What are Women’s Bodies for, Anyway?

 

 

katie sandwina holding 3 dudes

Image Description: This is a black-and-white photograph of Katie Sandwina, a circus strongwoman from the early 20th Century. Here she holds 3 adult men in suits up as balance on her arms and shoulders. Sandwina was capable of lifting over 300 pounds above her head and defeated Eugene Sandow (a famous circus strongman) in a weightlifting competition.

 

Happy Saturday to all of you taking the time to read this morning! For this month’s post, I decided to collaborate with my friend, Jaclyn, who has been mentioned in some of my other posts here and here.

We begin our reflection with this question from 1909, posed by a girl’s Phys. Ed. teacher:

“Who would suggest that the delicate, anaemic, hothouse plant type of girl, afraid of sun, wind, and rain, timid, nervous and clinging, … will make a better wife or mother than the strong, full-blooded, physically courageous woman, a companion for her husband on the golf links and a playmate with her children?” (Verbrugge 2002, 58).

Vintage Muscle

Image Description: This is a black-and-white photograph of a woman from the 1920’s, posing with her arm flexed. She has visible muscle in her biceps, triceps, forearms and shoulders. This juxtaposed with her vintage pincurl hairstyle makes for a striking image.

The suggestion being that women who were physically fit would make for better wives and mothers. In other words, the purpose of a woman’s fitness was not necessarily to benefit herself, but rather, to benefit those around her. The statement came at a time when cultural values were shifting away from the image of delicate femininity to what was referred to as the “New Woman,” who was seen as active, modern, vibrant and wholesome (55).

Some might look at this and laugh. Sure, this was over a hundred years ago. But things have changed. Right?

 

Rene Campbell bodybuilder

Image Description: This is a photograph of Rene Campbell, a professional female bodybuilder from the UK. She is in a black bikini and flexes her arms above her head. She is very visibly muscular. Female bodybuilders are often criticized for looking “manly,” “too masculine,” and have even been called “gross” or “disgusting” in reference to their muscular bodies.

 

We’re not so sure. In various chats over the last few months, we’ve noticed a staggering degree of negative comments and attitudes towards women who choose to pursue weightlifting. (Each activity receives its own negative commentary, but we’re going to stick to what we’re most familiar with.)

Jaclyn compiled a list of some of the highlights:

“Don’t get too fit”

“You’re not going to become one of those bodybuilder chicks, are you?”

“Don’t get too muscular though, you won’t look feminine anymore”

“You’re not going to be one of those chicks that looks like a man—that’s gross”

…and one of our all-time eye-rolling favourites: “Okay, but don’t get too bulky because men don’t like that.”

Tracy, while newer to weight training, has experienced some similar cautionary comments:

“Okay, but don’t work out too much.”

“Don’t get too jacked/ripped.”

“Don’t be that person.”

These comments not only come from a place of misinformation, but they perpetuate damaging assumptions about women and heteronormativity. We discussed the possibility of comments like this coming from a place of concern for health. But Jaclyn noted that these comments aren’t exactly along the (more concerned) lines of: “You’re not going to become one of those bodybuilder women, are you? …Because I hear that involves the use of drugs which can have a negative impact on your mood, fertility, and general health or because overtraining can cause physical/mental burnouts.” Nope.

 

bikini

Image Description: This is a photograph of three women posing for a bikini competition. Each of the women are tanned, with long hair and full make up. They strike poses so as to highlight small waists and curves around their hips and busts. Unlike body building which focuses on larger muscle mass and definition, bikini competitions place emphasis on more slender muscle. This is typically seen as the “physical goal” for women’s bodies.

 

For the most part, comments like these instead seem to implicitly “fit shame” (the flip side of fat shaming) or “police” individual behaviors that threaten societal ideas of what it is for a body to be feminine (i.e., slender, with only “feminine muscle” or femininely acceptable muscle.) See Sam’s recent post about the new popular aesthetic of a slender woman with a larger bum.

All of this not only perpetuates the damaging assumption that bodies are either feminine or masculine (and that this strict binary only allows for bodies that fit within a certain standard), but it reinforces the messages that women’s bodies are always bodies-for.  In other words, women’s bodies are always bodies-for-other-people but never primarily for themselves. In the case of Jaclyn’s experience, she is (implicitly, though often explicitly) being told that her body is a body-for-men when people say things like “Okay, but don’t get too bulky, because men don’t like that”.  This comment, which she frequently encounters, involves multiple problematic assumptions:  first, that all men are only attracted to the stereotypically “feminine body”, second, that all men are only attracted to women, third, that her sexual orientation is straight.  While we will not address these and other assumptions in this post, it is important to note the amount of troubling assumptions at play in the “bodies-for” message that women in fitness often encounter.

We didn’t even touch on assumptions around motherhood and aesthetics more broadly (i.e., What if she doesn’t want to be a mother? What if she wants to have large, bulky ?).

And certainly, while much has changed in women’s favour in the last century or so, there’s a lot that hasn’t changed. The prevailing comments in response to women’s fitness pursuits aren’t always explicitly about how this will affect her as a housewife, mother, or golf partner, but the fact is that we still encounter this “bodies-for” messaging everywhere. Looking ahead, we wonder how much things will change a hundred years from now. Hopefully, for the better.

 

Katie (Sandwina)

Image Description: This is a black-and-white photo of Katie Sandwina who is posing in a one-piece jumper while holding a man above her head with one arm. 

 

 

 

Jaclyn is an aspiring fitness blogger, living in London completing her PhD in philosophy of neuroscience at the University of Western Ontario.

Tracy is a freelance writer living in Toronto and completing her PhD in political philosophy.

About tracyrwdeboer

Tracy is a freelance writer currently living in Toronto and completing her PhD in political philosophy. You can find her on Twitter and Instagram @tracyrwdeboer.

6 thoughts on “What are Women’s Bodies for, Anyway?

  1. catherine w says:

    Thanks for the post– your characterization of women’s bodies as bodies-for is really apt. As a child and adolescent, my female body was a body-for-strength. But this was seen as mostly a liability (even, and especially by me, sadly). It took a while before I saw how wrong-headed and unkind this treatment of me was. These days, it’s fun (in better moments) to think of my body as a body-for grace, body-for-strength, body-for-caring, body-for-endurance, etc. Your post made me more grateful and aware of these reframing opportunities.

    Liked by 1 person

  2. “Don’t get too jacked/ripped.”

    If only it were that easy!

    Like

  3. oxanakunets says:

    What a great insight into assumptions behind “men don’t like that” comment! Jessi Kneeland (http://jessikneeland.com) was making an observation that from the early childhood girls are characterized by the way they make others feel. They are encouraged to “be nice” and “look pretty”, which are the reflections of how girls are perceived by others, not how they are as individuals (e.g. “be brave”).
    Thank you for the article.

    Like

  4. bone&silver says:

    Great post, thank you for articulating what so many of us feel- our bodies are not ‘for’ anyone but ourselves!

    Like

  5. This topic is very interesting to me. When I was in Junior High one of my best friends confided in me that her father was a bodybuilder, and his girlfriend was one as well. My friend was very self concious because her bmi typically fell within the “overweight to obese” categories according to the medical charts at least. She said that her father was always pushing her to strength train with them. She felt comfortable with her appearance for the most part except when dad was around. Her mother was a beautician and she was as talented as “mom”at making other people and herself “feel beautiful” yet she felt her dad “grilling her” to “get fit”in many ways robbed her of the confidence it took a lifetime for her to achieve. In many ways I guess I felt the same way when my father would make comments about my skin. I have psoriasis(a disorder I actually inherited from him) and when I experienced outbreaks as a teenager I suffered from social anxiety. My father did not seem to realize that he made this worse when he would say things like “girls are supposed to have pretty skin”. I was actually very surprized once when one of my cousins also brought this up on one of my weekend visits(my parents were divorced)and was immediately scolded by my stepmother. She told my cousin” don’t you think she hears enough of that everywhere else? Do you think she wants to be constantly reminded of her flaws by her own family?

    On Mar 11, 2017 4:45 AM, “Fit Is a Feminist Issue” wrote:

    > tracyrwdeboer posted: ” Happy Saturday to all of you taking the time > to read this morning! For this month’s post, I decided to collaborate with > my friend, Jaclyn, who has been mentioned in some of my other posts here > and here. We begin our reflection w” >

    Like

  6. oh my god – the comments (in your post) are so on point – I lift too, and I can’t tell you how many women get tee’d off when they ask what my regimen is in the gym! weight-lifting is like a dirty word – sometimes can’t believe its 2017! I love your photos too by the way!

    Like

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