Muscle mass, gender, and sex, oh my!
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.
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.
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.