I read some articles written by men in the fitness industry explaining the phenomenon of women being accused of looking too muscular or worrying that they might look too muscular. It was adorable, like watching children develop superstitious causality theories based on incomplete evidence. Women, these men posit, develop neuroses about their bodies because they look at women’s magazines which feature really skinny women, so it’s actually women who cause women to be crazy about how they look, when men, they cheerfully, paternalisticly explain, actually prefer women who have a bit of meat on them! (They then illustrate with examples of unrealistically skinny women to show what women who are not unrealistically skinny look like. I actually laughed out loud.)
Embedded in these discussion is the assumption that fitness is something that women do to look good to men. Embedded in these discussion is that fitness is ultimately about vanity. Embedded in these discussion is the assumption that women’s bodies are public property and deserve to be judged.
Fitness trainers have stumbled into a tiny corner of the patriarchy, the one where women are judged for being too muscular. They misattribute the discomfort women feel in their own skin to women’s mistaken notions about what men find attractive. They pull out examples of muscular looking female celebrities getting shit for looking too muscular. It’s true, women do get shit for looking strong and muscular!
Women also get shit for looking too skinny, too fat, too flat chested, to plain faced, to made up, too busty, too slutty, too uptight, too masculine, too femme, too pregnant, too unhappy, too out in public and being female. If you are a woman, whatever you are doing with your body, you’re wrong. You will be constantly judged by arbitrary, ever-shifting criteria. The whole point of the schema is not to get women to look a certain way. The point is to remind women that our bodies are not our own.
One of the beautiful things about fitness, and I find, particularly about strength training, is that it can shift your perception of your own body. Instead of thinking of the body as an object to be looked at, we can, if only for the brief joyful period of our workout, think of it as an instrument of action. It’s not enough, it’s not the revolution that we need, but at least it’s an act of rebellion.
A female body that falls outside of the ever-shifting norms of beauty is a rebel body. When a woman chooses deliberately to become muscular she chooses an act of rebellion. If I were a personal trainer I wouldn’t try to re-assure women that they won’t get too big, or that they can stop if they get too big, or that men will actually find them more attractive this way.
I would say instead, woman, whatever you do is wrong, you know that. The game is rigged against you. Skinny or fat or muscular or not, you’ll get shit for it. Why not therefore, rebel? At least you’ll have the satisfaction of physical strength.