Gender In The Gym, Part Three: Culturally Reinforced Standards of Female Beauty

My name is Holly Crane. My graduate school research focused on the sociology of sport and physical activity, and the gendered behavior patterns that exist in physical activity spaces, like the gym. My goal as a coach and a trainer is to demystify the weight room for girls and women, teaching them that they, too, belong in this space.

*A quick note on language. Much of the terminology in this post (male/man/female/woman) is cis-centric. It is important to recognize that language is a key way that binaries of sex and gender are reinforced. I use such language in this particular article as a way to discuss a specific (cis) population that is affected by the meanings we ascribe to male and female strength as a culture. However, there are many more types of identities at stake here, many of whom are rendered invisible when discussions are limited to male versus female language. This is something I plan to address in further articles.*


I’m back for Part 3! In Part 1, I discussed the gender binary and the gym. In Part 2, I went into a bit more depth about how culturally perceived differences between men and women help reinforce that binary in physical spaces. Today, I will explore another key aspect of the gender binary: culturally reinforced standards of female beauty.


The logic of binary systems is rooted in opposition. This thing is not like that thing. Men are rational, women are emotional. Men are strong, women are less strong. You get the idea.


Appearance, it turns out, is key in illustrating and maintaining these oppositions. Society characterizes appearance as either “masculine” or “feminine”, depending on clothing choice, hair style, body type, and other traits. There is, of course, a wealth of diverse and transgressive style choices out there, but mainstream media sends a clear message. Feminine clothing is form fitting and small while masculine clothing tends to involve heavier fabric and often includes functional design elements, like pockets…


Body type also plays an important role in maintaining differences between masculine and feminine appearance. More specially, large muscles are associated with masculinity. Within the tight confines of the gender binary, this means muscles are NOT feminine.


I know, I know. Things ARE changing! We see a lot more lady muscle on TV and in magazines these days. Yay! But while we’re popping the champagne, let’s remember that female muscle is still policed in very specific ways. Take bodybuilders. Research shows that while male bodybuilders are sometimes considered extreme or obsessive, their gender is rarely questioned. Female bodybuilders, on the other hand, are often described as deviants or freaks whose muscular bodies make them look too much like men.


And it’s not just the niche world of bodybuilding.


Rigid ideas about what a female body should look like have been a part of the fitness industry for a long time.


In the early 1960s and 70s, women were encouraged to exercise to maintain their slender, but soft female shapes. Fitness magazines provided techniques to avoid bulk, while simultaneously reassuring women that female hormones were incapable of producing large muscles. In the 1980s, however, things began to shift slightly. Jane Fonda introduced the concept of the “toned” female body (for which I will literally never forgive her). Muscles, as long as they were trim, lean, and limited to specific body parts, suddenly became acceptable, even necessary, to the ideal female shape.


More recently, the advent of CrossFit has shifted this ideal into an even more muscular realm. Brook Ence’s rippling biceps are featured not only in the movie Wonder Woman, but also in a Michelob Ultra commercial during last year’s Super Bowl. This shifting landscape illustrates that there’s nothing remotely biological or inherent about what “ideal femininity” looks like. Rather, it’s a product of our culture.


These days, big butts are upheld as the ideal. (Just search #belfie on Instagram.) But big butts are only used to sell products if they are on a certain type of body. Most often, in magazines and advertisements, that body is white (editor’s note: pause for this recommended reading and/or listening: The Chocolate Bar Podcast EPICsode 6: Beauty And The Beast: Body Image, Black Women, and Bullshit, (itunes & soundcloud), Adina de Coteau’s take on the “trend” of thick women, and two articles by Chrissy King on the lack of diversity in the fitness industry, and her challenge for us to do better), with a tight set of abs and a body fat percentage hovering somewhere around 12%. It’s okay to have big parts, so long as the whole isn’t too big, and the overall package doesn’t move too far away from what is most frequently represented in the media.


The cultural understanding of the ideal female body is all about the parts. Women’s bodies are rarely conceived of as whole, integrative systems, but are rather fractured and digested as individual pieces.


In grad school, I taught a weight training PE class. One semester, a female student came up to me after class to go over her training program. “I want to work on my butt. Basically, I want your butt. But I don’t really want, like, super huge legs, ya know?” (She points to my legs, by way of illustration).


After swallowing my initial impulse to shout “GIRL, YOU COULDN’T GET LEGS LIKE THESE IF YOU TRIED,” I just felt sad. We are so focused on the ideal female body that we craft collages, snipping out shapely legs here, a toned stomach there, and a tight cellulite-free ass over there.


When it’s all said and done, the picture we walk around with in our minds – the one we spend hours obsessing over – isn’t real. It is an amalgamation of what our culture has told us our individual body parts should look like. It is an impossibility.


As a personal trainer, I’m painfully aware of how much energy women put into these collages. They pull up pictures on their phones, pointing out various bits of celebrity anatomy. I want this, but not that. And is it any surprise at all, when only one type of body (lean, toned, acceptably muscular but not more so, conventionally attractive, cis-gendered, and usually white) is widely celebrated? When “femininity” is so narrowly defined?


A defining feature of these ideal femininity collages is a stipulation that I’ve heard far too many times. “I want to be toned but not bulky.” The implication here is that “bulkiness” (whatever that means) does not fit into our conventional definition of what a woman is supposed to look like. The ideal female body is small and trim. It is well behaved and fits nicely into the confines of skinny jeans and a crop top, without any overhanging bits. It does not have excess. It does not have bulk.


The fitness industry is extremely focused on the bulky conversation. This conversation seems to be divided into two parts. The first includes a list of all of the exercises that “won’t make you bulky.” Do hip thrusts instead of squats, do high reps with lighter weight instead of lower reps for heavier weight (*yawn*), and so on. 


I have two responses to this particular strategy. One. Adding muscle mass to your body is hard work. It takes a structured training program, a balanced and nutritious diet (which usually involves eating A LOT more than most people think), and a whole lot of dedication. I can guarantee you that if you add heavy squats into your program, you will not wake up the next day suddenly looking like Iris Kyle.


In addition, many top physique competitors (both male and female) use steroids. So, unless you’re accidentally taking dianabol with your latte each morning ON TOP OF spending 20 hours in the gym and eating 300lbs of chicken breast and rice each week, then you’re good. If you’re a natural athlete, be prepared to work even harder to achieve a similar look, with even moreattention paid to your diet and training.


Two. There is absolutely nothing wrong with looking like Iris Kyle. I look at Iris Kyle and I’m like DAMN, I WANT SOME DELTS LIKE THAT. Now, of course, this is a personal preference. There are people of all genders who don’t want to be that muscular. But when we associate muscularity with gender (“Iris looks masculine because of all that muscle”), then we not only discourage women from adding bulk to their bodies (which, by extension, discourages them from adding strength to their bodies), we also limit the possibilities of what feminine can mean or look like.


The flip side of the bulky conversation is that women can’t actually get bulky. Don’t worry! CrossFit won’t make you bulky because women lack the testosterone to put on excess muscle!


First of all, this is an overly simplistic view of the relationship between hormones and body size. 


Second of all, and more importantly, this is a reassertion of the gender binaryReminding women that they are biologically incapable of building as much muscle mass as men is very similar to reminding women that men are biologically stronger.


Not only is it a flawed argument, it doesn’t have anything at all to do with our potential to get big or strong. Women are perfectly capable of getting bulky.


To “reassure” women that they can’t get bulky is to reassert that they shouldn’t.


The implications of this reassertion are just as troubling. When bulky is painted as the villain, so too are exercises that are associated with bulk. The fear of getting too big prevents many women from getting strong. And that is the true tragedy. We spend so much time focusing on what our bodies should look like that we completely lose sight of what they are capable of. As I mentioned in Part 2, we all have the potential to be strong. But it is extremely difficult to access that potential when we are constantly worried about molding our bodies into an unattainable ideal.   


I’m not saying that everyone’s New Year’s resolution should now be to get extremely jacked (tbh, that is my resolution every year). But it is important to recognize how our culture has painted body size as a gender attribute. Big is masculine and small is feminine. As with all things relating to the binary, this leaves no room for gender characteristics that lie in between, or outside of, feminine and masculine. And neither does it leave space for us to define those characteristics for ourselves.


So let’s try a new strategy – one where muscles have nothing to do with how we convey or perceive gender. Instead, size and strength are expressions of identity, commitment, and potential for change. 


I am a feminist, strength coach, personal trainer, competitive weightlifter, and food enthusiast. My graduate school research focused on the sociology of sport and physical activity and the gendered behavior patterns that exist in physical activity spaces, like the gym. My goal as a coach and a trainer is to demystify the weight room for girls and women, teaching them that they, too, belong in this space.

Holly has a BA in Comparative Literature from Williams College and an MS in Kinesiology from the University of Minnesota, with the following additional certifications: NSCA – Certified Strength & Conditioning Specialist, NASM – Certified Personal Trainer, Pre and Post Natal Training Techniques, American Red Cross – Adult & Child First Aid/CPR/AED.



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