The Birth of Athena

lift the weight. fight the power. eat the candy.

Why Lifting Weights Has No Bearing on Your Femininity – Alternatively Titled: I Am Fucking Tired of the Heteronormative, Gendercentric, Western World Framed Discourse Regarding Female Exercise.

AKA Toned vs Bulky Myths and Misogyny

It is a pretty frequent occurrence that when a female is introduced to the world of weights, she is consoled with, “Don’t worry, you won’t get bulky. Lifting weights makes you toned.” Why is it so important for us convince a lady who wants to/is willing to start lifting that she will look more “toned,” rather than bulky? Because it is important to convince her that she will retain her femininity. It is important to convince her that she will continue to look womanly, girly, whatever.

Before I go any further, I know that I will be condemned if I do not say this first: I don’t care what your goal is for your body. Wanting that “toned” look is not inherently bad, just like wanting to look super jacked is not bad. It is your body. Make it look how you want it to look.

Let me follow that up with: Lifting, in and of itself, has no bearing on how bulky or not bulky you look. What determines your “bulk” is your diet + your routine.

Now, let me say this: Lifting weights has NO bearing, whatsoever, on your femininity. It does not detract from your femininity. It does not add your femininity.

“How,” you ask, “can something that changes your appearance, not impact your femininity?” Because femininity, by definition, has nothing to do with your appearance. It has everything to do with your sex organs or your gender orientation.

Merriam-Webster defines feminine  as:

1: female 1a(1)

2: characteristic of or appropriate or unique to women

3: of, relating to, or constituting the gender that ordinarily includes most words or grammatical forms referring to females

If you are female, or if you consider yourself a woman, you are feminine. It does not depend on your look. It depends on your sex organs and/or on who you are. You could have a penis, visible muscle, and a green mohawk and you can still be feminine.

I now as you the question, “Why is it that we are always trying to convince females new to lifting that they will not gain bulk? Why is looking bulky so wrong? Why are us ladies always trying to avoid it?” Because the westernized, hetero-, cis normative gaze associates bulk/visible muscle with strength. Woman and females are not supposed to be strong! We are, after all, the weaker sex.

Women (the westernized, hetero-, cis, normative gaze groups all females and no males in this group, mind you) are to be svelte and soft. We are to have little arms, ample breasts, and round hips for child-bearing. We are to have dewy skin, glowing with health and joy, but we cannot flush or sweat with work., even when slaving over a hot stove Our hands are to be soft and soothing, not hard and callused.

Why!?

Because we are to stay home! And bear children! And take care of everyone! And we are to do so with grace. The aforementioned characteristics are the most desirable in a homemaker – a soft woman who quietly submits to her husbands’ wants, desires, and demands. Even though most households have working women these days, we are still held to the old standards. These days, we can work just as many hours, have as much money (supposedly, if we ask for it/demand it/raise hell!), and play as just many sports – as long as we don’t look like we play sports. We can work the same jobs as long as we don’t demand too much (equal pay!).

So, again, why is looking bulky so bad? Because the westernized, hetero-, cis normative gaze associates bulk/visible muscle with strength. Woman and females are not supposed to be strong. Outward strength is not desirable in a mate. In fact, outward strength is so undesirable that it is not even desirable for athletes. Quite the conundrum, huh? Women are not to display strength, even when they participate in a sport that is based on strength.

To look strong and capable, to show that you sweat and work hard, to use power instead of grace shouts in the face of the westernized, hetero-, cis, normative gaze; it shouts against society’s perpetuation of gender roles. It shouts that you don’t need a man to take care of you! It shouts that you are more and want more than what society and culture are willing to give you! It shouts that only you can define yourself and your limits!

As Leslie Hollywood wrote, from Bodymakers: A Cultural Anatomy of Women’s Bodybuilding, “Precarious though my faith may be, I have to believe that it does. I have to believe that consciously or unconsciously, intentionally or no, any babe who sports a muscle symbolically strikes a blow against traditional ideas about make supremacy… I have to believe that any woman with muscles makes a statement in support of women’s equality, self-realization, woman’s rights. A woman with muscles shouts out about female sovereignty, about women’s right to be for themselves not other, about their right to exist, take up space.” Why is bulky bad? Because it means you take up space. It means that you demand attention. It means that you live for yourself.

Don’t get me wrong. I am not saying that if you want to look slender, or soft, or round, or hexagonal, that you are incorrect or your desires are misguided. I am not saying that you are perpetuating gender norms. I am not saying every lady should strive to be ripped. I think every person needs look how they want to look, but they also need to understand why they feel compelled to look that way. Do you want to look soft and svelte because that is truly how you want to look? Or is it because that is what Scarlett looks like and our society tells you that is what you strive to look like. Do things for you.

What I am saying is that we need to quit assuming that we know what every female/every woman wants when they enter the gym.

Goals are very individualized things.

When a person walks into a gym, he or she very well may be there so that he or she can change his or her appearance. However, by focusing on a westernized, hetero- appearances, by ignoring the fact that goals are very individualized and bodies are individualized, we are excluding an entire group of people who may not fit into the man/woman binary. By focusing on convincing every lady who walks into a weightroom that not only does she want that toned look, but also that she can achieve that toned look, we are excluding many cultures and genders.

It is very aggravating that women who lift feel the need (I am often included in this category – socialization is a hard thing to fight) to prove that they are not bulky, and therefore, not masculine. “Does it look like I’m bulky? Lol! #liftheavy.” By focusing on this “ideal,” and by always attempting to convince ladies that they will not gain bulk completely undermines any other athletic goals that a person may have. This mindset brings the focus, once again, back to westernized appearances.

Don’t we have enough media sources already telling us that we aren’t pretty enough? Don’t we have enough TV shows, movies, magazines, fad diets, and fitness gurus telling us we will never be the complete westernized ideal image of a woman?

We need to bring the focus back to our other goals.

Additionally, by focusing on the need to disprove the bulkiness “myth,” we are creating a divide. A divide between those who lift to look “toned” and those who lift for any other reason ever. We don’t need any more support groups for “Lady Lifters” convincing woman that they can achieve the idealized body; what we need is a support group for lifters. Period. Many heterosexual men are just as intimidated by the weightroom as women. And many heterosexual men and many other gender orientations, are just as concerned with what weightlifting will do to or for their physique. I mean, come on, how many times do you hear a guy wanting to look like Brad Pitt in Fight Club, who, in the same breath, condemns all bodybuilders for being ‘roided up?

By focusing on “what women think happens,” by focusing on “tone” vs. “bulky,” we are shifting the focus from health, from fitness, from body positivity, from stress relief to, once again, the oversexualization of women’s bodies – which is something that we most certainly do not need more of.

Every time we try to convince a woman that she “will not turn into a man,” we are just feeding into the patriarchal bullshit – the same patriarchal bullshit that makes women less like to study math and science; the same bullshit that means that a woman can get fired for being “too attractive” (how are we not suffocating with this dichotomy? Seriously! Look attractive, but not too attractive!); the same bullshit that means on average, a woman gets paid 70 cents to every dollar a man is paid in the same job.

By feeling the need to prove that we aren’t “bulky” and that women don’t “get bulky” from lifting, we are buying into the heteronormative ideal which disallows perfectly legitimate bodies. We are also disallowing other, perfectly acceptable goals that a woman may have for her body.

Can we instead agree to focus on the other many and amazing things that lifting can do for woman and men, alike?

Lifting is an incredibly healthy and beneficial activity. Can we instead tell people that lifting will lessen their likelihood of developing osteoporosis or Type 2 Diabetes? Can we tell people that lifting will give them an outlet for all of their negative emotions? Can we tell people that lifting allows them to strengthen their bodies and their minds?

And, instead of perpetuating an ugly myth, when someone asks whether lifting will make them look like Arnold, can we instead tell them the truth? Can we tell them that lifting can either make them looked more “toned” or more like Arnold, but it depends on their diet and routine? And then, can we give them the knowledge and tools for them to achieve whatever look they want?

Can we fucking stop being so normative regarding female exercise and body types?

I think we can.

(I originally posted this article on February 12, 2013.)

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