I had absolutely nothing to do with the making of this video, but I really wish I had.
I first used the term “swole sister” to describe a muscular woman who trains seriously and is proud of her strength. If I remember correctly, I was in one of those rapidly devolving arguments with a bunch of anonymous bros on the internet about muscular women being “gross”, attempting to defend my theory that men who are so unattracted to physically strong women that they feel the need to publically share their revulsion are emasculated by them.
It is, of course, perfectly reasonable to have an aesthetic preference for all kinds of physiqgues. Different strokes for different folks, right? However, I still believe the creepy and rude comments that inevitibly appear around almost any display of female strength and muscularity are evidence of projected insecurity. It’s just all too predictable and absurd.
At the same time, many women are terrified of getting “bulky” by lifting weights. Lifters like to circlejerk that this is technically impossible because testosterone levels etc., but based on aforementioned events, this fear is clearly justified. Yes, if you get really strong, some men (and most likely some women, too) will find you unattractive. But do you really want to be involved with these people? Probably not.
Unfortunately, it’s not just anonymous internet bros or magazine writers who display this weird behavior, so these opinions aren’t so easily dismissed. I discovered how rampant these negative attitudes were when an ex-boyfriend responded to me sharing my new-found biceps (I had just started lifting) with, ”If I wanted to date a man, I’d be gay.”
I wasn’t even that muscular back then. Even now, my swoleness isn’t apparent unless I’m flexing or lifting and any dude a few months into Starting Strength will be stronger than me. And yet, every so often I encounter attitudes and expectations that make me feel like a freak for being a bit thicker in the shoulders than the average lady.
Which brings me to wonder, just what *is* swole? Where does “toned and fit” end and “bulky” begin? How muscular and strong does a woman have to be in order to emasculate men and make women fear barbells? Is there an absolute threshold for she-hulkness?
To answer this question, I tried to tune into the pulse of popular culture: advertising. More specifically, advertising for women’s fitness clothing and footwear, which is presumably developed and created for female athletes. If there is a public arena in which athletic women are depicted in a way to exactly fit the expectations of the masses, it’s going to be in the advertisements of large companies like Nike, Adidas, and Reebok. It’s their perogative to appeal to the widest audience. It’s their job to display, on a very large and public scale, what a strong, athletic woman is supposed to look like. This is what I found:
Despite their partnership with Crossfit, most print ads coming from Reebok’s marketing department don’t admit that women do athletic things in athletic footwear. Instead, they mind their children and talk on the phone while accumulating this thing called “tone”, which is apparently another term for “skinny thighs”. Reebok also wins for weakest appearing human used in activewear advertising with their Armani ad.
I actually own a few pairs of compression shorts from these guys, which are great for lifting in. Unfortunately, I doubt any of the models they use in their advertising have ever seen the inside of a weightroom. Perhaps they are trying to corner the marathon runner market?
I think they just stopped trying to sell actual activewear to women and became a lifestyle brand, so this may not be the best source of examples, but I’m glad they reminded me that the empowering part of women’s sports is doing post-competition laundry.
Of the four, Nike is the only one that seems to depict female athletes as somewhat athletic. First of all, they actually use the female athletes they endorse in their ads, including the very swole sister Serena Williams, playing up her physical strength and beauty. So that’s cool. Nike also pays lip service to celebrating athletic bodies for what they can do, not just how hot they look in spandex. But then they balance it out by putting supermodels in workout clothes and plastering them with cliches, so unless you’re a famous athlete, being a muscular woman still appears to unnerve the public too much for the delicate sensitivities of Nike’s marketing team.
Maybe I’m just being cynical, but the photographic evidence suggests that the public has a pretty low threshold for lady-swole. I’m no longer suprised when I get comments about being “jacked” (even though i’m not that big) and I’m not so quick to dismiss women’s worries about getting “too bulky” by lifting weights. It’s no wonder women’s fitness advice is all about being firm, lean and toned–actually getting any semblance of muscle mass would automatically push one out of the popularly accepted realm of feminine athleticism. Lifting is really fun, but if you don’t want to look muscular and you just want to look cute in yoga pants, I’d suggest picking a different sport.