I agree that women who are committed to lifting are generally happier with their bodies, have better bodies and have more self confidence than those who don’t. But they also have more muscle and markedly different bodies than your average figure-conscious female who’s mainly trying to be skinny. My conflict arises because no matter how we try to re-frame it, women who lift are operating outside the norms of traditional female beauty, and that can pose real problems for women. When these messages are trotted out, I have to ask what a simple question:
Ladies, what is our problem with “bulk”?
While it’s true that these pro-lifting messages are helping women to take on the challenge in a historically male dominated sport, I can’t help but wonder if it remains a bit of a tricky issue. We are told, “Strong is sexy”, “Hench is hot” and these claims are backed up with these articles fleshed out with photos of women confidently sporting athletic builds.
When women are reassured that they can lift, Crossfit and be an athlete without getting bulky, we might be missing the point. To fully break free of the fears of bulk, we have to understand some of the cultural meanings of women’s bodies and how our involvement with lifting places us in a contentious social position.
Why Slim is Good, Bulk is Bad for Women
To be honest, if you are committed to lifting and getting stronger, man or woman, your body will change.
While we try valiantly to persuade women that their new strength won’t make them into vein-popping, testosterone filled she-hulks, bodies will change in ways that are incompatible with traditional social standards for women’s bodies. Despite genuine efforts and beliefs in gender equality, the social pressure to be feminine remains a significant dilemma for women.
To be clear, sex and gender are different.
- Sex refers to biology – whether someone is a man or a woman.
- Gender is a concept, a socially constructed set of behaviours applied to men to women, where femininity is the set of practices defined as acceptable for women.
More than that, it can be argued that femininity is oppressive, comprised of cultural meanings that reinforce a disempowered social position[i]. While the standards of femininity might shift throughout history, women who break the rules of femininity – particularly in sport – are seen as “not real women” and suffer social sanctions, being marginalised or stigmatised in various ways.
While the same holds true for the rules that govern masculinity, the crucial difference is that masculine standards include characteristics that allow for more socially ascribed power[ii].
It is crucial to grasp that one of the key ways gender has been expressed is through presentation of the body.
Historically, slender female frames were the most socially acceptable, and some theorists link this to underlying meanings of slenderness. It communicates powerlessness, passivity and a denial of needs, all of which are characteristics of femininity[iii]. From the 1980’s, “working out” became a legitimate pursuit. Women felt empowered to exercise and “tone up”, breaking the former moulds of femininity by sweating, actually using their bodies and trying to be lean. However, closer examination reveals that the standards had just shifted, but the underlying oppressiveness remained in that women were still left trying to attain specific, often unrealistic body shapes for the primary purpose of being a more attractive, and thereby a socially acceptable, better, woman[iv][v].
Women who lift are drawn towards an activity that is historically masculine and they actively aim to develop qualities that defy the cultural norms of femininity. They strive for muscle, they use aggression and are competitive. Their confidence and their focus on self care and development are in opposition to the personality characteristics of society’s typical woman, whose culturally defined roles are that of carer for others, emotionally/physically delicate ans sexual object.
While I appreciate that harping on in such a feminist way is bound to alienate some readers, this is a feminist issue. To lift is a feminist act. It’s an activity that women would not have had the privilege to do without the pioneering efforts of brave women who wanted to lift with the boys, even if they did not see themselves as feminists. Feminism is just that – the belief in equality and the the bravery to put that belief into action. It’s also useful to recognise that pigeon-holing people in the way that rigid gender roles do, is bad for everyone – man and woman.
So while I applaud the messages about how “strong is sexy” and telling women that lifting is good, the focus is all wrong. When we grab onto that bar, being sexy is the farthest thing from our minds. And it should be!
I welcome the day when we don’t have to encourage women to lift by telling them they will be sexy, but by reminding them that being sexy isn’t their highest calling. That we can have a bit of bulk and that’s ok, because our bodies reflect our lives and are not just things to be admired, gazed at and rated as sexy or not. The fact that women feel compelled to ensure that they are first and foremost sexy, before they are healthy, strong, functionally fit is a tragedy. True, not every man will find your lifter’s traps sexy.
But, I would bet those same men wouldn’t find your confidence, determination and spirit sexy either, and so they are hardly much of a catch for a lifter like you.
[i] Boslopper T and Hayes, M (1973). The Femininity Game. Stein Day Publishers: New York.
[ii] Kane, M. (1995). Resistance/transformation of the oppositional binary: exposing sport as a continuum. Journal Sport and Social Issues. May 1995, 191-218.
[iii] Castlenuovo, S and Guthrie, S. (1998). Feminism and the Female Body: Liberating the Amazon within. Boulder, Co: Lynne Rienner Publishers.
[iv] Bordo, S. (1993). Unbearable weight: Feminism, Western culture and the body. University of California Press: Berkley.
[v] Markula, P. (1995). Firm but Shapely, fit but sexy, strong but thin: The postmodern aerobicizing female body. Sociology of Sport Journal, 12, 424-453.