Why Do We Have Such Mixed Feelings About Muscle Tone?

Photo: Getty Images.

When women come to a CrossFit workout for the first time, they tend to have one of two requests: "I don't want to get too bulky" or "Can I get arms like yours?" says Mandy Moreno, a former roller derby skater, and a trainer at CrossFit Wall Street in New York City. Moreno does what she can to immediately dispel both of these notions.

On the one hand, Moreno knows the comments about her own arms are meant to be a compliment, but it doesn't always come across that way. "I'm me, and you're you, and there's no way I'm going to look like you," she tells people. "You're going to look like the best version of yourself, eventually."

And as for the comments about getting too bulky? It's clear that people have conflicting feelings about women who have visible muscles, even women stepping into the gym themselves. "Weight lifting for women is still kind of a new thing, but I think as we see more women get involved in it, then we'll stop hearing people say, I don't want to get bulky or muscular," Moreno says. "You never hear it from the men, because getting big is their goal almost."

When Refinery29 polled 1,000 readers on their feelings about body image, our respondents said, when it comes to their motivation for working out, they care most about their general health and well being, followed by toning and weight loss. Only 41% said they care about building muscle or sculpting. That said, 63% say the trend toward women weight lifting or muscle building is a positive thing, but only 1 in 4 say they're inspired to try it. So what gives?

Our feelings about muscle tone are deeply rooted in societal expectations, which is a pretty clear answer as to why we're so conflicted. Traditionally, men are taught to train and exercise in a way that "increases their size and prowess, so they can protect themselves and others," says Mallory Mann, PhD, assistant professor of kinesiology at Pacific Lutheran University, who has studied body image in sports. "They are often encouraged to develop strong, muscular frames," so they lift weights and try to get big, she says.

But cultural norms in the U.S. suggest that women are supposed to be feminine, which is interpreted to mean soft, passive, nurturing, delicate, sexy, and sensual. "While both men and women learn that toned, muscular bodies mark them as successful, women also quickly find out that being 'too bulky' or too muscular can lead to social stigma, isolation, or rejection," Dr. Mann says.

To be clear, this isn't just an issue faced by athletic amateurs. In May, Aly Raisman, a member of the two-time gold-medal-winning U.S. Olympic gymnastics team, was body-shamed by a TSA agent. As she explained on Twitter, a female TSA agent approached her and said, "Gymnast? I recognized by your biceps." Then a male agent laughed off her supposed muscle tone by saying, "I don't see any biceps."

It's generally out of line to make unsolicited comments about another person's body, and Raisman expressed another layer to this frustrating interaction: sexism. She tweeted at the time, "If u are a man who can't compliment a girls 💪🏼 you are sexist. Get over yourself. Are u kidding me? It's 2017. When will this change?" She has a point.

When we stop assuming we can tell anything about a person's lifestyle, habits, or morality from their body, the difference between toned and too muscular becomes irrelevant.
Kate Browne

"Girls and women now have more opportunity than ever to play sports that require strength, but many continue to be impacted by what they see and hear about acceptable looks," says Sally Ross, PhD, associate professor and sport leadership program coordinator at Grand Valley State University in Michigan. Unfortunately, many people believe that their abilities are linked with their body image, in sports and outside. In our survey, 1 in 5 said they cut down on activities that they used to enjoy, because of their body image. Even the women who do stick with sports at a high level aren't immune to these impossible standards.

Female athletes in particular are faced with two separate and different body ideals to conform to, says Justine Reel, PhD, LPC, a professor at the University of North Carolina Wilmington, a sports psychology consultant. They have to be strong and muscular in order to perform, but they also are expected to fit in when they're in the "real world."

For example, Dr. Reel has worked with Olympic downhill skiers who, by nature of the sport, need to have powerful, muscular legs. "When coaches would give the female skier a compliment by saying, 'You have large legs,' it was not well received," Dr. Reel says. Although the body talk from their coaches was meant to be positive, it didn't come across that way.

Of course the context of a compliment has a lot to do with how it'll be received or internalized. For example, while an athlete might feel proud of their muscles in the gym or around other athletes, they can feel self-conscious (or that the comments are downright inappropriate) in a non-sports setting. In Raisman's case, she was recognized in public for having muscles, perhaps because she stood out. "Female athletes live in two competing worlds that place dueling demands on their bodies," Dr. Mann says.

Essentially, women have to make a decision about which set of body norms they'd like to resist. Do they want to embrace their muscles, and say screw the societal norms to be small and fragile? Or do they want to try to fit into those molds, and not be able to meet the demands of their sport? "Regardless of their body 'choices,' repercussions will follow," Dr. Mann says.

Oftentimes, women who celebrate their muscles aren't embraced by society or will have their femininity questioned, like Serena Williams, she says. But women who downplay their athleticism to appear more feminine will have their commitment to sports, or their athletic ability, questioned by their coaches or teammates, Dr. Mann says. There's no real way to win, so lots of women compromise.

There's a term for behaviors that female athletes engage in to assert their femininity, and it's called "female apologetic," Dr. Mann says. "Because they're seen as athletic and muscular — read: masculine — some women may engage in behaviors that overtly represent hegemonic or privileged femininity." They may wear their hair down to play, put on makeup before a competition, or find ways to cover the parts of their bodies they view as "too big" or "too muscular," in order to be seen as feminine women. In a way, this is just a coping mechanism to survive in a world that's not accepting of women with muscles.

Still, others argue that there's just too much talk about how bodies look, instead of what they can do. "The problem is that we believe visible muscle signifies anything at all," says Kate Browne, a body positive fitness blogger and Body Positive Fitness Alliance affiliate. That perpetuates the idea that "health is something you can see," she says. "When we stop assuming we can tell anything about a person's lifestyle, habits, or morality from their body, the difference between toned and too muscular becomes irrelevant."

Seeing more female athletes as positive role models who represent strength and beauty can help, too, says Dr. Reel. There's some evidence that we're almost there, and in our survey, 38% of people said that they viewed Serena Williams, a woman who's celebrated for her accomplishments and athleticism, as a body-positive role model. "But the best message would be that each body is unique and uniquely beautiful," she says. "We can experience health at any size."

Moreno thinks physical diversity is another area in which representation will make all the difference. "Just as we become more accepting of people in terms of their sexual orientation, or we become more racially tolerant, we're becoming more tolerant of people's different bodies, as well," she says. "As that progresses, everything comes along: racial tolerance, tolerance of people and the way they love, and also the way they look."