Weightlifting Dreams/Bodybuilding Fears Part 1
A few months ago I saw a post of a really muscular woman with a caption that said something like “This is what women who go to the gym want to look like” I assumed the post was supposed to be funny since the picture was of a bodybuilder. I wasn’t sure what the purpose was… to make fun of women who prioritize the gym and working out or to make fun of women that are muscular. The comments in the post were women saying they didn’t want to look like that or a lot of disappointing remarks on how strange or extreme some people thought she looked.
In my book For Black Girls I spoke about how I’ve witnessed and experienced body shaming of athletic women. The growing awareness of body shaming is admirable in some aspects and I think it’s important that women learn to admire and accept the uniqueness of their bodies while still striving to be healthy. I feel like we should be further than we are in this area but we still have a lot of work to do.
When it comes to women’s bodies the criticism doesn’t stop. Men and women have been guilty of putting out negative commentary. In regards to this post I saw, I don’t think I read any comments about how hard this woman worked to achieve her professional results as a bodybuilder. There was nothing about her discipline, lifestyle choices, or profession- all the things this woman obviously directed a lot of passion and attention to. I don’t doubt if the picture had been of a male bodybuilder there would have been some level of awe at the effort he put into his workouts. When I think of some of the Hollywood men like The Rock or Arnold Schwarzenegger their bodies are usually met with positivity. But their bodies are not just athletic, they are bodybuilding physiques (especially Arnold). Although looking like a bodybuilder is not everyones cup of tea, it’s a more role modeled and an accepted look for men. If men are severely muscular in or outside of this specific profession it’s normalized even though being a bodybuilder is actually an extreme way to train. However, female bodybuilders are seen as abnormal to the general public rather than looking normal for their profession.
Don’t get me wrong, this isn’t about defending bodybuilder bodies. But the picture and post got me thinking about how unfair this judgment was. It was indicative of some negative beliefs we carry as a society about women and exercise that are steeped in sexism (and maybe stereotypes). Unless exposed, these harmful beliefs can hold us back from our health goals.
Women aren’t praised for being or looking strong.
For muscular women the focus always seems to be on how “manly” they may look. But I’d like to challenge our thinking here. Women aren’t getting muscle implants to look like men. These muscular women are pushing their bodies to their own limits and it’s interesting to note that our bodies have the physiological potential to be exceptionally strong and muscular if one desires to do the work. Not every body type is for everyone and some people build more muscle mass faster than others. The point is if a woman is muscular it’s because that’s her womanly muscular shape. More muscle doesn’t make her look manly if all of the muscle in her body came with her body in the first place! Now just a quick disclaimer I know that some people prefer women that are muscular or toned but when I say they aren’t praised I’m referring to the general public opinion. Most often people who are fit admire other people who are fit because they have an appreciation of the work involved. Also women who take testosterone to grow more muscle don’t fall under the category of what I’m referring to here.
Why is there so much fear surrounding being a woman and gaining muscle? I remember being a young girl afraid that my legs wouldn’t look womanly enough as I got older. I went from having the thin legs as a kid to muscled legs. I hadn’t seen or learned that my legs would still be considered feminine even with muscle.
Some might say it’s evolutionary and that women should have softer bodies. We definitely carry more body fat than men do for many healthy functioning reasons. But when I think of societies of our past I can imagine that many women were strong because of the type of physical labour they engaged in. Maybe not as muscular as men but muscular nonetheless.
But to fear that you will look like a female bodybuilder if you lift weights seems excessive and really ignorant to me. The type of training you do will determine how your muscle appears. If you’ve ever noticed the difference in body types of athletes like swimmers, gymnasts, sprinters and long distance runners you’ll know it’s all about how they train the muscle they have. You can literally sculpt your body based on what you do.
To be continued.
Regarding your question, why is there so much fear surrounding being a woman and gaining muscle? I will answer that we are still fighting seasonal standards of beauty. We feel the shame of not fitting in those standards, whether you’re overweight or muscular or have or don’t have an hourglass shape. It’s a way to maintain control over women who are still considered weak physically, psychologically, and emotionally.
That’s really good insight and you are right. It never ends. We really need to do our best to be healthy and happy with ourselves, thanks for your comment!