When people think about muscle in abundance, it is often seen as this manifestation of aggression: It’s threatening, it’s used for protection and it often needs to be challenged. This perception reaches back to the fighting words of Charles Darwin, “survival of the fittest.”
As a child, I didn’t need to understand Darwin to get this concept. Dragon Ball Z was all the education required. The anime show wrapped me into a world of good vs. evil. Martial artists with superpowers would duke it out over the fate of humankind. But against the greatest opponents their bodies were never enough. In times of desperation, Goku, the main protagonist, would call upon some inner spirit to become a “Super Saiyan.” People who couldn’t become Super Saiyan died and went to PoPo heaven. Goku would scream, gripping his hands so hard the veins would pop from his forearms. Each of his muscles would bulge, glow and pulsate until he transformed into the ultimate being. His muscles were ready to destroy the evil in front of him. In my mind, physical strength became a scary, awe-inspiring weapon—and inherently male.
On the other hand, I remember my museum tours through Italy and France ogling all of the nude statues of men (as maturely as any young teenager would). The statues flaunted their abs, pecs and biceps, yet these men chiseled from rock appeared vulnerable and exposed. The Thinker. The Dying Gaul. Sleeping Faun. The statue of David. Even Spartacus with his crossed arms couldn’t hide the glint of doubt in his eyes. This was the art of physical fitness. Many of these statues had nothing violent about them, and I wondered if the marble felt cool to the touch.
When I fell in love with CrossFit, I fell in love with the aesthetic.
On YouTube I watched the CrossFit Games and I gawked at the women who walked on their hands towards a barbell they would soon use to knock out innumerable power cleans. With each “step” I could feel the ripple in their shoulders, the delicate balance in their fingertips, the smooth swiftness of each lift. Camille Leblanc-Bazinet, Annie Thorisdottir, Lauren Fisher, Kara Webb…these were some of the fittest women in the world and I wanted to be like them.
I’ve never had a typically “feminine” frame. I’ve always been more muscular and athletic in nature. The sleeves of my cardigans hug me tight like the shell of a string bean and many dresses never seemed like they were meant for me or my broad shoulders (try zipping me up). But to see strong women on national TV being cheered on by thousands of people made me feel like there was a new type of woman hitting the mainstream. She was passionate about being strong and challenged my concept of what it meant to be a woman. I felt like I had found my new home—one where I could hold onto my gender and my physique.
Last year, I texted my friend George that I was going to start CrossFit. He imagined bodybuilders grunting over dumbells and described them as “grotesque.” Lift light, he typed. So I snorted at his smiley face. “Actually it’s always been my dream to become the Hulk,” I replied half-jokingly. “But in this world, it just isn’t easy being green.”
Terrible Kermit jokes aside, you get the idea: women who are naturally muscular or play a sport that encourages them to develop muscle for high performance often face ridicule and unwanted sniggering. Just ask the beautiful Serena Williams who still faces body-shaming despite all of her 21 Grand Slams.
“I don’t touch a weight, because I’m already super fit and super cut, and if I even look at weights, I get bigger,” she told the New York Times. “For years I’ve only done Thera-Bands and things like that, because that’s kind of how I felt. But then I realized that you really have to learn to accept who you are and love who you are. I’m really happy with my body type, and I’m really proud of it. Obviously it works out for me. I talk about it all the time, how it was uncomfortable for someone like me to be in my body.”
I fully applaud Serena’s self-acceptance, I love that she’s on the cover of Vogue, but notice that her words indicate a process. This self-love wasn’t her default because many women are taught that gaining muscle is bad.
What’s even more damaging is the thought that just touching a weight would instantly make a woman burst blouse buttons. So let me set things straight:
- It doesn’t just happen that way. Gaining muscle is not like catching the flu.
- Building muscle burns more fat. So if you want to lose weight, lift weight and get lean.
- Don’t forget that weightlifting helps people lead healthier lives and improves functional movement.
Still, despite the facts, we fear of getting swole like those “monsterous” bodybuilders.
I see this fear at the YMCA. Women tend to stick to the cardio machines, while the men groan it out on the bench press. During my college soccer days, I asked our trainer why we didn’t squat heavy like the rest of the sports teams and he said the girls before my time complained that their butts were getting too big. So we stopped to preserve our figures.
Many people don’t understand the meticulous, individualized steps that bodybuilders and figure models must take in their diets and training regimens to achieve those results we call “grotesque.” Yes, some people take harmful shortcuts like steroids, but for those who naturally achieve the look of Gods did it through sheer determination and dedication. Moreover, a woman who lifts to achieve a certain aesthetic has every right to healthily shape her body the way she wants. That doesn’t make her a “gorilla in a dress,” that doesn’t make her a man or any less beautiful. Yet society continues to propagate this myth and the result is this: Muscularity and femininity become mutually exclusive even at the highest level of performance.
“I just feel unfeminine,” professional tennis player Andrea Petkovic told the New York Times. “I don’t know — it’s probably that I’m self-conscious about what people might say. It’s stupid, but it’s insecurities that every woman has, I think. I definitely have them and I’m not ashamed to admit it. I would love to be a confident player that is proud of her body. Women, when we grow up we’ve been judged more, our physicality is judged more, and it makes us self-conscious.”
We doubt what women are naturally capable of and are too quick to question their decency when their bodies stray away from the status quo. Olympic track and field athletes like Dutee Chand are banned from competing because of “exceedingly high” testosterone levels and “hyper-masculinity.” Some athletes undergo pointless surgery so that they can be “feminine enough” to compete. What does it mean to be “feminine enough?” Perhaps we need to expand our definition of “female.”
One of my friends told me someone she knew had been stalking my Instagram. He had noticed my workout photos and couldn’t help but ask if I was on steroids. When he heard that I had just been working out a lot, he was amazed and happy for me, and suddenly everything was okay.
After a year of submerging myself into CrossFit, I grew leaner and tighter. My coaches cheered me on through my lifts. On days I lay on the floor and gasped for air, my teammates picked me up off of the floor to continue training. An additional 6 months of flexible dieting led to more definition in my shoulders and obliques. I relished the aches and pains in my quads and saw them as a signs of accomplishment.
One afternoon, I stood outside of my gym after finishing a workout coached by former Games Champion, Annie Thorisdottir. I was finally a part of the strong girls’ club. Nonetheless, beyond the gym’s walls I continued to be challenged.
Suddenly a man approached and stared at me cross-eyed. He noticed my biceps, then my chest. “Women shouldn’t be working out,” he sneered. “You should have some fat. You should have tits. Where are your tits?” I laughed and walked away.
But sometimes it isn’t so easy to laugh. Two nights later, I was walking in the neighborhood when a man stopped to say, “Hey, I’m not afraid of you.” I thought about how Serena had designed a long-sleeved garment for her clothing line so she could cover her arms; she didn’t always want that attention in public. I continued on and the man lingered behind me. “I like your figure. I’ll let you take a hit at me sometime. Come onnn! Take a hit.”
My friends jokingly say that because of my stature I shouldn’t have to feel afraid of the streets. “Adele, people would just take one look at you and see that you could beat them up.” Having never been in a fight, I feel extremely insecure when men approach me like that. I can’t imagine defending myself. In that regard, my muscles are only good for running away.
Turned out this guy was harmless and he left me alone. He was just flirting with the idea of a physical encounter. But I had to wonder: Why does my body suggest violence or aggression? I guess “tenderness” was only reserved for the statues of David and Spartacus.
On other occasions, the man that tests me is making an off-hand compliment. This is the “let’s take this outside,” approach. Men often love to challenge me whether its to arm wrestling, penalty kicks or footraces. It makes me smile.
Not that I think that I can beat these guys, but they don’t realize that the challenge is always a win-win situation for me. If I were to beat a man I would beat the biological odds. Men are supposed to be faster and stronger right? If I lose, I am only confirming the conditions. I have nothing to lose and everything to gain.
During a recent family reunion at my house, I met one of my cousins for the first time. I was just coming home to the party after having run an errand, and he lounged on the patio looking at me: “I’ll race you to the end of the driveway.”
Barefoot and sweaty from carrying boxes I sighed, “Fiiiiiiiiine.” I raced him and lost by a few margins. The next time, I let him give me head starts to let him feel big. I was laughing the whole time. “I just saw your muscles and I had to do something about it,” he said.
When I think back upon that race and how close they were, I wonder whether my mind limited my body’s capabilities. By adhering to logic, maybe I am not giving women or myself enough credit.
In the news, I continue to see women blur the lines between expected gender norms: 18-year-old Katie Ledecky rivals Michael Phelps in the 400m and smashes swim records. Army Captain Kristen Griest and 1st Lieutenant Shaye Haver become the first women to prove themselves fit enough to be Rangers. Over social media, UFC Champion Ronda Rousey challenges legendary world champion, Floyd Mayweather to a grudge match. Her tweets show no doubt in knocking him out.
The strong girl is on the rise and she continues to stretch the word “feminine,” to its limits. When I watch her on TV, see her in magazines or in the gym, I grow even more proud of my body. And despite the criticism she may still face, I believe society is beginning to accept her.← Previous Chapter Next Chapter →