worlds records in strongwoman and powerlifting. This interview was conducted in April of 2009.

MAH: Who is Jill Mills and how did she become interested in strength sports? 

JM: I was born and raised in Indiana, but I've called Texas my home for the last 18 years, off and on. I am a mother, businesswoman, animal lover, and -- um -- been an athlete all my life. I started in typical sports, like soccer, but was always drawn to strength sports. Not knowing anything about any strength competitions, I got into bodybuilding. I found that somewhat rewarding. I didn't feel like I got back what I put into it. It was too opinionated and very little based on athletic ability. It was very political.

MAH: So dissatisfaction with bodybuilding got you into strength sports? 

JM: My boyfriend -- now husband -- actually, was a powerlifter and he got me into powerlifting. We used to watch World's Strongest Man on TV and thought that it was pretty intriguing and, when I found out that they were going to start having competitions in the states -- competitions for women -- I took advantage of it and got the ball rolling. I started winning competitions. My name was third in the hat in 2001 to compete in a qualifier for World's Strongest Woman. I won the qualifier, held in Scotland. And then I was on to Africa for the finals. All in all, I think I competed in between 40 and 50 competitions and I won all but one of them.

MAH: All but one?

JM: All but one. everyone has an off day and I had mine in Ireland. I pretty much retired two years ago (2007).

MAH: That's amazing! Okay, next question. What are some of your most noteworthy strength accomplishments? 

JM: Of course, most people know me for winning World's Strongest Woman in '01 and '02, but then some people know me for being a world-champion powerlifter. [Pause.] Um, let's see, I would probably say, probably the most -- the thing I'm most proud of would probably be my 651 squat, 391 bench, 562 pull [deadlift], which I think added up to 1604 or 1609. Anyways, I was one of four women, at that time, who totaled over 1600.

MAH: Those are some large numbers -- the squat especially. Okay, next question. What is the one feat of strength of which you are the proudest?

I'd say the one thing that I did on a stage that really made me feel good was the 300-pound, unofficial world-record stone lift I did at the Arnold Strongman Classic.

MAH: What year?

JM? That was in 2002. And the reason that was so rewarding was because -- for a couple of reasons, I'd just been diagnosed with a couple of fractures in my spine, um, three months before that, so my training coming up to the Arnold was not very promising [laughter]. I was actually doing more rehab work. When I got to the Arnold Classic, the stone had been poured the week before, so it was still wet. When I tried to lift it the first time, the surface literally started to crumble, so I didn't have good surface contact. It was very difficult to hold on to, but -- uh -- after brushing part of the grit off my arms, I reset and managed to lift it and load it on to three stacked Hammer tires with the help of pure adrenaline and a massive crowd watching and cheering me on. That felt good!

MAH: That's a large stone! Okay, what did it mean to you personally to be the strongest woman in the world?

JM: I would have to say that, on some level, it's always been kind of embarrassing. I always felt that I should add a disclaimer to that -- that that was the name of the competition ["World's Strongest Woman" is copyrighted as the name of the contest], and that I really don't appoint myself that title, because there are so many different tests to -- to determine that, and I don't believe that there is any one strongest woman in the world. There is too much controversy around what is the ultimate test of who is the "number one strongest." If I did, I guess I'd have to give that title to Becca Swanson [the strongest, most massive woman who ever lived and holder of numerous world records in powerlifting], because she's done things that were way, way out of the realm of what anyone ever thought a woman could do, um -- by hundreds of pounds! You know, there are a lot of strong girls out there doing things that I can't do in the specialties like Olympic lifting, so, you know, I'd have to say that's not ever been a real satisfying title -- World's Strongest Woman.

Still to win the World's Strongest Woman's competition was actually very gratifying, because it was so much hard work and there's so much pain and sacrifice -- and hours of training that went into that, and all. At the same time, I was juggling, you know, my regular life -- my business, my family. And so, hurting, getting up, feeling beat up every day, but still having to give five, six hours of massage to other people -- and, you know, to get through all of that and to travel to the other side of the world and compete against women of such caliber, several of whom had world-class coaches, which I never had. I was kind of behind the eight ball a little bit. I had to play catch-up, because I had no one to coach me. I had to learn by trial-and-error, and, um, I made a lot of mistakes, but I learned.

MAH: Okay, then, what did it mean for you as a woman -- I mean to be called "world's strongest woman" and to have lifted, you know, everything that you have lifted?

JM: As a woman, it meant a lot, because I know I was pushing traditional boundaries and making young girls question their own abilities. I received thousands of emails from girls and women, telling me their personal stories. Many of these young ladies would never have believed that a female could lift the things I and the other strongwomen were lifting. They had been told their whole life that these things were not possible for women. After watching "World's Strongest Woman" on television, many of these ladies began to challenge themselves in new ways. It opened doors and minds. That will always be the greatest thing to come out of the competition for me.

MAH: Kind of like the way Bev Francis opened doors[the most massive and muscular of the earliest female powerlifters. Bev turned her attention to women's bodybuilding, but her extraordinary mass made her appear to be a freak in the sport. She would never win the coveted Ms. Olympia contest], in powerlifting and women's bodybuilding. Thank you. Okay, who are some of the pioneers of women's strength sports from whom you've drawn inspiration?

JM: Really the one who has always kind of inspired me has been Jan Todd [Professor of Kinesiology at the University of Texas and one of the greatest female strongwomen of all time. She is the first and still the only woman to have lifted the Dinnie stones, weighing together 780 pounds. She was the first woman to squat and deadlift over 400 pounds and later 500 pounds. Her best squat is 545 pounds and she did a partial deadlift of 1230 pounds. Because of her lifting successes and numerous national and world records, she was called by Sports Illustrated in 1977 the "strongest woman in the world." She is the wife of accomplished strength author and historian Terry Todd.], because I know her personally and I know her stories and, I know from my experiences in strongwoman that wall that's put up from men particularly, when a woman tries to enter their -- one of their sports. They don't like it. The -- they feel threatened on some level, when a woman comes in. And Jan kind of busted through some of those barriers, so that women today can compete in powerlifting and feel like they own part of the sport. I mean, just recently, at the Texas state high-school powerlifting championship there were 450 young ladies -- high-school-age young ladies competing. And that was just a state meet. And do, it's grown incredibly, by leaps and bounds, thanks to Jan Todd and women like her. I'm sure she -- she had to put up with her share of stuff, just as I did.

MAH: Did the early pioneers like Todd seem to you to be strong, yet feminine -- strong, yet beautiful?

JM: Of course! Jan's married and very much a woman! You know, we're not Barbies. Most of the women I know that are strength athletes are a bit tomboyish on some level, you know, but -- but we all still get our hair done, and take pride in the way we look, and dress like ladies -- um, but -- by classical standards, I guess, we are not feminine, we are not frail. and we are not dependent and -- and not physically in need of someone to do things for us. We are all somewhat independent and take pride in that. I guess it all depends on what one's definition of "feminine" is.

MAH: What sort of traditional, sexist conceptions of femininity have you had to overcome?

JM: Well, I mean I used to get people, you know, they would come up and ask me very inappropriate questions and -- and be so intrusive -- questions about drugs -- just showing that they had no understanding of what it had taken for me to get to where I was -- or what I did at all, for that matter. Um, a lot of men still to this day will say, "Oh, I wouldn't want to meet you in a dark alley" or, you know, just automatically assume because I'm a muscular woman that I'm aggressive or mean or have something to prove, when in reality, I still see myself as I did at 16 years old. I'm still the same person. The muscle that I've carried, the strength that I've earned has not changed that -- I don't think at all -- as far as my self-image. When I look in the mirror, I don't see a bad-ass that has to go around and kick everybody's butt. I don't have that chip on my shoulder. Maybe it's the confidence that to some degree I can take care of myself -- that I don't have to prove it. I don't worry so much about the negativity of other people, because I understand that it's an ignorance issue. They don't know. They will never know. They're standing at the bottom of a mountain, looking up at the top. They have no idea of the path that it's taken for me to get to the top. They assume that it's taken some work, but they don't know how grueling that path has been. They will never experience it. So, it's just -- I just shrug it off as ignorance.

MAH: Ah, you shrug it off! Cute, cute! Only a strongwoman would choose those words. Hmmm. Can a woman be big and beautiful?

JM: Yes! Absolutely!

MAH: Absolutely? That's it?

JM: Absolutely! That's it! [Laugh]

MAH: Okay, then -- absolutely. A related question. To what extent do you think that beauty is even important to femininity?

JM: You know, it's a matter of what your definition of "beauty" is. To some degree, beauty is about the way a woman carries herself. I've seen way-overweight women, who carry themselves with a great deal of confidence, and they still have more attractiveness then some thin women -- slumped over, scraggly. You know, it's just all over -- I mean you can sense, when someone has pride in herself. To me, um, someone who spends $180 to get her hair done and her nails done -- that -- that's not beauty to me. That's fake. That's superficial. Beauty comes -- it's so much more beautiful -- when it comes from the inside. Femininity, I feel like, is --just being a woman -- just being able to -- to love the way a woman loves and a man doesn't -- and to be a caring person and to walk with pride and confidence, but not cockiness, and to shine -- to have that spirit that shines through and not to walk around with a big chip on your shoulder, like you've got something to prove. That -- that to me is masculinity -- at least, the way some people define "masculinity." Not to say that all men are that way, but testosterone tends to make a man walk with a little more swagger than -- than a woman. What we are on the outside is a reflection of what we are on the inside. A woman has to have internal strength to push boundaries that break the mold.

MAH: So, beauty is something internal -- a sort of internal, quiet confidence that a man or a woman can have -- and femininity -- that's the sort of confidence a woman has -- the way a woman carries herself.

JM: Yah. That's right. Does she feel feminine? If so, regardless of her size or strength she will also carry herself in a feminine manner. I like to say that muscles only enhance what a woman is already feeling.

MAH: Why do some people have such a difficult time accepting women as strength athletes?

JM: I believe that's because "strength" in most people's minds is linked with masculinity and there is a certain threat to a man's masculinity, when a woman "intrudes" in a sport that's a man's. I'm sure, at one time, golf was considered a man's sport even though in my opinion it is far from a physical challenge. I have 75 year old clients who play it numerous times a week still. There are so many sports today, where women are somewhat more accepted -- boxing, for instance. And how about Danika Patrick, the beautiful and successful race car driver. She would be a fun one to interview. The men used to laugh her off as no threat. When she started kicking their butts they wanted to complain that she was only winning because she has a weight advantage. But strength sports, for some reason, it's really hard for women to be -- to feel welcome -- powerlifting, not so much anymore. Like I said, it's become much more common and accepted. But the higher a girl gets in a sport, the stronger she gets, the closer her numbers get to a man's numbers, the more of a problem men have with her being in the sport.

More comments are made and she will be received negatively. Oftentimes, there's a certain cloud that's kind of around that person. I know my friend Becca [Swanson] had a lot of issues with that and I know I used to see derogatory stuff about myself on the internet, but insecurity in people that makes them feel like they have to put somebody down or run them off, because they don't feel they can be -- they can never have a woman be as strong or as good as them. It doesn't matter if the woman is the best in the world. To them, there should never be a woman as strong as them. I've actually heard men say that, so there'll probably always be a problem to a degree.

MAH: Okay, what sort of obstacles have women had to overcome in the early history of strength sports?

JM: I'm sure it's been the same throughout history -- probably even more so, when cultures were a lot more uptight about roles and -- and women had clearly defined roles, being submissive and soft emotionally and physically. I'm sure, back at the turn of the century, the thought of a woman lifting weights -- sweating, for that matter -- would have been repulsive to males. So I'm sure that it's only gotten better and better and better, but I know that there are always a lot of obstacles -- a lot of negativity with a woman in sports.

MAH: What kind of negativity have you encountered in your own path to being the world's strongest woman -- excuse me, a great strength athlete?

JM: Usually, it's very superficial things, like just dealing with rudeness, ignorance. Um, many issues, because there is no mainstream use for a female strength athlete. For example, I never could get a sponsor -- even when I was the best in the world, you know. That was always a problem. Nobody knew what to do with me. They always wanted me to volunteer my time, but nobody wanted to back me -- to pay me. How many women can say they are world champions two sports and still can't get a sponsor. Kind of telling, I think.

MAH: Hypocrisy?

JM: Yah, hypocrisy. To this day, and probably for years to come, there are always going to be obstacles for females in strength sports -- or women in sports, period -- unless they can somehow classify them as sex symbols, like certain tennis players. You know, you always see shots of them on the internet in bikinis and in men's magazines. If they can somehow sell their image in a men's magazine, then they're going to make money. If they can't, then there's -- there's never going to be a mainstream acceptance.

MAH: But I've seen pictures of you too -- you and Becca Swanson -- in bikinis and posing on gym equipment. How is that different? Are you, if I may ask, being hypocritical or are you trying to say something different?

JM: I celebrate all areas of being a woman. I don't think I have to hide my body to set an example. I do, however, make sure all of my pictures are tasteful. Not for anyone else's benefit, but because I have a young daughter and I am always concerned about setting an example for her. I am not suggesting there is a problem with women having pictures in bikinis. My problem is that, it seems to be the only use the media has for them. If they can sell them as sex symbols, then they can make money. They can't just make money because they happen to be great athletes like men can.

NAH: Are strength competitions headed in the right direction or are they becoming more sexist?

JM: The guy who is in charge of World's Strongest Woman, I know that if he could have his way, he would have only invited playboy bunnies. In fact, he made it all very clear that he wanted us all wearing makeup and he wanted our hair done, before competition, because he felt it was all very important to mage. You know, we all laughed about it and kind of tried to go along with it, because we do understand. As messed up as the world it's the way it is, and to get money into a sport, you don't want to repel people. So, I always tried to look good, to be lean, and to -- to look fit. It was for me too, you know, but you have to play the game to a certain extent. But he would have had a bunch of Barbie dolls out there, lifting with their butts hanging out. [Laugh] He couldn't find any that were legitimately strong obviously. And then later he wanted to go for this -- this freak factor. He wanted to get the freakiest, biggest girls in there, because he just didn't get it.

MAH: But isn't he out, first, to make money through entertainment and, second, to test for women's strength?

JM: You have to do it for the passion of it and you have to invite the best female athletes in the world. He really didn't know what direction to take it in. I'm speaking of Doug Edmonds, by the way; he's the one who helped to oversee the World's Strongest Woman. And so it just kind of went extinct basically. He just cut his own throat. I'll never forget what he said to me after I'd just won my second World's Strongest Woman contest. He'd asked me for some names of women for the next year, but when I told him that they really needed to invite Becca Swanson, he said to me that he'd never invite her because she looked -- his words -- "too much like Bill Kazmaier's sister." That's when I decided that I'd never be in that contest again. With other strength sports like powerlifting, because there is no money in it, it's more of a pure sport. I believe that powerlifting is heading in the right direction as a pure strength sport. Yet all the gear [belts, knee wraps, denim bench shirts, and squatting suits that can add many hundreds of pounds to totals and have challenged the integrity of the sport] has made it a bit of a joke -- especially for people that are in the audience watching. These mummies, all wrapped up in supportive gear, come out and get under the bar. I believe that they need to chill out on all of that. But as far as the openness to women in powerlifting -- yes, I believe it's much more inviting than the strongman sport ever was.

MAH: What sorts of reforms would you like to see in bodybuilding, powerlifting, Olympic lifting, or strongwoman competition?

JM: I go back again to what I was saying about all the equipment in powerlifting --

MAH: The bench shirts, squat suits, and other items?

JM: Yah. I believe that technology is a wonderful thing, but when people are squatting 300 pounds more with their equipment than they could raw, it's no longer equipment worn for safety. Where are they going to draw the line? Are they going to have hydraulic lifts in the suits? You know, they have to stop. It's a total turn-off to people. 

MAH: And bodybuilding?

JM: Bodybuilding -- that's a hard one too. The women in the sport know -- a lot of them cross the lines by most people's standards. They become insanely lean, vascular, and freakishly muscular. But it's supposed to be about muscularity and all that. So, where do you find the balance? It's not for me to decide. They've been changing the rules every year since the the invention of the sport.

MAH: Olympic lifting or strongwoman?

JM: Olympic lifting is what it is. It's a pretty pure sport. It's very exclusive, though. There's a bit of arrogance and elitist mentality involved in that sport. It's not a very welcoming sport, I should say, for new people. At least one powerlifting federation is that way, though.

MAH: And there are many of them.

JM: There are many of them -- right. They make it difficult for their lifters. It should be a lifter-friendly sport, where there are no politics and they're not on a witch hunt to catch everybody on drugs. You know, I understand that there has to be some control over that. Some of them get too carried away.

MAH: You've read Lavin's article on performance drugs in sports [Strong Medicine: Drugs and Sports Redux]. He's for them -- at least, because he can give no good argument against them. Are you for them?

JM: I am not "for" or "against" them. The fact is they exist and to think they can be eradicated from sport is the biggest farce on the planet. The U.S. Olympic committee spends its money on testing Olympic athletes. Other countries spend their money on staying ahead of the drug testing and designing new and better undetectable drugs. It will always be around. It is a personal, moral decision to take them or not -- how much and when to draw the line.    

MAH: You know, there's no big stink in some powerlifting federations or in the strongman sport about the use of performance drugs in strength sports for males. Why do you think people are so against women using performance drugs in sports?

JM: I think the people competing in those federations who are using don't have a beef with women taking them. It is everyone else who does. Powerlifters are typically more open about discussing their cycles. In strongman or strongwoman, no one openly talks about drugs. It is taboo in most sports to openly discuss steroids.

MAH: The final question. What sorts of things would you like to see strongwomen doing in the future?

JM: I would love to see women continue to break new barriers. You know, like Rebecca. She didn't stop after breaking the record by a few pounds. For most women, that's the highest bar they could have imagined reaching and, when they overcome that bar, there's a certain fear that kicks in of the unknown. Becca he kind of person that never accepted or never understood that there was a barrier. The sky is the limit. And that's so rare. Most women will never have that kind of mindset an overcome their own fear, because it's so scary! It's scary to put weight on your back that no woman has ever lifted before! You know, nobody wants get hurt. So, I would love to see more women come out and just keep pushing it -- keep pushing it, because there's so much more that can be done. There's so much more technology, so much more of an understanding of technique. I just want to see it keep growing. I want to see people open their minds and not see lifters as women or men, but see them as athletes. I actually had a woman tell me the other day -- she's been practicing throwing for years -- and she was helping at a Highland Games competition and I asked her why she didn't compete with the guys -- because it was just a kind of lame, amateur competition -- and she said it was because she didn't want to be a spectacle. She didn't want to be out there and be the person people are looking at, because she is the only woman. I told her, "You know what, who cares that you're a woman. You're an athlete. You've trained as hard as the men, if not harder. Go out there and have some fun and don't worry about what anyone is thinking." She couldn't do that and I think that a lot of women are like that, too. I would love to see people stop viewing a sport as a man's sport of a woman's sport. It would be great, if every woman could pursue whatever she had a passion for -- just pursue it 100% and have fun.     







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