Friday, April 9, 2010

Changing the perception of women and muscle

Oh, do I wish that wasn't just a wax likeness of Serena Williams that I was standing next to at Madame Tussauds in New York City! I think that she is an awesome athlete... and a very sexy woman. That drives my wife nuts. She's fond of telling me that Serena looks like a man. Some guys say the same thing (well, I'm cleaning it up A LOT!). Still, it's all stemming from the same criticism that even she's says about herself: Serena's too muscular. Women don't have that kind of muscular bulk or that much definition. It's not feminine.

I've seen some good conversations online about how to make strength training popular with the fairer sex. There were some excellent reasons for women to partake in it and perfectly good ideas to get the masses to try the gym's forbidden fruits. Still, I think that the reason for women to shy away from some legitimate means of strength training will ultimately come down to aesthetics. If the look of strength on a woman isn't accepted and celebrated in our culture, then it's just not happening.

When it comes to the desire to manipulate the body for the goals of looking good in a given culture and society, women have pretty consistently shown that they'll do some surprising, bizarre, and gruesome things to achieve that end. Women in Africa practice "female circumcision (Was I the only one who got sick when they told us about that in school?)". Women in the USA cut their breasts open and put silicon implants in to make them bigger. Some Thai women wear large, heavy rings around their necks that crush their ribs and clavicles downward to make their necks look longer. Victorian women were great at crushing their internal organs with corsets. Chinese women used to have their feet bound to look like lotus flowers, rendering walking impossible. How's that for going the extra mile for the sake of beauty?

Isn't this starting to read like a torture session?

Yet, somehow, for some reason, showing even a slight amount of muscular bulk, or a bulging vein somewhere on the forearm, is just indescribably ugly. Mannish. That's always been an odd one to me because there are, when you think about it, a lot of bodily things that men and women alike do. They both grow their hair long. Both pierce common body parts. They even wear similar clothing or just outright cross-dress. Yet, any indication of the presence of muscle, except for the abdominals and the legs, on any part of the body crosses a gender line that nobody can tolerate.

As far as I'm concerned, that's a shame because it's actually HEALTHY! Why does something that's good for women have to be socially unacceptable? Ancient Sparta got that one right at least. Strong women were highly prized for their good looks and it was seen as a sign that they could bear strong children. While other Greeks thought that their short haircuts were kind of manly-looking, they thought that the Spartan women had hot bods. Unfortunately, that seems to be a long, long time ago. It would be a nice change of pace if healthy and strong-looking was at least as popular as being waifish.

Let's also clear up some misconceptions while we're at it about muscle. Doing real strength training alone doesn't make anyone, male or female, bulky. You have to do that with diet. If you're not taking in extra large levels of calories (mostly good, clean protein and fat) in your diet, you're not going to build muscle. Take a look at the picture of Jamie Eason on the left. Believe it or not, she's only about 5'2" and around 110 lbs in that picture. She lifts heavy. That's her on the right in regular clothes. Does she look like a man because she has real muscle?

The ripped appearance is also a result of diet. Most people won't start getting that heavily-ripped appearance until they start dropping bodyfat percentage (BFP) down to, or below, 10%. Women tend to run a higher BFP so it's possible to be at a healthy bodyweight, a healthy BFP, and not show the heavily-ripped appearance that many competitors like Jamie Eason has. Even she doesn't look that all the time either. Photoshop and touch-up work, people!

So, I have to ask the question: what's it going to take to make being a strong-looking woman more popular and accepted? I've answered this question before on another forum but I think that it bears repeating: the right woman to make it okay. Believe it or not, males weightlifting was, at one point in Western Culture, was frowned upon too. The appearance of physical strength on a man was a sign that he was a dirt-poor laborer.
So, depending on the times, middle and upper class men strove to be either skinny or fat as a means of distancing themselves from the poor. That started to change when Eugen Sandow managed to bring the right package of muscularity and refinement that the masses (especially the women) could appreciate, and making men want to emulate his famous build.

So, where's the famous woman who I'm talking about who will change the perception of female muscle? Honestly, your guess is as good as mine. I like Serena but I can easily see where some think that she's too big since she's only about 15 lbs smaller than I am. She's definitely very big for a woman. I think that someone who has a slight frame while still being muscular might do the trick. I like Jamie Eason (in case you haven't figured it out yet) because I think that few can argue that she pulls off being very feminine while being muscular too. We'll have to wait and see. I guess those of us who support strong women will just have to hope. and wait. Either way, I'm very supportive of women doing some real strength training. Strength, as far as I'm concerned, isn't gender specific. Top it off, I think that it looks good!


Vic said...

Great post. I agree 100 %.

Laura said...

Nice post, I wish it was more acceptable for women to have muscles. Don't suppose it will be until the media stop portraying super skinny as the ideal though..

Austin Powers said...

"That's a man, baby!"

Peter Caisse said...

The problem is women see female bodybuilders and are afraid of looking like that if they lift a lot of weight. What they don't realize is that female bodybuilders take lots of steroids to get that way...

Paul said...

I agree wholeheartedly! When I was a boy in 1984 I loved the way Sarah Connor looked in the original Terminator movie. She motivated me to work out when I saw her doing pullups in her prison. Strong women have always inspired me and I find them very beautiful.