the joy of strength training


July 11th, 2010 at 6:57 pm

Femininity and muscle

Marilou Dozois-Prevost lifting at the olympics

Let’s break the false link between building muscle and becoming less feminine.

Women have muscles, it’s a physiological fact, and if we want to do anything useful or impressive with them and look sexy to boot, we’d better start training them!

Here is an incident that happened to me recently. I was talking to a bloke in the gym about the fact that I was training for strongwoman and I happened to mention that I would like to put on a couple of pounds of muscle.

He said, with a grimace, “Really? But you don’t want to lose your femininity, do you?”

So putting on a couple of pounds of muscle is going to make me lose my femininity, is it? This is typical of the casual ignorance displayed by many people about muscle building. I’m an athletic-looking size 10, I weigh 136 pounds. What difference is a couple of pounds of muscle distributed around my body going to make to my appearance? I doubt most people would even notice.

Gubernatrix and Caroline Pearce aka Ice from Gladiators

Me (right) and Caroline Pearce, aka ‘Ice’ from Gladiators. Note the tragic loss of femininity experienced by these two strength training females. Don’t let this be you!

I’m not trying to dictate what men or women find attractive. Long hair, cute bob, big tits, curvy, athletic, muscular, long legs, nice bum, spiky hair and tattoos, tanned and outdoorsy, pale and interesting… there are so many ways to look sexy and feminine.

Michelle Obama shows off her shapely arms

A powerful woman needs powerful arms! I bet POTUS isn’t complaining…

Muscle, whether you realise it or not, plays a huge part in looking feminine. Pertness of bum? Gluteus maximus, baby! Shapeliness of calf? A toned gastrocnemius, of course. ‘Michelle Obama’ arms? Bi’s and tri’s my dears, not to mention the delts.

And you can’t build muscle using 3lb pink dumbbells. Your handbag weighs more than that! The weight’s gotta be heavy.

(Not convinced? Read Why lift weights? for a simple answer to that question.)

The truth is that for some people, any mention of muscle building is an automatic no-no. This merely reveals ignorance about the human body and the importance of muscle.

Although we can use muscle to scuplt particular parts of our bodies into nicer shapes, this isn’t the primary role of muscle.

In fact, everybody needs to be concerned about building muscle, since we spend most of our lives slowly losing it and becoming more and more frail.

Waif model

Even this poor girl has muscles, but wouldn't you agree she could do with some more?

We all have muscle in the first place and we all need it in order to lead active, healthy lives. From the way some women talk, you’d think they didn’t even possess muscles!

But they do, and they are neglecting them because of this pernicious link.

For most people, building additional muscle doesn’t happen automatically, it has to be done deliberately (especially after your early twenties). What we do build automatically is fat. It’s very easy to get fatter, more difficult to build muscle.

But building muscle helps us to lose fat. Muscle burns more calories than fat, so the more of it we have, the more we can burn excess calories. Muscle also takes energy to be built in the first place, energy that would otherwise be stored as fat. This is true for both men and women.

These days most people want to look lean and athletic, with less fat. The way to do this is to build muscle but still in the eyes of many people this is only deemed acceptable for men. No wonder so many women spend years dieting unsuccessfully or acquire dangerous eating disorders that keep them weak, malnourished and either too skinny or too fat.

Gubernatrix squatting in a power rack

Why do guys like this picture?

So back to the guy who so baldly expressed his opinion on my femininity. Of course, we know what’s really going on here. We know that the image he has in his head is of a female pro-bodybuilder on stage under the lights with all the fake tan, dehydration, flexing and so on. He has equated this snapshot image (which doesn’t even reflect the everyday reality of a pro-bodybuilder, let alone anyone else) with general weight lifting of any kind undertaken by a woman – and moreover has decided that this is not what he finds attractive.

(Incidentally, there is an issue about people associating weight training with bodybuilding but not other sports. You might be talking about strongwoman or weightlifting, but it is the bodybuilder image that immediately appears in people’s minds and not, say, the slim and athletic Marilou Dozois-Prevost who graces the top of this post.)

What’s odd is that Random Gym Guy is quite admiring of my figure as it stands at the moment – a figure which has been developed over several years by muscle building and heavy weight training.

So there’s a serious disconnect between the evidence of his own eyes and his preconceptions and prejudices about ‘muscle building’ and ‘femininity’.

Apparently I have reached some mysterious boundary where I look good at the moment but if I build a smidgen more muscle I will suddenly turn into a she-hulk!

Comparison of natural bodybuilder with non-natural bodybuilder

Two female bodybuilders: the difference is DRUGS, not lifting weights

With pictures like the one on the right, I guess it is not surprising that people get hugely distorted views about women and muscle. The media love to dwell on the ‘freak’ aspects of any activity but it is drugs not weights that are the cause. Just say no, kids.

(The original female bodybuilders still looked feminine. Read more here about what went wrong. Clue: it wasn’t lifting weights!)

Ironically many men will find particular bodies attractive that have been built by careful dieting and weight training – but they don’t realise it. This is about education, about breaking that seemingly automatic link between the desire to build muscle  – for health, looks, performance or whatever – and loss of femininity.

Allyson Goble, trainer at Bodytribe Fitness, tackled this thorny subject in our recent Women’s Strength Symposium. She comments that if masculinity is defined by strength and muscle building, does that mean that femininity must be the opposite: weakness and fat? Femininity = weakness? Surely we are past that in the 21st century.

The truth is that you can look very feminine (whatever that means to you) and also build muscle, lift heavy weights and generally enjoy yourself.

Here is some of the positive testimony from Allyson’s discussion.

Katydid: “As a person who has gone through challenges with eating disorders and body image for a very long time I’ve found weightlifting and being a powerlifter, and the resultant strength to be the best medicine in the world.”

Louisa: “Until I started weight training, with fantastic results (not only because my body shape improved but because I felt more confident and got a buzz out of it), I really didn’t believe how good it would be for me. I have never really worried about getting bulky. I know I look better and feel fitter than I have for over 20 years. However, people around me do ask if I’m not worried about bulking up. And I have struggled to get my husband to understand that I’m not going to end up looking like a female body builder on steroids.”

Allyson: “Girls deserve to have strong muscles and bones and ligaments and tendons, etc. AND look good in their undies too!”

Allyson Felix

The beautiful and be-six-packed Allyson Felix

Men care what you look like – they are visual creatures after all. But men also care what you think you look like.

Lack of confidence in your own looks is not sexy. Obsessing about whether your bum looks big is a real turn-off.  If you have a nice bum from squatting, be proud of it! If you have a great six pack from training and dieting, show it off. I am a big fan of the female six pack myself, I think it is super sexy!

So back to where I started. You might be wondering, ‘why do you care what Random Gym Guy thinks anyway?’

Well, I don’t, as he’s just some random guy down the gym. But what about the men who do matter in our lives? I know from discussions on the Women’s Strength Training Network that many women do have these issues with their other halves. We can’t just say ‘well I don’t care about your feelings’. But a girl’s gotta do what a girl’s gotta do.

Louisa, who was quoted above, says “I have struggled to get my husband to understand that I’m not going to end up looking like a female body builder on steroids.” Time will prove Louisa right, and perhaps her husband will get used to her having a bit more muscle than before.

I know that my perception of muscle on both men and women has changed, the more I have been around it, seen it, and most of all, experienced the amazing things you can do with it!

This is why I am committed to changing perceptions, and why I believe that eventually a cultural shift will occur and women will no longer be considered less feminine because they have muscles and can use them.

More from gubernatrix

Girls and Strength Training: Are We Able To Shift Our Perceptions? How Else Are We ‘ABLE’? By Allyson Goble

Women’s Strength Training Network

Strong is beautiful

The toning problem: why women are missing out when it comes to weight training

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