On any night in the Beaumont-Wilshire neighborhood, you might hear the sound of groans and clanging iron coming from behind a garage door.
That's Christina Malone squatting 455 pounds.
The wood-paneled Northeast Portland garage is filled with evening light. Malone's corgi-Lab mix, Koko, watches from a safe distance. Latin pop plays on the radio and Christmas lights twinkle around the weight rack.
Malone stares at the barbell in front of her: a thin round piece of metal holding six discs on either end, each nearly 2 feet in diameter. She ducks her head under the bar and then slowly stands up until the barbell lifts off the rack and the weight is resting completely on her shoulders.
She steps back. She does a low squat, sinking down until her thighs are parallel to the floor, before standing back up.
She is supporting a staggering amount of weight—the equivalent of an adult lion or a full-sized piano—yet nothing on Malone's face gives that away. Her only reaction is a brief, focused exhale at the top of her squat. At the end of the set, she puts the weight down, steps back and shakes out her arms, completely at ease.
Then she breaks into a smile. "That felt good," she says.
Malone, 35, is not your average gym rat. She's a competitive powerlifter. She holds the state record for the heaviest squat by any Oregon woman in the history of USA Powerlifting, or USAPL for short. She set that record in 2019 with a 413.5-pound squat.
At the time, only 71 other women in the nation could squat over 400 pounds, according to USAPL, the most well-known powerlifting association in the United States.
For the past year, as the pandemic raged, Malone has been training in her garage. This week, she'll return to her training gym in Southeast Portland and start preparing to compete again in the fall. By the end of the year, she hopes to break her own state record with a 500-pound squat.
Yet she is returning to a society where many of her fellow Portlanders refuse to recognize her as an athlete.
Nearly once a week, someone tells her that the size of her body means she's unhealthy, unsightly and more likely to die from COVID.
Last month at the Concordia New Seasons, she recalls, Malone was putting her groceries on the belt to check out when the two women behind her made a noise of disgust. "One woman said, 'You really shouldn't buy that. My friend is a nurse, and she said really obese people like you are more likely to get COVID.'"
Malone's Instagram messages are full of comments like "You won't live to 60" or "Obesity kills."
This commentary isn't a new phenomenon. Her partner, Will Lay, recalls numerous stories of harassment, including a time when a man on the sidewalk bumped into Malone and called her a "fat, ugly cunt."
"She will be walking down the street and people will just yell things at her," her childhood friend Catherine Maurseth says.
"People feel my body is their property to comment on," Malone says, "that because I have fat on my body means that you can say what you want to me."
What is surprising to Malone, however, is how much COVID has amplified the harassment. Even though the "body positivity" movement has become mainstream, and the TV show Shrill presents Portland as a town where a woman can be plus-size and proud, the pandemic has highlighted how deeply embedded our fat bias is.
Health officials' linking of weight to COVID-19 deaths has given many people an excuse to view plus-sized people as unhealthy. Almost immediately after Gov. Kate Brown issued stay-at-home orders, memes started popping up about avoiding the #COVID15 or needing to "socially distance from the kitchen." Search traffic on "coronavirus obesity" spiked, and calls to the National Eating Disorder Association increased by 40%.
"You only need to take a quick look at public health messaging and social media advertising to see that COVID and quarantine have exacerbated weight stigma and fat phobia," says Paula Brochu, a professor of psychology at Nova Southeastern University in Fort Lauderdale, Fla. "This sets the stage for fat people to be blamed, shamed and held responsible for their own and others' health outcomes."
For Malone, 2020 has been yet another moment when her size—not her abilities, her health or her determination—becomes a reason to think less of her. "But," she says, "with an added angle of 'we're just looking out for your health.'"
This spring, all of Oregon is emerging from isolation and resuming old routines. For Malone, this return brings mixed emotions. She's seen this past year only strengthen old prejudices—biases that Malone has spent more than a decade proving wrong.
The first time Malone was bullied for her size, she was in kindergarten: A classmate took her lunch and told her it was because she was too big.
"It was constant," Malone says, describing being poked at, harassed in the locker room, and having students put thumbtacks on her chair while she was in the restroom.
"They were so cruel to her," says Maurseth, who met Malone in kindergarten and remained her closest friend throughout her years at Holy Trinity Catholic School in Beaverton.
At home, her parents were alarmed by doctors who told them Malone was certain to develop diabetes or die an early death if she didn't lose weight. "We were going from doctor to doctor, trying to figure out what's going on, and all the doctors were telling us this is incredibly dangerous," recalls her father, Alan Malone, a retired Winco executive. "They were blaming us, asking us what we were feeding her. We were frantic."
Malone and her parents spent most of her childhood and teenage years searching for an answer. Doctors put her on one restrictive diet after another. She was prescribed fen-phen (an anti-obesity treatment later banned for its lethal side effects). She was repeatedly recommended for bariatric surgery, and was even told by one doctor that "sleep-eating" was the only explanation for her weight. By the time she was in college at Oregon State University, Malone's diet was so restrictive she started to develop early signs of liver failure.
Malone has always been an ambitious athlete. She practiced dressage—competitive horseback riding—as a child, played volleyball throughout high school, and took up running while in college. Despite her obvious athleticism, Malone had to continually justify herself to coaches.
"I was the biggest girl on every team," she recalls. Halfway through high school, Malone gave up volleyball due to the stress she was feeling to impress her coaches, and then decided to stop horseback riding after spending years overhearing comments about being a "fat kid on a horse."
Malone met Lay, her partner, during college. They started building a life together. They rented a townhouse in Beaverton, and Malone got a job working as a certified veterinary technician for Banfield Pet Hospital. She soon shifted her focus to clinical informatics and took a job as an analyst working for Banfield's corporate office.
Malone has a passion for rescue dogs and adopted a boxer-pit bull mix. The couple spent summers camping by Mount Hood, taking trips to the coast and hiking in the Gorge.
Throughout her 20s, running was Malone's exercise of choice. "I fell deeper into the narrative of 'I'm a big person, but I can run 5 miles, 10 miles…so I'm OK,'" Malone says.
In 2016, Malone, 30 at the time, was running in the Alameda neighborhood when a couple of guys in a car started following her.
"They catcalled," she recalls, "and when I didn't listen, they started verbally assaulting my body and my size."
Malone kept running, block after block. When she stopped, she saw her shoes were red with blood. In that moment, Malone realized she wasn't running to make her body healthier. "I was running to punish my body for 'failing' me."
By the time she got home, she had decided to find a less-punishing form of fitness.
She reached out to Jessica Wilkins, a powerlifter and nutritionist who specializes in body positive training.
The first time Malone remembers lifting a significant amount was only a few months after first working with Wilkins in 2016. Malone was preparing to squat 245 pounds. "I was nervous, until the bar was on my back," Malone recalls. To both of their surprise, the squat felt effortless.
"She was just blowing our minds," Wilkins says. "I have coached a lot of people, and she's got something very special that very few people have."
Competitive powerlifting started in the 1950s as an offshoot of Olympic weightlifting. In the Olympics, competitors perform two overhead lifts: the clean and jerk, and the snatch. Powerlifters perform a squat, a bench press and a deadlift, focusing more on maximum weights, while Olympic lifts focus more on dynamic movement.
The most obvious connection between powerlifting and body acceptance is that larger-bodied athletes can lift more than their smaller-bodied counterparts. Ryan Stills, the Oregon chair for USAPL, explains that having a larger body can be a considerable advantage in strength sports. "Mass moves mass," Stills says.
Wilkins, who first trained Malone, says it's more than that: Strength sports in general are less focused on how athletes look. Wilkins started out in bikini bodybuilding, where she was judged on her muscle build, on how feminine she seemed, even her hair and jewelry. "With powerlifting, it's a completely different paradigm. The person who lifts the heaviest weights wins."
Ryan Carrillo, the spokesman for USAPL, says body acceptance is one of the reasons the association has grown so much in its women's divisions. "We have thousands of women who can echo [Malone's] sentiments." Carrillo says. In 2010, there were about 800 women competitors. Ten years later, there were nearly 8,000.
Malone, who is 5-feet-10 and weighs 388 pounds, competes in the 84-plus kg weight division, which is known as super-heavyweight.
In powerlifting, Malone has found a sport where she excels because of her body, not despite it. That surprises her. "Powerlifting should push all my buttons," she says. It involves weighing herself, wearing small tight clothes, and constant discussion of pounds and kilograms.
In November 2017, Malone made the decision to enter a powerlifting competition. "Placing didn't even matter to me," Malone says. "It was about showing up, kicking ass and doing what my body is meant to do."
Since then, Malone has competed at numerous other powerlifting meets, including the 2019 USAPL National Championships and the 2019 USAPL Oregon State Championship, where she set a new state record for heaviest squat, lifting 413.5 pounds (the previous record was 408 pounds). Malone remembers how the crowd went wild.
"I've never felt that much energy," Malone recalled. "It was incredible." After she broke the record, she looked in the crowd and saw that both of her parents were crying.
In the four years since she started lifting, Malone has found a type of body acceptance that she didn't think would ever be possible. Alan Malone points out that after a lifetime of being told there was something wrong with her body, his daughter has now found a sport where her body is considered an asset.
"Everything about her was built to lift weight," her father says. "The density of her muscles, the size of her bones. She was born to do this."
Malone has internalized this acceptance to the point she says she carries it with her everywhere she goes. She recounts training at a gym in Miami and hearing another lifter tell his buddies, "That fat bitch can't do that." The group kept shit-talking, until Malone squatted 395 pounds three times.
Then the men fell silent.
Building a competitive-level powerlifting gym in your garage is not a simple task, especially during a global pandemic when everyone else is also trying to build a home gym.
But Malone didn't have much choice.
In March 2020, she was training for the USAPL Oregon State Championship, where she was hoping to again qualify for the national championship later that year in Florida.
Then COVID-19 happened. The world shut down. The state championship was canceled. Soon after, gyms closed and Malone had to start training in her garage.
Malone and Lay put down rubber mats on the floors and purchased a squat rack and a barbell, along with a cable machine and kettlebells. They converted their spare bedroom into a conditioning room with an elliptical machine, yoga mats and foam rollers.
Where they struggled was finding heavy enough weights for Malone. "I could not get iron or steel plates to save my life," she says. Eventually, she found a steelworker and fellow powerlifter in Alabama who was cutting custom steel plates and shipping them around the country.
On nice days, Malone lifts with the garage door open. On rainy or cold days, she brings a space heater in and warms up in her bedroom slippers beforehand. Her neighbors have gotten used to hearing her train. "We had to explain what the loud clanging and banging was," Malone says. "They think it's great."
When you've lived your whole life in a body that gets commented on, one of the benefits of training at home is not having to worry about other people's reactions. Malone started to experiment with wearing outfits that were more comfortable and allowed more mobility.
"I didn't realize the extent to which my clothing was inhibiting me," she says. Being able to feel the bar on her back helped her stabilize the weight. "I started wearing a crop top, then a shorter crop top, then a tank top, then a sports bra."
Last September, she posted a video to Instagram of herself in shorts and a sports bra squatting 405 pounds. In the caption, she wrote: "Being a bigger body athlete, I've been taught to compromise my comfort, sometimes even my performance, to make it more comfortable to look at my body doing fitness. Guess what? I'm over it. Uncomfortable? You're free to look away."
The responses were positive, mostly fellow powerlifters congratulating her on a well-executed squat. Shortly after, Malone was contacted by an Instagram account that featured powerlifting videos. The account managers asked if they could repost the video and Malone agreed.
The hate-filled comments were immediate: "Covid risk factor," said one. Another said, "If you're ok with dying young, that's fine, but stop encouraging others to give up trying to lose weight."
It is always hard to be fat in America. This past year was especially so.
As COVID-19 spread around the world, researchers reported a link between body weight and the likelihood of a severe case of COVID. While the data is nuanced, the cultural narrative is not: Fat people are unhealthy.
"It is frustrating to see the chronic blame of weight as a COVID risk factor, without controlling for social disparities, weight discrimination and access to quality care," says Jamie Lee, a private-practice dietitian in Southwest Portland.
Professor Laurie Cooper Stoll of the University of Wisconsin-La Crosse says the data linking weight and COVID needs to be reviewed with caution. "Pervasive in research on fat bodies is the desire to draw causal links between variables, when, if links exist at all, they are most likely correlative."
For Malone, this past year has created a stark contrast. On the one hand, she's an accomplished, healthy competitor with a promising athletic career, according to her coaches, doctors and nutritionists. On the other hand, she's being told her body makes her much more likely to die of COVID.
"In our society, body size is so tied to morality," Malone says. "When someone with a big body gets COVID, there's this unsaid sentiment of 'It's still your fault because you were fat in the first place.'"
Malone's greatest fear about contracting the coronavirus is infecting her parents or being unable to help care for her 97-year-old grandfather. Her other concern: how she would be treated by the medical system.
"Are they going to focus only on my body size," she wonders, "or are they going to treat what's actually wrong with me?" After a lifetime of being ignored, questioned and mocked by doctors, Malone has little faith she would be given access to quality health care.
That's a rational fear, experts say. "Fat phobia has been documented in all major institutions, such as education and media, but it is particularly pervasive in healthcare," says Cooper Stoll, who points out there's ample evidence that fat people experience discrimination in medical settings.
That's part of why Malone is returning to her gym later than many of her lifting peers: "I wasn't willing to go when the risk was higher."
Like many of us, Malone is excited to get back to the gym. She's missed the camaraderie and getting to cheer her friends as they work on their own lifting goals.
But Malone is also anxious about the transition. After a year, she will be reentering a world with old prejudices and new excuses for them. And while her gym—Ironside in Southeast Portland—is known for being accepting of all shapes and sizes, Malone can't help but wonder if the dynamics might have changed.
"As a bigger-bodied person, I'm always justifying my right to be places," she says. "The gym and powerlifting has been a space where I've never had to do that."
Will that change? Malone has heard enough to know that some Oregonians will never believe she's healthy. She no longer cares.
"It isn't my problem if people can't exist in a world where I exist without trying to tear me down," she says. "At some point, I needed to stop justifying my body."
For Malone, the surge of fat phobia caused by COVID has shifted her focus. She's launching a podcast and has started coaching people struggling to feel comfortable in fitness.
While winning is still a huge motivator for Malone, she says she now wants to focus on being the person she needed to see when she was young. "If I saw this article as a 15-year-old after I got chased out of the gym," she says, "I would have printed it and put it on my wall and looked at it every day."
Emma Pattee writes about feminism and climate change for such news outlets as The New York Times, The Cut, The Washington Post, Wired and CNBC. She lives in Portland.