Powerfully feminine, or beastly?

My husband called me beastly the other night.

I look a little beastly here, and I think that's awesome.

I look a little beastly here, and I think that's awesome.

This was, of course, a compliment. He was telling me that our running group had seen pictures of me from the Chesapeake Bay Bridge Swim last Sunday, and that they said I looked beastly. I questioned this, and he acknowledged that beastly was his word, not theirs, which led to several minutes of him describing how pretty I am.

I know he thinks I’m super-hot, and that it’s a great thing that he thinks of me as just another dude when it comes to working out. But it’s one of several comments that sparked an old insecurity: That when I’m training hard, I cross the line between powerful femininity and — well — beastliness. More importantly, that raises the question: Why are we, as women, so afraid to be beastly — in other words, strong?

It’s not just me. Check out the poll in this pieceby trainer Leigh Peele, in which 41 percent of 200 women surveyed reported that they never find muscles attractive on a woman. Twenty-six percent said they find muscles on a woman attractive ” sometimes, in small amounts.” Only 4 percent responded with an unequivocal “yes.”

Really, ladies? Muscles? Like, the ones that allow us to move? When I read the survey results, I thought about the way a male Sports Illustrated reporter described members of the U.S. Olympic Swim Team recently: “The image of powerful femininity.” How come that dude sees us as powerfully feminine, while a huge percentage of us would rather be too skinny than too muscular (according to the Leigh Peele poll)?

But I’d be lying if I said I didn’t understand what this was about. For me, my love-hate relationship with my shoulders started in eighth grade, when I saw a picture of myself for the first time after I started swimming with a club team. As an eighth grader, I had biceps. And I didn’t like them. My friends noticed, too. At pool parties, they’d tell me to flex, my little 13-year-old arms a party trick to rival the pool toys.

In high school, my swim teammates and I joked that rather than breasts, we had pecs. But by that point, I had learned to be proud of my weirdly muscular arms, with the focus on what they could do, not how they looked. We weren’t totally immune to the body-image issues that besiege most high-school girls, but we strived for rippled abs, not model-skinniness.

So what happened between then and now? I stopped swimming for a good decade, until some running injuries forced me back in the pool. During that decade, I should have become more at home in my body, and more secure in myself. And I am — it’s just that the fact that I’m even writing this blog post makes it clear that feeling perfectly comfortable in one’s body is a lifelong struggle, not a simple fact.

Most days, I still believe it’s not about how my shoulders look, but what they can do. And since they can cut across what I swear were 4-foot waves in the Chesapeake Bay, or make me glide through the pool faster than the dude in the lane next to mine, I think they’re pretty awesome.


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7 responses to “Powerfully feminine, or beastly?

  1. ultrarunnergirl

    Great piece and so true, those old school attitudes are still hanging on. In gyms in small towns (and not so small) there are still trainers advising women not to lift too much weight lest they “bulk up.”

  2. I’ve been intermittently doing the hundredpushups.com program and I swim once or twice a week. I’m far from beastly, but I do like seeing the muscles ripple on my arms. Could it be that married almost 25 years and in my late 40s I’m over the concerns? I find the muscles sexy and attractive. I think the hubby likes them. Also have plenty of muscles in the legs, too, as a runner. Hubby often complements me on the legs.

  3. i like muscle! ok, i like it in ‘normal’ quantities. those female bodybuilders… not normal. strong legs, toned arms, totally normal to me! i’d like to assume most guys like a regular amount of muscle on their girl too.

    i don’t think you are “beastly” in a bad way – just that you are strong, definitely a good thing.

  4. Courtney

    Could “beastly” been not about your physical appearance, but how you “attack and devour” a challenge? so more about attitude? just wondering.

  5. Alexis Milam

    Personally, I admire your beastliness (whether physical or mental)…I think you can pull off both beastly and feminine. So, you’ll rock out your workouts and be all buff and strong, then shower and change into a pretty sun dress for a brunch or date. You’ve got the best of both worlds and I think others are just trying to figure out how to strike that balance. BTW isn’t it freaky to realize that you can segment your life by “decades?” Yikes!

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