This interview means a lot to me because it came at a time when I felt some sort of way about who I was becoming—and since, who I have recommitted to continue becoming. I’m grateful for Barbara’s insight, her grace. I’m honored to write this article.
Thank you, Barbara, for the trust and thank you, Sisters of Iron, for hosting these stories.
Other than being a mom, Barbara Lee has powerlifted longer than anything else. Ten years of powerlifting is longer than any accounting job she’s worked. She has held in her hands the barbell longer than any romantic relationship. Powerlifting has pulled her from eating disorders and alcoholism. Powerlifting has given her the confidence to grow within and shine without. A self-proclaimed extremist, Barbara Lee has a 608.89 DOTS score; she is ranked the 35th strongest powerlifter of all time, the 23rd strongest woman of all time, the 16th strongest in the 148-pound open category, and she is ranked #2 of all time in the masters 148 pound and 165-pound classes.
“I don’t obsess over rankings,” Barbara said. “I just try to do better each time.” Focusing on where she places is not Barbara’s top priority. “I know I’m never gonna be number one. I’m okay with that. I know what I’m willing to do to my body and put into my body. I’m just not willing to sacrifice my health or my femininity or whatever just to go balls to the wall for this meet to hit this number. I’m not willing to do whatever it takes.” When women compete at the highest levels, many have to ramp up performance enhancement to edge out other competitors, increasing the risk of virilization.
After one of Barbara’s recent meets, she saw that she was only a few pounds away from the masters 148-pound ATWR. She programmed her prep numbers at percentages she’d need to hit in order to hit that goal weight. Disappointingly, at the USPA Pro Raw Championships, she overshot her squat and then didn’t pull what she could have in order to get that ATWR. And being 40 years old, she wonders if she has passed that chance. “It still haunts me.”
I don’t doubt that she will come for it again and clear that total.
I saw her pull that fourth attempt National Record deadlift at 523 pounds at Battle of the Bay 2021. She walked out to the bar calm, huffed out air, and then bent down and grabbed the bar. I didn’t know what went through her mind that day; the energy in the room was wild. She told me that she amps herself up before a pull by telling herself, “Just pick it up and don’t stop until it’s done. I tell myself not to be a little bitch.” This mental game she plays hypes herself up for lifting more than most people ever could. But Barbara wasn’t always so outwardly bold. Barbara Lee ten years ago was very different than the Barbara Lee riling up the people in the stands with her power and presence.
“I didn’t want to be seen.”
Like many women, Barbara Lee started lifting because she wanted to lose weight. She had a child at 18, married at 21, and spent a lot of time partying. She hired a coach to help her.
“I like to drink on weekends, and you’re going to help me lose weight,” Barbara told her coach. When her coach told her to give up alcohol for a month, Barbara didn’t want to. As a matter of fact, she used to party all weekend, eat whatever she wanted, and then would spend Sundays purging and running to get back down to check-in weight. The way she was living was not sustainable. Barbara eventually agreed to take off the month from drinking, but she still counted down the days till she was going to be able to drink again with her friends.
After her month off from drinking, she wasn’t as tired. Her training went better. She recovered better. She still hung out, but told her friends that she didn’t want to drink. But drinking had been fun to her, and her friends all thought she was a lot of fun to be around when she drank, so they put a lot of pressure on her.
She gave in one night and got completely wasted. She threw up, cried. She told her coach the next day that she was just not strong enough to be out with others while they were drinking. Her coach said that she could reach out to her when she was tempted to go off plan, and her coach would act kind of like a sponsor in AA.
“My friends said, ‘You’re different. You’ve changed. You’re not fun anymore,’’ Barbara said. “If they weren’t trying to support me when I was trying to live my life better, and healthier, and they liked that old version of me, the insecure, self-hating me, the anorexic and bulimic … here is a more confident person who is trying to take care of myself and I’m not fun? Okay that’s fine. I guess it’s time to find new friends.” Eventually her relationships with the people closest to her changed. She left those toxic people and concentrated on building herself up.
But here’s the thing, when Barbara began to lift in earnest, she was shy about physically exerting herself in front of other people. The thing that was starting to make her feel good, powerful, required more of her, and she wasn’t ready. “Once, I went to a gym and there were guys talking about me and I just packed up my stuff and left. I called my coach and said I didn’t want to be seen.” Barbara said she’d wear baggy clothes, a big hoodie. She doesn’t want anyone watching her. If she ever wore tights, she made sure to wear black as to hide parts of her body that she was insecure about. And she’d fail lifts if she was visually straining.
She told her coach that she didn’t want to lift in front of a bunch of people. “My coach said, ‘What do you think is gonna happen at meets?’ and I stayed silent.” She ended up bombing out that first meet. “Confidence took me years. I didn’t want to grunt. I didn’t want to make a face. I didn’t want to be seen, especially in a singlet. So I’m gonna try to go hard until it’s obvious I’m straining and then I’m quitting. I didn’t want to strain.”
But her coaches helped her build up her mental game. One of Barbara’s coaches used to chin check her if she was walking around the gym head down, shoulders slumped. Another coach told Barbara, at a meet when she was going for records, “You’re going to miss that state record because you don’t want to be seen? You’re going to let that other lifter keep her record? She’s going to be happy you’re nervous,” and hearing that made Barbara reset. She started to see how concentrating on how others viewed her was impacting her ability to thrive. She shifted focus from external to internal.
Still, this growth took time. She began to get stronger and stronger—but even as strength developed and her body began to exhibit its power, she heard noise about her appearance. Some guys on social media have commented about Barbara’s muscular body appearing “manly.”
“I finally got excited about doing a TikTok where I share my feminine side and my beast side,” Barbara said, “and people had to make comments.” It’s to the point now that if she’s going to interview or just be out, she covers her arms as to not have comments made about her body. “I wear the clothes that make me comfortable in my body. I have sizes 8-14 depending on what weight class I’m training in.” No matter the direction she grows there is always someone who has something to say that could deter her—but she keeps at it.
All of this body image turmoil is crazy to hear if you’ve ever seen Barbara Lee in person or online. She is immensely beautiful. Both in physicality and her presence. She gets done up for meets—hair is on point, makeup glitters. Actually, that’s where she got her IG name Barbell Barbie.
She plays around in the extremes. She is not kind of strong—she is one of the strongest in the world. She does not just spruce herself up—she collects different pallets of makeup and plays with design. She uses it as a creative outlet. She said, “If I have some extra money, I’m going to spend it on a new pallet,” laughing. She explained that she is responsible with her money but doesn’t save all of it for retirement. Her mother died young due to alcoholism and her grandmother died in her 60s from health reasons, so Barbara intends to live her life how she wants to, now.
Though powerlifting had built up her confidence so much that she gave up bulimia and toxic relationships, she gave up alcohol during preps, body image associated with beauty was still a struggle for Barbara. When asked if she would consider doing a bodybuilding show, she said she would never say never, but she does not see that as something she can even conceive of currently.
“When I go to the pool, I don’t even like to be seen in a bathing suit. If not for a specifically posed picture, I wrap myself up when walking around and shimmy out to get into the water.” She also said she would need a major support system for bodybuilding. The diet alone would be so intense. And in line with her extremism, she said, “I would need to go all in if I did it.” But she doesn’t know that she would be able to show herself off in a bikini. Body image and bodybuilding are caught up in each other.
“I used to not go out of the house without makeup on.” She had always worn makeup to cover up her acne. She would apply concealer under her eyes because people always told her how tired she looked, so she’d apply makeup to mask this.
“My son said, ‘Mom, why don’t you start a YouTube channel showing women how to do makeup?’” There were so many channels out there doing this exact thing, she said, but her son said, “Yeah, but you’re a black woman and a powerlifter who looks flawless the whole day of competing. Maybe you’d reach a different audience?”
Barbara couldn’t imagine getting on the camera without being done up. Eventually, when COVID hit, she had some extra time at home to try it out. “It ended up being so freeing.” Now she records frequently and has expanded her beauty channel to include styling wigs too. She named her channel Beauty in Strength because, she said, “There is beauty in being strong, but then there is also a feeling of strength from feeling beautiful.”
“Holy shit, look what I can do.”
Barbara first used makeup as a means to cover herself up and ended up becoming a method to connect with other people where she teaches them how to go from “busted to banging.” People reach out to her on there and ask her about her training too. What began as insecurity has become inspiration.
Barbara inspires so many people. As a coach she aims to be proficient technically and mentally. And she trains alongside some of her athletes. Barbara has even had her athletes handle her at meets. She knows that she has taught them well. She explains that they get nervous about it, but she reminds them that they know what to do. “I tell them if I want to add 30 pounds to my next attempt and my lift moved slow, I need you to tell me it’s stupid. I let them know that I need them to be a second set of eyes, that we’re not friends when I’m competing.” Some of her athletes even mimic some of her idiosyncrasies. For example, when Barbara is nervous she feels like she can’t get enough air, so she huffs out air before hitting the platform. Some of her athletes do this too. “This makes me happy to see.”
Though Barbara has so much to be proud of through her own powerlifting, she derives most of her pride in inspiring others. "I get more by hearing from people who have reached out to me to tell me that I’ve inspired them because of my journey than I get from what I’ve accomplished. I could be on this journey by myself. How big is powerlifting in the grand scheme of things? I mean, I could do these things by myself, setting goals, hitting numbers … but the whole reason I got into this was to be more mentally and emotionally healthy. I wanted to lose weight, but once I lost the weight I didn’t need to powerlift. But I got satisfaction and confidence from seeing, holy shit, look what I can do.” Now she is moved when people are empowered through her experience.
For her to grow from being the woman in the gym who was afraid to grunt to being loud as hell in warmups alone—one would never know that Barbara has struggled with body image, presence, taking up space. She is still figuring all of this out. She explains, “I’m an extremist. I’m either nothing or I’m at 100.” She has isolated herself off from others a lot this last year focusing on training. After she was injured and needed surgery, she had considered giving up powerlifting. When she returned after surgery, the ATWR numbers had jumped over 200 lbs. But instead of focusing only on family and her job and others as she always had, she buckled into her training and gave it her all this last year. Had she stopped powerlifting, she wouldn’t have ended up doing the three best meets to date yet.
She trained closely with others last year too. Though she programs her numbers, she relies on her coaches because she tends to undershoot her ability. When training for the American Pro, she had wanted to hit a 500-pound squat, and had programmed her training for her to only hit 500. Even as she progressed into the heavier training days, the weights were moving very well. One day, while training with her coach, she didn’t know what weight he had put on the bar for her to squat. She unracked the barbell and squatted. It was heavy, but manageable, then her coach said, “Do it again,” so she squatted for two, and reracked the bar. He told her it was 500 pounds. “I cried that day.” She ended up squatting 529 pounds at the meet, one of the strongest squats in her weight class in the world.
Barbara has all of these contradictions about her that make her fascinating. She’s got youngblood strength. Her beauty is inextricably tied to that strength. She continues to push against that which might reduce her—what might make her feel smaller. She wears the dresses now. She shows off the arms. She sits in the saunas for weight cuts, hair plastered to her face, mascara smeared down her face. She goes out without makeup on. And she went from being the quietest, shyest in the room to someone whose presence does not need words to be heard, someone who does not seem to hear the rumble of those who feel her power as she approaches the platform. Barbara Lee is exquisitely strong, her power undeniable. Her greatness unminimizable. She grunts, she pulls, and doesn’t stop pulling till it’s finished.
On the horizon: Barbara will be competing at Battle of the Bay in February and The American Pro in October. She is finalizing the details of the All-Women's Meet that she will host in 2023.