When those spectacularly awkward photos of Paul Ryan showing off his mad lifting skills surfaced on the internet last week, I flipped through them and thought, “I knew it!” I just knew that Paul Ryan would be the kind of guy who loves nothing more than plonking himself in front of a mirror and doing curl after concentration curl after preacher curl, all while basking in the radiance of the valleys and peaks of his biceps.
That’s right – Paul Ryan is a total curlbro.
I wish I could take credit for the phrase “curlbro” but I can’t – credit for that goes to Girl Got Muscle. I’ve adopted it, though, because it is so perfect in the concise way it describes a specific kind of guy who goes to the gym. You know who they are. They are the men who line up in front of mirrors in gyms all across the United States, who pass hours curling their way into oblivion, who look at a squat rack and see not a squat rack but a really fancy contraption in which they can do curls. Every day is arms day for these guys.
At first, I found these guys rather amusing, the way they would heft the biggest dumbbells possible, so big they have to drop them after each set, and how they never seemed to understand that the whole gym was filled with things that could help them build all of the other muscles on their bodies. Shoot, these guys didn’t even seem to know that they had other muscles on their bodies.
But one day it occurred to me that I was seeing something a bit more insidious than just a bunch of guys who didn’t know jack shit about lifting weights. I realized that, to many people, the biceps aren’t just a set of muscles. No, they are so much more than just bags of blood and tissue. The biceps signify masculinity: virility, physical prowess, strength.
And what makes the biceps better than the other body part commonly thought to be the locus of masculinity is that you can make them bigger without scary surgery and you can show them off without getting your ass tossed in jail. They are highly visible symbols of manliness that, unlike other symbols of manliness, are actually within the guy’s control.
For a lot of guys, there is no such thing is “too manly.” You can’t drive a truck that is too big or drink too many beers or bang too many chicks or whatever. That goes for the arms. If big biceps mean the owner is manly, then having biceps the size of watermelons means the owner is the manliest man to ever man! (In which case, this doofus is King Man and we are all just plebes.)
But for women, there is such a thing as “too manly.” A woman who wants to have big biceps…well, that’s just wrong. At least, that’s what I hear whenever a woman with well-defined arms is cut down for looking “like a man” or “being too manly.” Doesn’t she know that she’s not supposed to lift anything heavier than a Barbie weight? What if, god forbid, she bulks up? And puts on muscle? Quick, fetch me my smelling salts!
The dichotomy is clear. If you are a woman and your arms are small and “toned,” you are Doing Femininity right. If you are a man and you have big biceps, you win a gold medal in the Masculinity Olympics. Fail to adhere to those standards, and you might as well ship yourself to the Island of Misfit Toys to live out the rest of your sexless days with all of the other unnatural freaks with arms that are all wrong for their gender.
The sadly ironic thing is that the curlbro has more in common with the cardio queen than just about anyone else in the gym. In fact, I’d say the two are photo negatives of each other. Each one is so focused on making their body look a specific way – a way that is defined strictly according to their gender – that they completely ignore all of the things that actually make for a strong, healthy body. I mean, who cares if you have twenty inch biceps if you can’t run a mile or you can’t bend over at the waist. And big deal if you can fit into a size O but you can’t even open your own damn jar of pickles.
It’s a perfect metaphor for the limitations imposed by gender roles, isn’t it? If you spend too much time trying to be a Man or a Woman, you are liable to end up sucking as a Human Being. You cut yourself off from half of the human experience, and you are all the poorer for it in the end.
I’m not going to act like I think no one should do curls. I will freely admit that I like doing curls because I like watching my arms in the mirror when I do them, how all of these muscles appear and move and shift under my skin like tectonic plates of awesome. In that regard, I totally get the curlbro. Doing bicep curls is a super-easy way to feel like a stud, and sometimes we all need a little insta-boost of some Kinetic Bad Ass to help us get through our day. But just as I think women should not be afraid of lifting heavier weights and building some muscle, curlbros should not be afraid of doing some squats or giving yoga a try. And who knows? They might even find they like it.