Health & Fitness

Why Women Don’t Seem to Want to Look Strong

Jill Hanna
Written by Jill Hanna

A couple of evenings this week, I watched some of my favorite YouTubers. One video by Haley Cairo was particularly memorable. Haley said that she had given up excluding dairy and gluten from her diet, and adapted a diet that was much easier to maintain. She has a lot of young female viewers, and I was thrilled that she had decided to set such a great example with her diet, embracing healthy but enjoyable food. As I was binge watching these videos, I also saw a video from a YouTuber who I’d rather not name. I don’t want to target her, but I was not happy. To say the least. Once again, she has a ton of young viewers, and proceeded to record herself at a bar explaining why she was ordered sliced cucumber and tomatoes: “We’re trying not to eat, because, whatever, like I’m not gonna eat a hamburger.”

In her defense, she was probably just craving a healthier option, and couldn’t find anything on the menu. I 100% see where she’s coming from. I’ve said things like this too. But not on camera, and certainly not in front of impressionable people. What makes me nervous is the fact that younger viewers may not understand she’s in L.A., adhering to many of the typical perspectives on food that young women (especially in that city) have. They also might not watch the video long enough to see that she does eat junk food (she ends the video munching on french fries).

In other words, her comments about food are better left unsaid. They can be taken out of context, and they can lead to misperceptions. Heck, they upset me even in context. In years passed, I would have found them triggering. Girls hear enough crap about what they should or should not be eating and how they should or should not look. I say, why not focus on something else. Further along these lines, I grew up believing young women should have bodies like Gwyneth Paltrow or Kristy Brinkley. In other words, supermodel figures. These were the women my father always described as “ideal.” I grew up watching Mischa Barton and Rachel Bilson on The OC, and being jealous of my freshman year BFF Georgia, who could have been a model. She was about 5’10 and stick thin. It later became clear she had an eating disorder—this was my first exposure to someone with one.

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Gwyneth Paltrow, my original body role model.

I remember working on a television show at the age of 16, surrounded by beautiful actresses. One of them had what some of the crew members considered a big butt, and I noticed that in the control room, some of the cameramen would jokingly zoom in on it and act like they couldn’t fit it within the frame of the camera. She was one of the less skinny actresses, but she had a great figure, and it was strange to watch.

These moments, these notions of body image that creep inside of your head, all add up. I never heard men spoken about this way, so immediately associated these comments, actions, and thoughts with being a female.

I didn’t realize how much they were ingrained in me, to this day, until a few weeks ago. I started to notice that my arms were getting bigger and my legs more muscular. Krav Maga has definitely caused me to develop muscles, all over my body. This was the first time since gaining weight after my eating disorder that I saw my body changing, and I have to tell you, it was a rough moment. I could not accept that muscles, which ultimately do add bulk to your body, could look good. Last night, wearing my tight workout clothes, I told Kevin how I felt. He responded, “You look so strong. It looks really good. Matchstick legs don’t look good.” It was just what I needed to hear, but I struggle to believe it myself.

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One of my new body role models, professional dancer Whitney Carson.

My hypothesis is that most women don’t believe muscles can look good. I’m guilty of it too. I came to this conclusion through my self defenses classes. There are so few women in the classes, except at the basic level. Past a certain point, they don’t stick with it. I can’t even count how many men come to Krav Maga classes. Meanwhile, there are five women (including myself) who regularly come, and one of them is training to be an instructor. When I tell this to friends, they’re shocked. They ask me, “Wouldn’t more women than men be taking self defense?” You’d think. But no. I understand those who are afraid to be hit, but most of the classes have no physical contact at all. The ones that do are incredible, but I understand why some women may pass on this.

So why don’t women stick with it? Why don’t many women even start? There is a lot of strength training. There’s a lot of muscle building. You can’t do it without strong arms and legs, and you quickly start to build muscle as you spend more and more time doing it. Your shirts will get tighter in the arms (at least mine have). Your boots may fit a bit more snug around your calves. But if I can accept this with all of my body image baggage, why can’t other women?

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More body inspiration, Emily VanCamp. Have you seen her on Revenge? She does NOT look like a fragile flower. And I LOVE IT!.
I think my hairdresser captured the popular opinion on the subject. She told me she didn’t want to do “self defense type” classes because she didn’t want to “bulk up.” “I’m already short, I don’t want to be wide. I want to take barre classes and yoga, things that make me look more lean and lithe,” she explained. Barre and yoga are great. They too build muscle but in a different way. And women don’t look at them as things that add bulk the way weight lifting and strength training do. For the same reason you don’t see many women lifting weights on machines at the gym, you also don’t see them doing Krav. At least this is my theory. Please, tell me I’m wrong.

I hope that more women start to think muscles are beautiful. I don’t just yet. Right now, I kind of hate my muscles. My arms are definitely bigger, but I don’t buy that it looks good. I’ll get there. I’m living with it. In the meantime, I’m focusing on images of women who do have muscles, and look amazing. Professional dancers, gymnasts, and cheerleaders actually set some fantastic and inspiring examples. I write this post as a reminder to my readers, and myself, that it’s ok to look strong. In fact, it’s really beautiful.

One more piece of body inspiration. Kate Upton, who has been called a “plus-size” model. Look at her. How?

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Kate Upton, who doesn’t look like a bag of bones in a bikini.

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