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.