Monday, May 15, 2006

Women, muscles, and power

As readers of this blog know, I recently attended the Family Circle Cup in Charleston. And anyone who follows tennis knows that fitness is very important in women's tennis (most people give Navratilova credit for introducing fitness to the women's game, but it was actually Margaret Court who did so). Players have to be very fit in order to compete now that wooden raquets have disappeared, and so-called power tennis is played by some of the top players.

At the Family Circle Cup, there was one player in particular--a very popular name in tennis--who was quite muscular, and the women around me kept snidely saying "Oh, look at her. She looks so masculine." The truth is, no one would ever mistake this player for a man, and she looked beautiful. Ironically, there is a non-muscular player on the tour whose body is built exactly like a man's, but no one ever says she looks masculine.

What I deduced from this is that having the body shape of a man is somehow not threatening, but having muscles is. Having muscles equals having power. Having power is not "feminine." I remember when Madonna worked out and made her body muscular, a lot of people did not like it. Personally, I thought Madonna looked great before and after, but it was interesting to hear how much controversy was caused by her new, muscular body.

Many years ago, I met a famous woman bodybuilder. She told me that she wanted to meet men and go out on dates, but no man would get near her--her body was too threatening.

Women empower themselves in different ways, and one of those ways is by becoming physically strong, just as some men empower themselves by becoming physically strong. Women's bodies are so different from men's bodies that the fear of "looking like a man" is groundless. Yet when a woman has muscles, she is still described as looking like a man. That is because muscularity is considered something belonging to men, just as executive positions, physically demanding careers, and government leadership roles are considered to rightfully belong to men.

Criticizing women for having muscles is just one more way we practice sexism in our culture, and one more way we focus on all the things that are "wrong" with women's bodies.


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