Women in Muscles

I’ve been working out since I was in my early teens. Not always consistently, and very rarely well, but I grew up with a very conscious desire to either get in or stay in shape. But, as far as I knew, being ‘in shape’ just meant doing cardio. And lots of it.


I’ve been working out since I was in my early teens. Not always consistently, and very rarely well, but I grew up with a very conscious desire to either get in or stay in shape. But, as far as I knew, being ‘in shape’ just meant doing cardio. And lots of it.

A couple years back, everything changed. I said a resounding ‘fuck you’ to the treadmills, exercise bikes, and HIIT regimes, choosing instead to focus on strength training. At the time, I thought this was revolutionary — a woman, lifting weights, building up muscles? How very girlboss of me! But, as it turns out, ‘muscles’ have really hit the mainstream of women’s beauty standards.

Which means I’m not so much a revolutionary as I am jumping on the bandwagon.

Now that I’m two years into the game, I’ve made a few observations about strength training. Specifically, the cultural shifts that have both enabled and commended more women in muscles. Maybe we can chalk this shift up to more progressive workout arenas. Maybe it’s thanks to a select few pop culture icons. Or maybe we can even credit the rising intersection between gym culture and queer culture, as we begin to celebrate non-traditional aesthetics of femininity. Whatever the dominant explanation, muscular women have carved out a new set of beauty standards for women in the Western world.

That being said, I’ve toiled through the fitness and diet industry long enough to approach ‘women in muscles’ with a grain of salt. Like any other beauty standard, strength training requires dutiful interrogation. I’d like to draw upon my personal experiences as a strength-training woman. Specifically, how my personal experience applies to those three cultural shifts: gym culture, pop culture and queer culture.

The gym where I started my strength training journey was a cheap, tiny, 24/7 place up the road from my house. I started by using the weighted machines (leg press, pec fly, etc.). I probably drove a lot of seasoned gym junkies crazy as I wasted time fiddling with the adjustments, scrutinising the diagrams, and catching my breath. And yet, I was far more likely to be complimented on my set than I was to be ushered off. In fact, there was only one significant event that made me feel like I was taking up space where I did not belong.

A yoga mat. I’m on my forearms, planking my heart out. That’s when I feel someone tugging at my sports bra, straightening the twisted strap. Vibe checked to all hell, I turn to face the culprit — a random man who thought he was doing me a favour. So, to thank him, I reported the incident to the trainer at reception. I like to think it was something of a lesson learned for the lovely man, who returned to the gym after his month’s suspension and never made eye contact with me again. But it was a lesson learned for me, too: this space was for me as much as it was for everyone else. I had every right to be there, free from harassment and ostracising.

What I’m trying to say is that, in my experience, gym culture still has its blips (and its douchebags), but if the administrative authorities are on our side, then us strength-training women are well on our way.

On a larger scale, pop culture has also had an impact.

During the publicity efforts for Thor: Love and Thunder, one particular image stood out from all the others. It was a still of Natalie Portman and Tessa Thompson sitting side-by-side, clad in armour, adorned by broad shoulders and bulging biceps. Rumours began to circulate that it was all CGI’d, but the fact remains that Marvel — which, for better or for worse, represents the flaming zeitgeist that is Western pop culture — have very deliberately cultivated an image of muscular women. Not as a one-off, or as a token, but as leading characters in one of their biggest film franchises to date. I’m not saying that Marvel films are the primary indicator of Western beauty standards for women, but Portman and Thompson’s presentation certainly deviates from the women in superhero films from only five years ago.

Although women’s physical strength has been celebrated in pop culture for a long time now, it’s only very recently that their strength has manifested as muscles. Normally, you’d have characters like Buffy, and Trinity, and Lara Croft — all strong, kickass fighters, but also very slender. These days, there’s a more practical, heftier reality to women’s strength. The trend doesn’t start or stop with superhero movies, either. It carries into other pop culture institutions, including video games. In particular, vastly popular battle royal games that offer an array of buff, playable women characters, including Bangalore from Apex Legends and Valkyrie from Fortnite. Evidently, strength-training women — ‘woman in muscles’ — have made a home for themselves all throughout Western pop culture.

And finally; the exciting realm of queer culture.

The way I see it, there are two major intersections between women’s strength training and queer culture. First, there is the women-loving-women strain, within which women’s physical bodies are valued externally from the male gaze: free from heteronormative rules of attraction, feminine beauty standards become a lot more flexible. Sure, there’s the whole stereotype of the ‘butch lesbian’, but that feels too reductive in the context of this discussion. Strength training has the capacity to change women’s bodies in so many ways. It can make us harder, softer, thicker, thinner, heavier, sharper, among about a hundred other things, most of which deviate from traditional standards of feminine beauty. It is from these ‘untraditional’ standards that a lot of women-loving-women derive both attraction and identity (at least, more so than we would through a heteronormative lens).

The second strain relates to gender identity. Because, of course, it’s not just men and women who like to work out — it’s everyone in between. Women and gender-fluid people in strength training actively defy expectations, heteronormative, binary, or otherwise, because we do not appeal to traditional beauty standards. Or, at least, the beauty standards which we have most likely been prescribed. Which, I know, seems to contradict everything I just said about buff women in pop culture, but pop culture is only half the battle. Off-screen, women and gender-fluid people are still expected to look a certain way and to appeal to a certain real-life audience. Popular media helps indicate that we’re moving in the right direction, but — obvious though it may sound — our current reality doesn’t yet match up to the reality we see in superhero movies.

Looking back, it occurs to me that I’ve been approaching this discussion with a grain of bias rather than a grain of salt. Strength training has become a big part of my life, not to mention a pillar of my mental and physical health. Of course I don’t want to find flaws in the beauty standard I have so wholeheartedly subscribed to. That’s not to say its flaws aren’t there.he fitness and diet industries have been more than raring to catch up to us, presenting strength training women with a whole new array of supplements, subscriptions and false promises. Even among strength training women, there is a higher valuation for some body types over others: flat stomach, bottom-thic bodies in particular.

But take it from someone who spent ten years of her life fixating on more traditional beauty standards: ‘women in muscles’, however its evils may manifest, doesn’t hold a candle to where I started. To be at a place where I can celebrate my gains over my losses is, for me, fucking revolutionary. Muscles aren’t the new ‘sexy’, per se, but they are (in my opinion) a positive alternative to what was once considered the peak of women’s attractiveness. And the truth is, I like the fact that my muscles might be considered attractive — at least, more so than my frailness, or restriction, or thinness was ever considered attractive.

‘Women in muscles’ represents one of the first beauty standards in the Western world that values women’s strength over our weakness. And that, to me, is something to be celebrated.

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