“A woman’s body is supposed to be curvy, not muscular.”
My mother told me this after I came back from the gym and excitedly told her that I hit a new squat PR. At first I shrugged it off, but then my dismay turned into anger and disappointment. In a society where most women wish they were thinner, and millions of women are battling eating disorders, I was being told by my mother that I shouldn’t get more muscular.
I don’t blame her though. Her ideals about what a woman’s body should look like stem from societal standards. Comments like these about the female body are made all the time by men and women, and many of us have internalized these into feelings of shame, imperfection, and body image issues when we don’t meet those “standards.”
I have a few issues with this. First of all, the pervasiveness of these comments show the lack of respect for a woman’s autonomy in decisions about her own body, and cultural standards for women encourage the stereotype that women should be weak. Second, unsolicited advice about what a woman’s body is supposed to look like is not helpful to anyone.
Cultural Standards for Women
When a woman strength trains, it is seen as an act of social disobedience. As a fitness trainer, I’ve come across many women who were hesitant about lifting weights and didn’t want to lift heavy because they thought it would make them look “bulky” or “manly.” Women are often afraid that lifting weights will lessen their femininity, or afraid that they aren’t welcome in these spaces where men are.
When we hear about women lifting weights, we often think of a bodybuilder in a bikini with a six pack and large muscles on their arms and legs. While there is nothing wrong with this and body builders deserve immense respect, what most people do not understand is that it takes extreme dedication, specific training, and dieting to look this way in the first place, and the general population of women who lift do not, and probably will not ever look like this. It is important to understand that weight training won’t necessarily lead to a “bulky” look. Instead, lifting weights can be a great way to burn fat, improve strength, posture, bone density, heart health, and so much more. These misconceptions about weightlifting lead many women into intimidation about using weights, and can keep them using only the treadmill or stairmaster instead of picking up a barbell.
That being said, who made it a “rule” that women aren’t allowed to strive to have large muscles in the first place? I want to be extra clear in stating that building bodybuilder levels of muscles is not bad. The definition of a perfect “womanly” body has changed with the decades, and who’s to say what body is the correct body? Building muscle and being muscular is beautiful in its own right, and there is no singular definition of beauty that must be strictly followed by everyone.
Women who do have larger muscles are often called “manly” or “bulky” as if strength is not something a woman should have.This notion about female weakness extends further than the fitness community. Traditional values of femininity teach young girls that they aren’t supposed to be strong or courageous. We are often taught to keep quiet and nod while men make decisions. We are shown how to be a good wife and mother by cooking for our families and cleaning the house, but not how to build a career and invest our money. We are meant to be weak and accepting of male demands, and are taught to be afraid to speak up or be courageous and strong.
Why can’t I be both? Or one, or none, or any combination of these things? I can be a strong woman and be brave and courageous while also being able to throw down in the kitchen. Those things should not be mutually exclusive. I shouldn’t have to shut down the things I enjoy to please others, and neither should anyone else.
A Lack of Respect for Female Autonomy
Why does society think it’s okay to tell women what they can and cannot do with their own body? This is something we have been hearing since the dawn of time, but only recently are addressing as a problem. Female autonomy is disrespected in so many aspects of our society — from reproductive rights, to appearance, to what we should and shouldn’t be eating, and in this case: how we work out.
Women are constantly being told what they should and shouldn’t do to their bodies. We see this everywhere. On social media, women are praised for thinness or having a curvy body, and others who don’t fit either of these boxes are put down for every detail of their reality. Women who are seen as thin are told they “need to gain weight.” Women who are curvier are told they “need to lose weight.”
These are just a few examples, but they bring me back to my original point. For the women who are bold enough to break the stereotype of weakness, commentary against getting too “bulky” or “muscular” or “manly” can be extremely counterproductive. While advice like this is often “well intentioned,” it disregards both the fact that women do not exist for the purpose of pleasing others, and the fact that we can do things for ourselves.
My value is not defined by old ideas of what femininity and beauty are supposed to be. Lifting weights empowers me to feel stronger and bolder because I come from a place where that is not the norm.
(And honestly, it feels damn good when I can lift more than a man can.)
Rifat started her career with a B.A. in Psychology, and is now continuing her education as an aspiring DPT. Throughout her academic career, she developed a passion for fitness and health. Now, she strives to extend that passion and inspire others in their own fitness journeys as a fitness coach.
“In the realm of social media and it’s mass of information, it can often be overwhelming and difficult to find information that is accurate. My goal is to seek out the best information and educate others on the principles of training, nutrition and health. There are many misconceptions out there, and my purpose is to seek out and share information and techniques in my clients training and nutrition that will actually get them to their goals and sustain them.” – Rifat Ahmed