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Strong Women: Are You Fearful of Looking ‘like a man’?

July 25, 2015

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A friend recently forwarded a New York Times article titled Tennis’s Top Women Balance Body Image With Ambition. Here’s the excerpt that caught my attention:

(Serena) Williams, who will be vying for the Wimbledon title against Garbiñe Muguruza on Saturday, has large biceps and a mold-breaking muscular frame, which packs the power and athleticism that have dominated women’s tennis for years. Her rivals could try to emulate her physique, but most of them choose not to.

Despite Williams’s success — a victory Saturday would give her 21 Grand Slam singles titles and her fourth in a row — body-image issues among female tennis players persist, compelling many players to avoid bulking up.

“It’s our decision to keep her as the smallest player in the top 10,” said Tomasz Wiktorowski, the coach of Agnieszka Radwanska, who is listed at 5 feet 8 and 123 pounds. “Because, first of all she’s a woman, and she wants to be a woman.”

My immediate reaction was surprise for a number of reasons:

  1. The implication of the last statement is that there’s a specific amount of muscle mass a woman can have to remain a woman: cross the boundary and she becomes man-like.
  2. Why would professional women athletes intentionally risk millions of dollars in potential prize money and “top athlete celeb” endorsement opportunities because they’re worried about looking too muscular?
  3. Why would women athletes think at all about whether they look feminine enough or too masculine, when men counterparts probably don’t think at all about whether they look masculine enough or too female?

What seems clear is these successful women reflect what I’ve seen in the gym: women still wrestle with their opposing desires. They want to be strong and fit without looking too strong and fit. They often attemp to solve the problem by keeping their legs strong, while purposely decreasing their upper body work, because strong shoulders and arms are visible when wearing swimsuits, summer clothes and cocktail dresses.

What’s impressive is how long this struggle has persisted over time. When I was growing up in the ’70s, females often limited their strength potential for fear of “looking like a man.” A case in point, when I began teaching more fitness classes, causing an increase in muscle mass, my mom would make comments that I looked too “muscle-y.”

I didn’t pay too much attention, given I knew she was coming from a different era, and therefore, a different aesthetic regarding feminine beauty. That and my income depended on my strength, literally, while also acting as an unintentional marketing tool that increased my personal training business.

Lastly, my strength is often absolutely necessary for doing all kinds of fun things, whether long bike rides, windsurfing, backpacking or any other sport or activity that requires full body motion, strength and endurance. I would never trade my chance to have such thrills to fulfill a societal definition of feminine. I’m also lucky that on a personal level, I don’t feel unfeminine.

Photo of billboard seen in London Tube

Photo of billboard seen in London Tube

While researching a bit more, I found a Salon.com article, Why don’t women know what men find attractive?, which cites a study that seems to shed light on my women are so hard on themselves:

It started with a study in 1985, which had men and women use a set of figure drawings to indicate “their current figure, their ideal figure, the figure that they felt would be most attractive to the opposite sex, and the opposite sex figure to which they would be most attracted.” They found that “women thought men would like women thinner than men reported they like.” Similarly, men “thought women would like a heavier stature [in men] than females reported they like.” In other words, both sexes were wrong about what was attractive to the opposite sex — but this misperception only hurt women. That’s because men, unlike women, chose “current, ideal and most attractive” figures that were “almost identical.” The researchers wrote, ”Overall, men’s perceptions serve to keep them satisfied with their figures, whereas women’s perceptions place pressure on them to lose weight.”

I do see signs females in our society are growing more comfortable sporting more muscle. When I went to a CrossFit gym while on vacation in Hawaii recently, all of the women had visible muscle mass. And Michelle Obama has put her own muscular physique forth not only acceptable, but desirable.

But clearly I need to learn more about what women feel to reach for a certain look that fits how they want people to view them, as well as how they want to appear to themselves.

If you’ve got a few minutes, feel free to answer these questions:

  1. Why do you workout?
  2. What body look would you like to achieve?
  3. Do you think there’s a limit to how much muscle a woman can have before looking like a man?
  4. Do you think having too much muscle might make a woman less desirable to men, or invite criticism from fellow women?
  5. Do you think men care if women have visible muscle mass that’s more than most women possess?

Whatever your situation, gals, I hope you achieve your goals!

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