Don't get mad. I love skinny arms. I also love fat arms, muscular arms, short arms, long arms, hairy arms, tan arms, mole-y arms, arms with wrinkly elbows. It's not about preferring any sort of arms. All people have certain things they find aesthetically pleasing. What gets me riled up is hearing how women (and men) often talk about women's bodies and how they should look a certain way to be considered womanly.
I'm a group exercise instructor and personal trainer. Women often ask me how to change the shape of their bodies without getting too "manly". "You know," they say, looking deep into my eyes, silently pleading for that quick girl-to-girl understanding. "I want to tone up and everything, I just don't want man-arms." Why do we equate looking strong with maleness? Does being womanly mean we should ideally look weak?
Maybe you're thinking there's an obvious answer. Men typically have larger upper bodies than women. They're just built differently. That's why we think women with bigger muscles look manly. But there are plenty of dudes with skinny arms. And men just have different equipment and hormones. To me, when women get more muscular, they don't look like men, they just look like muscular women.
I recently came across an article in the New York Times, Tennis’s Top Women Balance Body Image With Ambition, that filled me with a terrible, helpless anger. The article describes how many professional women tennis players have concerns about developing overly muscular physiques.
The Times references a quote from Andrea Petkovic, a German tennis player who described hating seeing pictures of herself while hitting two-handed backhands, "when her arm muscles appear the most bulging," reported the Times. "I just feel unfeminine," she said. "I don’t know — it’s probably that I’m self-conscious about what people might say. It’s stupid, but it’s insecurities that every woman has, I think. I definitely have them and I’m not ashamed to admit it. I would love to be a confident player that is proud of her body. Women, when we grow up we’ve been judged more, our physicality is judged more, and it makes us self-conscious."
Also quoted in the article, Tomasz Wiktorowski, Agnieszka Radwanska's coach said, “It’s our decision to keep her as the smallest player in the top 10. Because, first of all she’s a woman, and she wants to be a woman.”
Here's another excerpt from The Times's article: "Maria Sharapova, a slender, blond Russian who has been the highest-paid female athlete for more than a decade because of her lucrative endorsements, said she still wished she could be thinner. 'I always want to be skinnier with less cellulite; I think that’s every girl’s wish,' she said, laughing."
The article also quotes other tennis players who are happy with their muscular bodies, or at least indifferent, hoping just to be exceptional players no matter how it changes their physique. And I have no quarrel with the women who want to be more slender. I just feel angry that being feminine means looking and sometimes being weaker.
With a few noted exceptions, female models and celebrities generally tend to be very slender with little muscle definition. Although the trend today is moving toward a fuller physique, many people seem off-put when confronted with a muscular woman.
I think that what's acceptable and approved of in our society is internalized again and again until it becomes part of our identity. So how can we change what's considered acceptable?
To me, women are as strong as men. Women hunt and fight. They carry life and give birth. They love and nurture. They kill and injure. They shoulder all sorts of difficulties and strain, just like men. Being strong is womanly. Why can't women also reflect that strength physically without feeling repellently masculine to ourselves or whomever we're attracted to? What do skinny arms really have to do with being female?
A study published this year in the Social Psychological & Personality Science Journal reported that one group of heterosexual women participants felt happier about the appearance of their own bodies when told that men preferred pictures of heavier female models. Another group of women who were told that men preferred the pictures of very thin models felt much more dissatisfaction with their bodies. And a third group of women who were told that other women preferred the pictures of the heavier models also felt dissatisfied.
I don't know about you, but I'm not going to let any nameless, faceless men or the internet make me ashamed to be a strong woman. I want to be at the front of a new era for the ideal physique: the physique that makes me happy, confident, comfortable, excellently functional, and therefore, attractive. Once we begin to embrace that, maybe we can start to change what's acceptable.
My arms are on the bigger side. They are incredible instruments. They lift my children to the drinking fountain when they are thirsty. They work and play without tiring. They teach and correct, easily catching someone who might fall. They hold me steady. They make me perfectly balanced. They lift, just everything. They hold my partner, who says he's never seen anything so beautiful.
Here's another quote from the Times's article. It's from Serena Williams, the winner of 21 career grand slams and a gorgeous woman in possession of a pair of powerful, muscular arms: "I don’t touch a weight, because I’m already super fit and super cut, and if I even look at weights, I get bigger," she said. "For years I’ve only done Thera-Bands and things like that, because that’s kind of how I felt. But then I realized that you really have to learn to accept who you are and love who you are. I’m really happy with my body type, and I’m really proud of it. Obviously it works out for me. I talk about it all the time, how it was uncomfortable for someone like me to be in my body. "
I'm not saying I don't have insecurities. I don't want everyone to have muscular arms. I don't care what kind of arms anyone has. What I care about is being told I'm less womanly because I'm incredibly strong and hard-working. I love my tough, functional, beautiful body. I am so much woman. More woman than any one of those man-arm haters could ever handle.
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Image: Sarah Olive Bergeson