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Why do we find muscular women wildly perplexing?

Muscular women such as Serena Williams issue a challenge to received ideas about femininity. AAP Image/Dave Hunt

We don’t see many muscular women in popular culture – and the display of much heavier and obviously stronger female bodies can be overwhelming or shocking.

Professional tennis playing sisters Serena and Venus Williams, who are currently in Australia for the summer tennis season, are good examples of female athletes who have received a lot of negative attention for their “thicker” arms and heavier-set, muscular bodies.

Other examples include retired world champion bodybuilder Bev Francis and South African middle-distance runner Caster Semenya. They have all been criticised for having bodies that can’t possibly belong to real women.

Why are we so afraid of strong, muscular women?

After all, there’s nothing unnatural about a strong and muscular woman. What’s unnatural is preventing and discouraging women from reaching their full physical potential in the name of femininity.

Our fear of women with muscle

Caster Semenya at the 2012 London Olympics. EPA/Michael Kappeler

Muscle is associated with male bodies and therefore with masculinity.

Muscularity isn’t linked to displays of womanhood or ideas about femaleness. Therefore, a muscular woman doesn’t conform to acceptable codes of femininity.

A muscular woman challenges what it means to be a “real” woman or a “real” man. It challenges the assumption that all men are big, strong and powerful and that all women are smaller, weaker and dependent. A muscular woman can be wildly perplexing.

Muscular women are often accused of taking steroids, being deviant, sexually confused or deliberately trying to offend others. They’re frequently told they’re unattractive, man-haters, selfish mothers or transvestites. They’re charged as having either too much testosterone or too little femininity.

On the other hand, we associate muscle with male-dominated sports such as bodybuilding. Bodybuilding is culturally coded as almost exclusively male. Men compete and are judged solely on their muscularity. Their muscular bodies are compared on symmetry, muscular form, size, development and overall presentation.

Bodysculpting: muscle for women?

Unlike male bodybuilding, women who compete in body sculpting are required to minimise their muscularity. Body sculpting or body figure competition is a sport that only women can compete in. It’s also a sport where the contradiction of muscle and femininity is most obvious.

Muscle and a bikini. Scott Butner

Many women train long and gruelling hours to become strong and muscular – only to be told on competition day that they’re not feminine enough. In contrast to men’s bodybuilding, femininity is part of the women’s judging criteria.

Competitors are told to emphasise femininity, symmetry, proportion, tone, definition and to minimise physique and muscle mass.

They’re also expected to display graceful gestures, soft movements and have an hourglass figure. They have to wear make-up, heels, revealing and sparkling bikinis. Judges have even been found selecting women who are big-busted, pretty and slim and whose muscles aren’t visible unless flexed.

Femininity is linked to a female body that is slender, neat and sexually attractive. Because the muscular female form is so challenging, sports such as body sculpting use femininity as a buffer to counter the fact that women also have muscle. (We don’t judge male bodybuilders on their masculinity, their “maleness”.)

Is there a problem here?

When female athletes train and use their bodies as men do, women become muscular and strong too. Femininity prevents us from accepting muscle on women.

The problem isn’t muscle. The problem is femininity itself. Ideas about womanhood make muscular women appear unnatural. Femininity normalises a female body that is round, soft, small and heterosexually appealing.

Because femininity can’t be located within the body, most women have to display it on their bodies. This performance is achieved by minimising muscularity, clothing choice, make-up, hair-styles, attending to grooming and nails.

Venus and Serena Williams off the court. AAP Image/David Crosling

Femininity dictates what women can do with their bodies and there are grave social consequences for not conforming.

The result? Women operate within a restricted space.

Being thin, weak or helpless doesn’t allow full physical capacity. Indeed, women train their bodies to be inefficient. They become disconnected from their bodies, losing power and strength. This results in a distrust of their bodies, capabilities and an overall sense of insecurity. This affects how women experience relationships, how they carry themselves and relate to others.

It’s time to change our thinking

While we’re seeing a cultural shift from an emphasis on thinness to a more toned and athletic female body, many girls and women are still preoccupied with diet and weight loss – and there’s still a fear of women being muscular and bulky.

Let’s start thinking differently about women with muscle.

Women who care for their bodies through physical exercise become healthy, strong and capable. Ideas such as “real women are thin and weak”, are a bit like smoking: eventually, people will catch on that it just isn’t good for you.

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