Fear of a bulky (female) body

Jessica Biel

Some people think Jessica Biel looks like a man. How dare she have arm muscles!

“I don’t want to bulk up.”

Those six words have caused me so much angst and frustration in my short life as a weight lifter.  They are the words spoken by so many, many women when you talk about spending time in the weight room.

“I don’t want to get too big.”


“I don’t want to look like a man.”


Can I first clear up some misconceptions?  It seems as though large numbers of women believe that if they so much as look at a ten-pound dumbbell, their biceps and glutes will instantly blow up, like Popeye’s forearms after eating a can of spinach.  It’s like they believe they are allergic to heavy weights, and that the condition manifests itself in grotesquely distended body parts, and that if they pick up a weight they will instantly look like an East German Olympic lady swimmer.

This is so naive it’s almost cute. Never mind that women – and, for that matter, men – who pursue the heavily muscled look have to put in years of consistent, serious weight-training to get to that point.  Never mind that they follow hardcore dietary regimens that include consuming a chicken farm’s worth of egg whites.  Never mind all of the hard work and discipline they need to have that kind of physical development.

If many women are to be believed, all they should have had to do was just pick up a weight and fling it around a few times, and bam! Instant bodybuilder physiques for everyone!

If only bodybuilding were that easy.  We’d all look like extras from Pumping Iron II if that were the case.

Lots and lots of others have laid out the numerous reasons why women should not be afraid of lifting heavy weights, so I’m not going to go over them here.

Instead, can we parse the reasons why women are so reluctant to “bulk up”?  Why so many women’s fitness magazines will dedicate spread upon shiny spread to workout routines meant to “tone” bodies without “bulking up”?

Let’s talk about what is meant by “bulking up.”  Whenever a woman says she doesn’t want to “bulk up,” she means she does not want to have big muscles, usually because big muscles are not considered “feminine.”

What is the ideal feminine body?  We are pretty well-acquainted with that already, by virtue of it being SHOVED IN OUR FACES EVERY WAKING MOMENT OF OUR LIVES, but let’s go over it again:

  • Tall, but not too tall
  • Slender waist
  • Long, slim legs
  • Perky breasts
  • High, firm butt
  • Thighs that don’t touch
  • Flat stomach
  • Thin arms with no waddle
  • Blah blah blah.

Basically, we are describing a human being who doesn’t take up space, who isn’t big, who doesn’t have a lot of physical strength.

The curious thing about this is that women tend to be pretty vulnerable to violence, right?  Street harassment is a big deal for us, and so is sexual violence and physical violence.  I’ve written candidly about my experiences with these things in the past, and when I do so I consistently receive feedback from many, many, many women who have gone through similar things.  They’ve been raped, sexually abused, assaulted, stalked, threatened, intimidated, pushed around – you name it, it’s happened.

So knowing how vulnerable we are to violence, why on earth would we want to cling to physical weakness for the sake of something as ephemeral and ultimately meaningless as “femininity”?  Shouldn’t we want to embrace whatever physical strength our bodies are capable of?

Please don’t read this as me blaming women for not being able to protect themselves against aggressors.  The fault is always with the aggressor.  Always.  But I do think it’s worth asking why our culture expects us to downplay our innate capability for physical strength while at the same time instilling us with fear about the world around us.   We are undermined on both sides, from within ourselves as well as from others around us, when we accept the paradigm that says feminine equals weak, soft, vulnerable.

And please, don’t tell me that muscles on a woman are unnatural and unfeminine.  What does that even mean?  Is not anything that happens in nature “natural”?  If I lift weights and eat clean and I develop sizable biceps, am I not doing something that is “natural”?  Or is “natural” just a less-loaded way of saying “normal”?  And if that is the case, then what defines “normal”?  “Normal” is such a relative concept, one that changes depending on your location in time and space and culture and history.  What was “normal” twenty years ago is not the same as what was “normal” two hundred years ago.

And what does it mean to say something is “feminine”?  No one can really seem to pin this down.  There’s a lot of weird woo-woo talk about “soft” and “emotional” and “nurturing,” but I can never get this to hold up with even two seconds of analysis.   The only answer I can come up with is “anything a woman does” is feminine, which is pretty much a bullshit definition, don’t you think?  I personally would love to do away with the categories of “feminine” and “masculine” because I find them so terribly reductive and oversimplified as to be meaningless when it comes to dealing with the beautiful complexity of individual human beings.

I know that isn’t going to happen, because if there is anything we’ve seen, it’s that people are deeply invested in their ideas about gender.  (Just check out the comments of any story related to that couple who is keeping their baby’s gender a secret.  Holy shit, you’d think they’d confessed to renting the child out as a pony for birthday parties, the way many people have reacted.)  But if we are going to insist on hanging on to these increasingly archaic ideas, can we at least come up with an ideal of  femininity that is not defined by weakness?

12 responses to “Fear of a bulky (female) body

  1. Caitlin, I LOVE this post!! As a Father to 2 (soon to be 3) daughters, I make an active effort in teaching them that being a girl means equal in power and strength, not falling prey to jurassic gender stereotypes!! You rock, my friend!! 🙂


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  5. “Some people think Jessica Biel looks like a man. How dare she have arm muscles!”

    I’d like to have the source of this “Some people”?

    You’re just complaining about trivial things.

    Yes muscles are not unnatural on women but they are indeed unfeminine. Just like a man having not muscles is not masculine.

    I always hear about patriarchy as if men just have it “soo” well. Is No-fault divorce patriarchal?

    Men still have to keep their gender roles as provider to get married.

    Do you know how horrible it was for women in third world countries in the 60s? and all modern feminist today do is degrade traditional and/or feminine woman, complain about men, and pressure censorship.

    How about putting all the obnoxious energy to use by helping women where they need it, like abuse shelters. most of the misandrist laws hardly help domestic abuse women at all.

    Who cares if “some people” think that an obviously natural woman looks like a man. This movement has gotten as bad as the civil right movement, just a mass of people pointing the blame at someone or something thing and having PR do lay some politically correct veil over it.

    • I was actually on the verge of trying to respond to you seriously, but then I saw the word “misandrist” amid your tangle of barely literate sentences, and I realized that anything I could say, no matter how salient or well-supported, would fall on deaf ears because you legitimately think that a handful of women saying they hate men is the same as entire cultural systems that construct hierarchies of power in which men are situated over women.

      BTW it’s cute that you assume I do nothing but complain on the internet all day. You’ve really got me pegged, haven’t you.

  6. I like this post! You’ve hit on some really good points – women are expected to remain feminine and meak while at the same time rely on someone else to “protect” them – I mean seriously does society expect all women to cling to such ancient concepts anymore? Ugh frustrates me to absolutely no end – I am a Mom to a son and a daughter and I am teaching both that men and women are equal on all levels and that each can have the same successes in life no matter what. So why would that then not extend to physical prowess and strength? It doesn’t!

    Ok I am rambling. What I am trying to say is I love this post and thank-you for putting this out there!

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