body image · Guest Post

Wow, You Must Work Out! (Guest Post)

yap“You look fine, just don’t let your arms get any bigger.”

I’ve spent way too much of my life living with the irrational fear that, left unchecked, my biceps would expand uncontrollably, maybe eventually taking over my entire body. I have lived in fear of sleeveless shirts, favoring loose-armed men’s T-shirts over anything like a girly tee. And don’t even get me started on cap sleeves.

Why the bicep-phobia?

I wish I could point to just one thing. After all, I do have a body type that tends to put on muscle. But I also started gymnastics, and then martial arts at a very young age, and do not come from a particularly athletic family. And let’s face it, being proper just never came naturally to some of us, much to (some of) our family’s consternation. So the fact that I was starting to look athletic growing up was not helping. And so that was the kind of thing that would be said to me. Just don’t let your arms get any bigger. It’s ok to be strong, just don’t get too big and unladylike. Well, I’m sorry. That’s just how I look when I’m strong.

Fast forward to several years of martial arts (wrestling, taekwondo, wushu) competition. And then rock climbing. Guys sometimes look at, or worse, feel, my arms and say, things like, “wow, your arms are bigger than mine!” Or just that they’re huge. I’ve been told I look like someone you wouldn’t want to run into in a dark alley. And I’ve gotten upset. And been told that I should just take it all as a compliment. Because that’s how it was intended. And not to be so sensitive.

So what’s wrong with that?

I think there are two problems. The first is that popular culture (also see: fitspiration) has left people without a realistic idea of what athletic women look like. Worse yet, with the idea that there is just one way we look. But when we’re conditioned to believe that the result of ordinary exercise is always the super-thin model, perhaps with visible abs, we think that any athletic-looking woman deviating from that norm has made a concerted effort to do so. If you work out all the time and don’t look like a fitspo poster, that must be because it’s your choice, after all. Right? Oh, wait.

The second problem is more complicated, at least for me. I want to be in a position where I am happy enough with my appearance to take any relatively accurate well-intentioned comment on it as a compliment. But I’m not. I’m still a product of our ridiculous sexist, sizeist culture, and no matter how much I think other strong-looking women look hot, I can’t quite apply that standard to myself. At least not yet. But really, I don’t think other people should get to dictate what I should want to look like. You’d like bigger arms? Great. Maybe I wouldn’t. You’d like to be thinner? Great. Maybe I’m trying to gain weight.

I mean, this is hard for me, because the standard people are trying to hold me to is one that I would like to have already adopted for myself. But I just haven’t been able to do that yet. So there’s a double judgment tied up in all of this, because not only do I hear an insult, I also hear the fact that I am still sizeist. And both of those things hurt.

So what’s a friend to do? I mean, you’ve got this athletic person in your life, and you want to tell her she looks great, but now I’ve made it all difficult, because you don’t know if you should tell her she’s skinny, or strong, or healthy, or what? How do you know what she wants to hear? Well. Maybe you could just tell her she looks great. Or maybe this time you shouldn’t compliment her on her looks at all.

Some women exercise to look good. Lots of us also exercise because there’s something we love doing that requires us to move our bodies in ways that exert a bunch of energy. So maybe you should compliment her on whatever that thing is. Maybe you could tell her how great it was she did that bike race. Or that she climbed that route really well. Or ask how her soccer team’s been doing. How about that? My body got this way because of the way I live in it. And I think all in all, I’d rather be complimented on what I’ve done with it, than on how those actions have made it look.


16 thoughts on “Wow, You Must Work Out! (Guest Post)

  1. Great post. I have stopped completely complimenting people on how they look as I just think it helps perpetuate this myth we are all suppose to look a certain way. What someone looks like has nothing to do with why I am friends with them.

  2. Great post. I’m amazed at how much this affects women’s lives. I have a friend who thinks she would love rowing but is scared of looking like a rower. Like you, she puts on muscle easily. Wish we could put these aesthetic considerations aside but it’s tough.

    1. I used to hate pushups, and not because they’re hard. Now I see it as part of my public service to help little girls love doing pushups.

  3. This is an interesting post. I have been thinking a lot about fitness as an athlete vs. fitness for health and strength on it’s own. I would put myself in the latter category. But one thing I didn’t really know when getting into lifting is this body composition change and in the last year or two, I have seen shoulders and arms get bigger. Thighs get bigger. And I have gained weight from the muscle. Even knowing I wear the same size (aside from some jeans that ripped in the thigh (ugh!)) I’m still not sure how I feel about this athletic look and I’m not sure if it’s the standard-media-vision of beauty that causes me to doubt this look. i should be thrilled because I’m strong and healthy and so much more capable than I was–maybe the self-esteem part will catch up with me at some point. I hope so. Anyway, I have no issues with compliments–I don’t get upset, I just tend to not be able to believe what they are saying because my own standard is so off…could go on about this for years :).

    1. I sometimes think it might help us feel better about changes in our body composition if more clothes manufacturers would account for female bodies that have muscles on them. Superficial as it is. But let me know if you find any good tricks to make the self-esteem catch up! 🙂

      1. Ding ding ding! I love my biceps but finding shirts that don’t feel like they’re cutting off my arm’s circulation is a challenge. My arms aren’t even that big, just big for me 🙂

  4. This is what I like about a traditional martial arts gi or dobok. It’s explicitly designed to disguise the wearer’s musculature. When training, the only thing you can compliment is skill and technique.

    1. Nice. I didn’t think about it that way. I have thought before that it’s the perfect sport for women with religious or other reasons for preferring modest dress.

  5. Great post, Audrey. It’s interesting to see the range of body-types that can result in struggles with body image. I love how you close your post with the recommendation that we back off of the aesthetic assessment and stick with high fives for how awesome we are!

  6. Great post. It seems to me that no matter what we choose to do with our bodies, or how we appear, there is always something that people can judge or find fault with, and so many of these things are just intrinsic to our bodies, which means we are always being set up to be uncomfortable in our own skins.

    I recently started participating in a weightlifting class for women. The class is great, except two different trainers now have told us that we won’t “get big”. I know they mean this to be reassuring, and for most people putting on muscle takes quite a lot of conscious effort. But the comment still makes an assumption about what women want (or should want) their bodies to look like. It’s so easy to alienate people with body comments like that (even unintentionally). If only we could shift our culture to stop assuming that a particular body type is normal, or that women want to look a particular way!

    1. I know exactly what you mean about the trainers’ comments. It reminds me of a story that I think Sam or Tracy linked to once about a Crossfit instructor who had to hide her muscles for some prospective female clients, because some women would at her and panic that they’d get “too big.” Sigh.

  7. I really enjoyed this post.

    I love the honesty — “I want to be in a position where I am happy enough with my appearance to take any relatively accurate well-intentioned comment on it as a compliment. But I’m not. I’m still a product of our ridiculous sexist, sizeist culture, and no matter how much I think other strong-looking women look hot, I can’t quite apply that standard to myself. ” — and I totally relate to that sentiment.

    I really think the simple idea of acknowledging what other people can do instead of just commenting on what it does to their bodies is something that has a lot of power. Shifting the focus, one compliment at a time, is a little thing that could really have a big impact on someone.

    Thank you for writing this!

    1. Thanks for that! Acknowledging where these worries come from was for sure an important part of writing this for me. It’s a good exercise, anyhow, for me to acknowledge, in the middle of feeling insulted, that the reason I was feeling insulted was because I’m actually prejudiced. Which is really not a way to make yourself feel better, but I’m hoping is a way to work on the underlying problem.

  8. I’ve gotten the most ridiculous “compliments” since I have lost weight. My *favorite* is: You Had Better Not Lose Any More Weight. That one will make me seethe for hours. It is demeaning and patronizing – as if they know more about what is good for my body than I do. People really don’t think when they say things like that. I try to keep in mind that most of the time people mean well and let it go, but yeah… these things can really get under the skin.

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