“Go in peace my daughter. And remember that, in a world of ordinary mortals, you are a Wonder Woman.” Queen Hippolyte to Wonder Womangreg westfall on Flickr
The ‘ideal’ woman is toned but not muscular, thin but not skinny (or is it the other way around?). She has curves, but no hips or butt. The ‘ideal’ woman is also apparently defined solely by her body’s appearance. The ‘ideal’ woman is a biological contradiction.
From what I have gathered as a guy, the world of exercise and fitness is a minefield for woman. It is promised as the path to a sexy, thin body, but one misstep could lead a woman to functionally useful strength or worse, mannishness (which apparently means any visible muscle definition).
The phrase a ‘strong woman’ brings to mind tenacity, persistence, mental toughness, but almost never physical strength. Why is that?
My opinion is that standards of beauty should be a reflection of physical health: that which is considered beautiful ought to correlate to that which is healthy: a healthy human being, man or women, is a beautiful human being. Unfortunately, somewhere along the line, we associated feminine frailty with feminine beauty, to the detriment of women (and men) everywhere. The media has cemented this image, with even action heroines sporting builds that could never perform the stunts they execute.
Of course, my opinion doesn’t matter all that much. If women want to conform to a standard of beauty that does not allow for health, that’s their choice, and I know that for many women, attractiveness is a far, far more pressing concern than health. In fact, healthy behavior is pursued only as a means to acquire an attractive appearance. This works to an extent because humans are hardwired to prefer the appearance of a healthy human over an unhealthy one. Biologically, attractiveness is an indicator of underlying health, so we seek out attractive mates because they are more likely to produce healthy offspring and survive the hardships of life. From an evolutionary perspective, attractiveness itself is not the desirable trait.
We should be more concerned about health than about attractiveness. Using diet and exercise in order to acquire a nice appearance begs the question of what happens when you no longer need or want to look attractive. Do you just start neglecting your health? After all, if health was only a means to look nice, it would only be pursued for the sake of appearance. There would be no concern about longevity, usefulness to others, or even respect for one’s own body.
The human organism expresses its greatest health when it is functionally adept. When it can move well, it looks good. When it is well nourished, it looks good. That makes it attractive to others, as a side effect, as a flag telling others the organism is succeeding and flourishing. When you achieve vitality and vibrant health–when you flourish–you are beautiful.
Women and Strength Training
Women need to redefine their own standard of beauty. I won’t pretend that men aren’t victims of the same media that says only one body type is ideal, but standards of male beauty at least allow for high levels of physical performance. For a woman, the ideal body type is definitely weak and this is a shame.
Plenty of women are exceptional endurance athletes, and a lot have gained impressive levels of flexibility and mobility. A tiny fraction of women are strong in any real sense of the word; very few place as much emphasis on strength as they do on endurance or flexibility. Perhaps they think it isn’t as significant for their health. In reality, strength is probably more important than either cardiovascular health or flexibility. An aversion to resistance training and functional muscle mass means that women are increasing their risks for osteoporosis, postural problems, and injury in general. It also means they are purposefully making it more difficult to maintain a healthy weight, and cementing their physical vulnerability.
When I train woman interested in getting in shape, I always try to emphasize that they should get strong, and I’m always met with resistance. The idea of being strong is absolutely repulsive to some women, even though being stronger would help them achieve every single fitness goal they might have short of skeletal thinness.
Many women are so terrified of ending up like the models on muscle magazines that they are afraid to even touch a barbell. For many, this is the only female body type they associate with lifting heavy weights. However, gaining size like that is impossible without testosterone supplements and steroids. Even the less extreme examples of figure competitors perform with very low body-fat in order to make their muscles stand out more, and do not maintain that in their daily lives (because it is unhealthy and unsustainable). Most women simply don’t have enough testosterone to gain much size. If it were that easy to bulk up, every college athlete would have massive, rippling, vein-popping muscles.
The ‘toned’ look so many women covet is actually created by dense muscle, which is strong and is developed using high resistance training. Fat loss is easiest to achieve with additional muscle; since muscle is very metabolically active, more of it means more calories burned every minute of the day.
Please correct me if I’m wrong, but I get the impression that some women are not only against looking strong, they are against actually being strong, visibly or not. I can only attribute this to a misogynist notion that physically weak women are more desirable, more feminine.
Women who lift heavier weights and get strong will look strong. Not mannish, bulky, unwomanly, butch, burly, or hulking. Strong. It is a shame that this is considered a bad thing.
We need to come upon a new standard of feminine beauty that allows a woman to be strong and attractive.
Since the biggest aversion is to visible arm muscles, the simplest solution is to focus on exercise that relies on the hips, legs, and back, rather than the upper body. Luckily, these are also the largest muscle groups and the ones that contribute the most to functional health. Deciding to sacrifice strength instead is not a solution, because failure to develop muscle will only lead to health problems down the road.
The better solution would be to work on accepting your own, unique standard of beauty. Vitality and health should be a part of what it means to be beautiful, and a body that is strong and fit in all aspects will express vitality unique to itself. That is true beauty, though perhaps not by the standards of Cosmo or Vogue.
I’ve written a handbook to explain my take on exercise and the role I think it should play in our lives. I have seen too many people who find themselves at war with themselves over their own health. I have also become really fed up with the fitness industry misleading people to make a profit. I’d like to clear away some of the myths and the lies, and present a vision of health that does not involve self-destructive exercise or starvation. My goal is to explain the movement and diet aspects of health in a way that lets you make your own decisions. If anything in this article resonated with you, check out the book (it’s free).
Inspired? Incensed? Please let me know in the comments below or on Twitter. If you liked the post, please share it with your friends using the links below.