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Muscle mass, gender, and sex, oh my!

June 16, 2010

I was just trying to catch up with some reading, and ran across a good post by Snarky’s Machine: You Are My Sisters:

Ending oppression – be it fat or racial or gender or whathaveyou – requires an active commitment to resist any cultural messaging seeking to frame one member of a marginalized group as representative of all members – regardless of whether the framing presents the members in a negative or positive light…

In my opinion, if we can’t all get to the mountain top it just ain’t worth going.

Exactly! Detsadatliyvsesdi (we hang on to one another unconditionally) and Detsadasalidihesdi (we raise one another up)–or none of us is getting anywhere. And anywhere I can get through this kind of “good”/”bad” characterization, I don’t want to go.

Sometimes that pattern is really hard to break out of, though.

Some of the comments got me to thinking in a different (but still somewhat related) direction, which prompted this post. In a general policing context, the topic of muscular women came up again. I had been meaning to write more about this for a while, and this reminded me.

Octavia wrote, in part (emphasis mine):

The idea that women can be muscular, and happy about it, is so alien to so many people (unsurprisingly usually also fat-hating people) that although I am small, I get a lot of shit from doctors (until I started refusing to be weighed) because of my weight. I have a lot of extremely dense muscle, so doctors – even after I have explained that I am very muscular and that even if I wasn’t they can step off with their weight loss talk – tend to look rather blankly at me and then reiterate their “Must lose weight!” standpoint. I’ve even been told that I need to lose the muscle because it’s weight and I shouldn’t weigh that much! I’ve also been told that it MUST be weight from sneaky, hidden fat, because a woman CANNOT have enough muscle to make up that weight (nice! You just told me that I’m not a woman!).

So, my body may be small, but I should further conform to the rigid standards of ideal femininity by also not weighing too much, by having a small, delicated body. By, in a sense, disappearing who I physically am.

Yes, that sounds very familiar indeed, though I am not otherwise small.

I hope that most of us can see this “taking up too much space == unfeminine” thing for the utter BS it is. It does a lot of harm.

Then we get comments from valerie and chava about the perceived horribleness of “bulking up” through strength training. From chava’s:

A million times YES on the “bulking up” nonsense. I have heard that sooooo many times as a critique or snark on my own workout routines.

I have an acquanitence with premature osteoperesis whose doctor advised her to start lifting to help stave it off. Oh no, she couldn’t possibly…she might “bulk up.” !!!!!!!*headdesk*

This theme is really hard to avoid. It keeps coming up, even in seemingly unrelated contexts like this. (Though, indeed, this kind of policing is very relevant.) Scrolling down, I was almost holding my breath waiting for the inevitable continuation. Slythwolf obliged:

I am a devotee of Stumptuous.com, so the “I don’t want to get too big” thing gets on my last nerve. The vast majority of female human beings would have to purchase the hormones required to get “too” big. We simply do not build muscle mass the way that male human beings can.

I am sure that she didn’t mean anything insulting, and I am not trying to pick on individual commenters at all here. Still, some comments illustrate a larger phenomenon. I will repeat Octavia’s “nice! You just told me that I’m not a woman!”

Not intentionally, in these cases. But I can still see some acceptance of the idea that any woman who can bulk up is some kind of anomaly. It’s repeating common exercise “wisdom”: never mind your worry about getting too big, only a freakish 5% of women can bulk up anyway. (The stated percentages vary a lot, but they are always very, very low.) I don’t know how anyone could reasonably determine how many women are capable of building a lot of muscle mass, given the emphasis on avoiding doing so. Nor how anyone could reasonably determine that testosterone levels are the only/main variable here, again given the discouragement and Everyone Knows factor. What do we really know about this subject? I would certainly like to see more (unbiased) research.

For a depressing read, see a lot of the contributions to this thread: Mesomorphs – women who bulk up. Anyone in the same boat?. Including such gems as “I gained a ton of muscle and found out that my hormones weren’t balanced correctly (I don’t know which caused the other)…I have heard that it is hard to bulk up if you are eating a calorie deficit, which I think is helping me.” (balanced correctly for whom?) and “I’m sure some women are better at building muscle than others, but this thread is terrifying. It plays on the fears that most women have about weight training” (i.e., that they’ll Get Too Big and Look Like Men). That first one does raise a good point, though: if you’re restricting your food intake to the point that many women are led to believe they should, you will have a hard time building muscle mass–because your body is starving. Even if you are not purposely doing so to avoid gaining muscle mass, like this woman. *headdesk*

Then there is the brain-breaking True or False? Women Won’t Bulk Up If They Lift Light Weights (again, emphasis mine):

But, you’re thinking, women can’t add bulk. At least, that’s what all the experts keep saying. Well that’s a bunch of hogwash. Yes, women don’t have the testosterone levels to add as much muscle as male bodybuilders do. (Okay, so I was exaggerating just a little when I said you’d end up looking like Flex Wheeler.) Women can add bulk, though. A woman with a ten-inch-circumference bicep is not going to be able to double the size of her bicep (at least not without some pharmaceutical help), but she can certainly add an inch of size. I don’t know too many women who want to grow their biceps by an inch. That’s not sexy in a spaghetti strap, but that’s what happens when you go low weight, high rep. To lose inches, you need to lift heavy. With my approach, you’ll gain strength without adding bulk. You’ll get stronger as your body grows smaller.

Is that even physically possible? Even if it is, why should I want to do that?! And, once again, women who can add more than an inch to their biceps are Wrong and Unnatural–not to mention unfuckable. It’s pretty clear that even “natural” muscle mass increases are unacceptable. There is also some middle ground between “looking like Flex Wheeler” (had to look him up) and being capable of increasing your upper arm circumference by an inch. I suspect that an awful lot of us live somewhere in the middle there.


Flex Wheeler. From basketball.de. The resemblance is uncanny!😉

I quoted that, in part, because the bolded bit was a particularly close-to-home slap in the face. I honestly used to avoid sleeveless shirts and tank tops, to avoid exposing my “fat” (muscular) upper arms. Now they’re just stringy-muscular (with almost no subcutaneous fat so some visible veins, to boot), and I keep finding myself feeling self-conscious about that in spite of myself–while going ahead and wearing what I like. The expectations here are wack. And nigh impossible to banish from your head.

Kaynek continued in comments on the original post, semi-intentionally making a good point (yet again, emphasis mine):

Any road, I’ve also been lifting weights for years now and I can tell you from experience that I will never look like man. Not unless I plan on hitting the needles, my female body doesn’t make enough testosterone on its own.

I know from my own experience that I will never look like a man. Because I simply am not physiologically male. (Note: I know this is a complicated subject, too, but I’m going with the commonly understood physical binary to make a point.) Even when I had twice the muscle mass I do now, I still looked like a woman: a beefy, muscular woman (with large breasts, not usually found on men). Some women look like that, and I am frankly tired of hearing that we’re somehow freakish in a masculine way. Being muscular is definitely not coded as feminine in Western society these days; that doesn’t mean much other than that, erm, it’s not considered feminine to be muscular. Women can be mesomorphs (“large chest, long torso, solid muscle structure and very strong”) too, and still be women. I am genderqueer, but physiologically look like a woman.

Unfortunately, there seems to be so much strongly ingrained socialization here that the distinction between gender and sex are not always clear. Even in the minds of people who are pretty good at seeing that distinction otherwise.

There are physiological differences between men as a group and women as a group. I am still very wary indeed of going too essentialist, because–again–reality is rarely as neat as a lot of people would like to think. And there are a lot of outliers–and nothing is inherently wrong with them. It’s entirely too easy to take a real statistical difference and run with it in gender performance expectations, such that “most women have less body hair than most men” turns into “women must (painfully and expensively) remove all their body hair, to avoid being perceived as offputtingly manly” (which only reinforces the idea that women don’t have body hair). Bzzzt, ridiculous.

Like binaryfairy, I must admit that:

But I think the main thing that bothers me about these differences is because I know where the train of most people’s thoughts are going to go when they read them. They use “sex” and “gender” terms interchangeably, and all of a sudden “males are usually stronger than females,” turns into, “men are usually stronger than women,” which then jumps to, “men should be doing all the things that require strength and women are weak.” There may be some more steps in between there, but basically that’s how I see it go. If there were no social consequences that came from sex differences, I wouldn’t have a problem admitting that they existed. But because I fear of what these sex differences lead to, I feel the need to fight them, even if they are blatantly staring me in the face.

I also have to wonder where some of the ones staring me in the face are actually coming from. And why so many people have so much invested in (a) pointing them out, (b) getting hostile toward outliers, much less (c) conflating them with gender and turning them into demands, as mentioned above. After a while, it gets really hard to sort out what’s what.

I have felt this kind of thing even more acutely–and, yeah, probably gotten a little touchy–because a lot of the women I know back home are built like me. This kind of thing gets racialized a lot, in a way that’s not examined much. How much research has been done on proportions of women who build muscle easily among different ethnic/racial groups? (And how much of the focus there would be on our hormonal imbalances and “bad genes”?!) I am reminded yet again of What If Black Women Were White Women?. I also have to wonder, as with height (PDF; “women were about the same height as men relative to modern height standards”), how much of the assumed biological sex-based difference has more to do with social inequality.

One of the reasons I loved a sculpture of Selu was that the model chosen to represent the Ani Tsalagi First Woman/Corn Mother was built an awful lot like me (i.e., like a lot of Cherokee and other Native-descended women in the region). I suspect Selu would bulk “unattractively” too. Besides her “unhealthy”, “manly” WHR.


Bronze statue of Selu in Cherokee, North Carolina. Dignified strength? Universally unfeminine and unwomanly. Or so we’re supposed to believe.

Personally, I’d like to get back into strength training, and build up some more muscle mass again, both to be stronger and to feel more like “me”. (This is a completely personal hangup.) I have lost a good bit over the past five years or so, for medical reasons, and both this continuing problem and musculoskeletal problems have kept me from regaining it so far. Do I look more or less like a woman these days? Not really.

10 Comments leave one →
  1. June 16, 2010 5:51 pm

    I think there are more women who are endo-meso rather than straight meso. I’m meso, but my mother and a sister are endo-meso, and they look fat, but are super strong underneath. Stronger than me, right now, with greater endurance to boot (endos have more natural endurance). So people might not see them as “bulked up” because of the layer of fat on top. I, on the other hand, am short with a small waist (plus I wear large loose-fitting clothes), so people don’t see my bulk, either. But I scaled my photo once to compare to the men in the Atlas of Men (WH Sheldon) and I’m about a 5.5 in mesomorphy on his scale (1-7). Huge honking rib cage and upper hips, with the fitting problems that go with that.

    I wish I had enough muscle to put my big bones in their place. I have no idea what I’d look like or how I’d dress, but the dress on that statue might suit me for a start.

    • urocyon permalink
      June 18, 2010 1:34 pm

      Good point, with the endo-meso observation. I’ve known a number who fit that description, and I think it’s a lot easier to notice the fat in this cultural climate.

      Huge honking rib cage and upper hips, with the fitting problems that go with that.

      I get extra fitting fun, since–never mind the shoulders–my (approx. 45″) ribcage is a decent bit wider than my hips (which never had any non-muscle padding). Good thing I rarely like to wear dresses.😉 Things will probably get fun if I do try to get back into swimming more seriously, trying to find some one-piece suits that are big enough up top and don’t flap lower down. And most “fitness” tankinis seem to be sold same size, top and bottom. Grr.

      I wish I had enough muscle to put my big bones in their place.

      I know what you mean. I’m not sure that the rawboned look suits me, try as I do to get used to (and like) it. 🙂

  2. June 18, 2010 2:58 am

    Yes, yes and yes!

    I’ve also long suspected that the reason most women don’t bulk up when they exercise — even if they’re doing strength training — is because they’re also starving themselves.

    I actually needed to eat more — lots more — when I started exercising really intensively, and sure enough, I did gain weight/muscle mass. I am also not necessarily a natural mesomorph; my family’s body type is very tall, thin and long-fingered, with narrow ribcages and hips. But I did so much strength training, and ate so much, while I was still growing into my adult body, that I seem to have shifted the balance somewhat.

    (I have always wanted to “look like a man,” though — for a while I thought maybe I might be a trans man, but no, I was fine with being female, I just wanted the size, strength and body shape — broad shoulders, narrower waist and hips — typically seen as masculine. Now I have that, I’m really happy with my body, and try dressing it in fun ways rather than hiding it under too-big T-shirts. (Well, also it’s now a lot harder to find a T-shirt that’s baggy on me; a men’s large fits pretty snugly!))

    Also, I seem to get much more sympathetic treatment from doctors/nurses weighing me than that lady you quote from the Shapely Prose comment thread — whenever I reveal my weight to someone (either in doctors’ offices of in conversation), there’s first disbelief, and then there’s some attempt to wave it off. Like, “Oh, but you’re well-proportioned” or “It’s because you’re muscular.” So there’s good and bad in there — it’s good that people don’t tend to assume I’m unhealthy because of what I weigh, but it’s bad that they do so while retaining the notion that All Those Other Fat, Fat Fatties (i.e., the people who weigh exactly what I do) are killing themselves with their forks.

    *sigh*

    • urocyon permalink
      June 18, 2010 1:57 pm

      I actually needed to eat more — lots more — when I started exercising really intensively, and sure enough, I did gain weight/muscle mass.

      That just makes sense. I think a lot of women have been made afraid to eat as much as they would need to in order to see the the full effects of basically any kind of exercise. (And the current emphasis on low fat eating doesn’t help with that, especially as it usually also limits protein intake.) I know I still have to fight feeling very uncomfortable at the quantities of food I need to eat, just to maintain as I am right now–it may be for a different reason, but my energy/protein needs are about the same as when I was really active. And I didn’t even get the “no woman should be eating that much” at home; just pretty much everywhere else.😐

      I think it’s a shame that personally wanting to have a body type not coded as feminine in this time and place has been made easy to confuse with being trans. (Not that there is anything wrong with either one; that’s kinda the point.) The two things are pretty different, and I’m glad you figured out what you wanted and were able to work toward it. It’s actually a little funny: I don’t necessarily even think of “broad shoulders, narrower waist and hips” immediately as masculine–but, then, my main reference sample is a little unusual.🙂

      Yeah, I’ve also gotten the surprise factor at my actual weight, as compared to what the other person is expecting. (And, yeah, even correcting downward, I still tend to overestimate the weight of people who are built less robustly.) Sometimes the reactions are a lot like the ones you describe–and I also get irked at the exceptionalism thing. But, I guess some folks deal with their cognitive dissonance by getting hostile. With my ribcage, I’m kinda blocky-looking anyway, so I think it’s even easier to take “a woman cannot possibly be built like that/women built like that are scary” to “Aha! Never mind what my eyes are telling me, it’s really gobs of fat!” *shakes head* It’s just not right to treat anybody that way.

      The “spaghetti strap” snipe really got on my nerves. Talk about blatant policing. Somehow I think a lot of people do find that sexy, rather than threatening. Granted, I’m more likely to be wearing spaghetti straps for comfort than anything else, these days. That’s not to say that some people don’t probably find the big, bony shoulder look alluring.🙂

  3. June 18, 2010 3:04 am

    I also have to say, “Au contraire!” to the lady who opined that large, well-defined biceps (and triceps and deltoids) “are not sexy in a spaghetti strap.”

    I think they are! I love wearing spaghetti straps with my huge arms and shoulders. I don’t think I would wear them if I didn’t have guns to show off.

  4. June 19, 2010 11:44 am

    Now I’m confused. Am I eating too much of the wrong foods, or not enough of the right ones, or both? Maybe I need to increase my good calories??? Arghhh!

    I wanna muscle up, so I can be stronger.

    • urocyon permalink
      June 21, 2010 2:17 pm

      Sorry, I could have been clearer. I think you’re responding to the “low fat, low protein” reference.

      That’s just an observation of a pattern I’ve noticed, and succumbed to myself on occasion, among non-veg*ans in particular. Fat is bad, saturated fat is *really* bad, animal products contain both; therefore, intake of animal products gets severely reduced without substituting other foods (like beans) to make sure macronutrient needs are getting met. For example, a cup of nonfat yogurt and maybe a chicken breast per day is unlikely to give you enough protein. Especially if you’re also exercising regularly. (And I have to wonder if reducing fat intake with no regard for moderation is actually healthy, either.)

      In this kind of situation, AFAICT people are also risking the kind of calorie/macronutrient deficit that sends the body straight into food insecurity mode. So the body can stop putting on muscle, and very possibly pack on some fat to try to keep itself going. Sabotaged at least two ways. And I have known a number of women who thought they were doing the right thing for their health this way.

      Unless you’re going really unbalanced with your diet, these observations probably don’t apply to you.

      With my own body’s needs, not too surprisingly, I got pretty sick on a low fat, rather low protein, high carb diet. Even before meds set off the insulin resistance and screwed up carbohydrate metabolism, my body seemed to need more fat and protein than most people’s to work properly. A few months ago, I had to go back to eating meat, to more easily fulfill temporarily much higher energy and protein needs. I could have made meals largely out of beans, cheese, and eggs, but I’d already found myself eating so much of those that I didn’t have enough room left for a variety of veggies. Even with being ravenously hungry pretty much all the time. Now I’m feeling better, and am not so hungry. I’m still not entirely ethically happy with the situation, but needs must.

      One size fits all just doesn’t when it comes to dietary needs, either.😐

      • June 21, 2010 2:25 pm

        I’m not confused by you. I’m confused by me. I get indigestion from almost all carbs, but I keep scarfing fruit anyways, because it gives me the least indigestion. But I also have the compulsion to binge and I wondered if it was due to too much fructose, which can switch off the feeling of satiation in the brain. I tried to give it up but it didn’t work. Now I’m wondering if I’m just not eating enough good food. (Or else it’s due to the fear of running out of food money every month that’s been going on for so many years.) So the last few days I’ve been eating until the feeling goes away, which means seriously stuffing myself with meat, eggs, and fruit until it starts to hurt. I’ll see how it goes. Maybe I’m really just hungry.

        For me, food is seriously hard. Partly because I can’t eat the four food groups, partly because cooking anything with any complexity or variety really uses up spoons, but probably mostly because of poverty. Oh, well, there goes my savings plan.

      • urocyon permalink
        June 22, 2010 12:27 pm

        Aha. I remember your mentioning the fructose suspicions. Bit of a shame cutting back on that didn’t help. It doesn’t seem like those effects would be very strong in fruit (as opposed to, say, HFCS), with the amount of other stuff to buffer it. But I don’t know. *scratches head*

        That does sound annoying to deal with. I am wondering about food insecurity there, with your body switching over to trying to get in as much as it can while the food money holds out. I’m sorry you’re in that situation.😦 I hope you can figure out what’s going on before long.

        I actually enjoy cooking–especially when other people are around to eat it–but it still takes an awful lot of spoons, what with the lousy EF and all. Lots and lots of steps. And it’s harder to do some things to stretch the food budget, with the EF problems (and, for me, trouble with crowded stores, which is basically all of them around here).😦 Growing up poor a lot of the time, I learned the habit of basically haunting the reduced sections in grocery stores–especially for meat–but lots of things get in the way of doing that on nearly as regular a basis as my mother did. The “small” things like that add up.

  5. wolverine permalink
    November 21, 2010 6:05 pm

    Oddly enough I never found that this stereotype affected me. I’ve always wanted to put on muscle mass, but can’t…pure ectomorph lol. People think I’m weird and must have something wrong with me for wanting to look ‘unfeminine’. As if to be a real woman, you have to be small, slight, and asthenic. Sick.

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