Wrong To Be Strong? Understanding the Double Standards and Criticisms in Regards to the Muscular Woman

Women are often criticized and put under extra scrutiny for their appearance. Some face more ostracism than others. The muscular woman creates many responses from men and women, but a majority are vituperative in nature. These are not just attacks from men, but other women. While we all have different aesthetic preferences certain statements made by detractors are spiteful. Statements that a woman “looks like a man” or “she’s ugly” represent a bullying nature of body image conformity. Female athletes are even criticized for being “too muscular.” This is hilarious in a way considering one would expect that from their vigorous physical activities. There are roots of these negative criticisms and double standards. The first possible explanation is that people react to negatively to things they do not understand. A more vicious explanation is based on misogynist beliefs. A more common explanation is that beauty standards vary. However, the majority do not understand this. The obvious double standards have there roots in patriarchy, sexism, and discrimination.  Traditional attitudes persist, even though women have advanced.

       The first double standard is the issue of body image. The contemporary Western standard of beauty for a woman is the slim body type. Men are encouraged to aim for another unrealistic goal of being as muscular as possible. These two paradigms represent stereotypical gender identities. The weak woman and the strong man. This has had negative repercussions on men and women. Women are more likely to develop eating disorders and distorted self image. Men are not immune either, risking the the use of anabolic steroids or other performance enhancing drugs to improve their physique. Athletes are not the majority users of steroids, but men seeking a fast solution to weight loss. This is opposite of what many would assume. Some women are no longer embracing a thin look and instead want to build strength. There are women who even take this a step further by maximizing their total muscle mass as a goal. Yet, even women in the fitness industry who are supportive of weight training reject a muscular body type for women. They constantly reassure women “they will not bulk up.” This fear of looking male is unfounded, due to the fact virilization only occurs with long term steroid abuse. Not all women are the same and others may develop muscle easier. Normally, these women point to the female bodybuilder as what a woman should not be. This is disrespectful and adds to an already sexist culture. Men can be as physically powerful as they want to be, but for women it is not acceptable. Even the criticism  “these women are too bulky”  lacks cogency. The term bulky is a colloquial term to mean huge,  but the muscular woman does not fall under that term. They have lean body mass.


The women that appear on stage appear to be enormous. The reality is that their limited body fat makes it appear as if they are bigger. Normally depending if there are weight classes, women come into contest weighing less. Tomoko Kanda competes at a weight of 156 pounds. Colette normally competed at a weight of  145 pounds. These weights are not large amounts . The average man would weigh more without such training, but not be as strong. The “bulky” argument seems to fall apart. When these women are clothed you probably would not know they have these powerful bodies.


The objection is routed in the belief that women should not participate in certain activities. Sports was seen a solely a male domain and no place for women. Physical strength was something thought to be natural to men only, but women proved that wrong. Many times there are some  feminists who place the blame solely on men. There are women who also show a level of repulsion at the sight of the muscular woman. There arguments are along the same lines of their male counterparts, but there is a difference. They compare them in relation to their body by suggesting  “why would any woman want that much muscle?” or ” I would not want that for myself .”  No one is forcing the woman who criticizes a muscular physique to become that way. Yet, this same detractor will not hesitate to starve themselves into a size zero. There has developed in the past decades the size acceptance movement that challenges a society trying to distort women’s body image. This small movement does not extend its hand to the muscular or athletic woman. They face more repudiation and negativity  from many people. There are also problems with the size acceptance movement. What is considered “plus sized” is not large at all. Decades ago they would have been considered average women.

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To the left, the woman in the pink bikini is considered a plus sized model. She is not even large, but a woman with curves. The woman on the right is not huge either, but would be considered “too big” for regular modeling. 

The fashion industry’s obsession with thinness has made people think that curvy women have a weight problem. This size acceptance movement seems like another hash tag trend that will be replaced by another. Critics claim that it is encouraging obesity and an unhealthy lifestyle. A counter argument can be make when examining the amount of sugar and high fructose corn syrup food sold in grocery stores. The power of advertisement is more than enough encouragement with every last fast food chain producing commercials for television. Women liking their bodies is not encouraging an unhealthy condition. The only way that can be determined is by a doctor or medical professional, not by just looking at a person’s body.

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Magazines that claim to promote health are adding to distorted body image. Most of the women’s magazines are focused on weight loss or being as thin as possible. The men’s magazines feature men of  extreme muscular physique. These body sizes are probably not attainable for most people, but their is a motive behind it. By subconsciously tampering with people’s  insecurity it will get them to buy magazines. The hope of the buyer is that they will some day look like the person on the cover. This induces more consumption of the magazine. Traditionally, sports and fitness magazines focused on training, athlete interviews, and events. Now  the emphasis seems to be focusing on a particular standard of beauty Body image is developed by the media and the materials that are consumed b y the society.

       The negative criticism of the muscular woman is rooted in dated beauty standards. These standards vary from culture to culture. The West values a thin and almost emaciated form of the female body. For cultures of the East and global South a much softer and fuller female body has been valued. The lugubrious aspect of this is that few people are accepting of other forms of beauty. Women spend much of their time putting on make-up,  adding accessories, and doing other forms of ornamentation to adhere to cultural beauty standards. These standards have changed overtime in the West. One of the places that caused this trend was the fashion industry and Hollywood films. Leslie Lawson ( known as Twiggy)  was a model in the 1960s who popularized the extremely thin body. She was so thin her body almost resembled a prepubescent boy. This had been the standard since and it has had dire consequences. There has been an increase in the amount of eating disorders among women. Hollywood film stars followed this trend, seeing as they would wear some of the most expensive cloths. The factor of increasing obesity rates and a mass media inducing insecurity only complicates the situation of the muscular woman .She can either be classified within this rigid and closed mined system as an anomaly or a new paradigm.


Twiggy was a model from the 1960s.  

There is a new fitness zeigiest known as “strong is the new skinny.” Then again this has its limitations. While accepts the concept women can be physically fit and strong in appearance, it does not promote women being as physically developed as possible. Being “too muscular”  is still not acceptable to the majority of society. The traditional feminine ideal is to appear as frail as possible to be attractive. Women have challenged this in another way embracing natural curves rather than an emaciated appearance.While larger women are gaining acceptance, the muscular women are still a bizarre concept to many. What women of this appearance need is something similar to fat acceptance. The fat acceptance movement has been criticized as promoting an unhealthy lifestyle or being frivolous. Doubtless of what people perceive, that movement allowed larger and overweight individuals to view themselves in a different light. Having acceptance of ones self and developing consciousness can challenge the status quo in regards to certain issues . May be a muscular acceptance movement will have to emerge to counter negative public reaction.

       There also exists a more vicious reason for harsh ostracism of the muscular woman .Sexism and misogyny are also factors in negative attitudes. There has been a belief that women’s bodies had to be controlled. Women were not only controlled by legal and social barriers, but through domination of their bodies. This explains why reproductive rights have become so important to women’s freedom. Access to birth control and abortion allowed women’s rights to advance to new heights. When women have control of their bodies and can change the appearance of them, male domination is challenged. Strict gender roles dictate that man is leader and woman has to be a servant. A firm  system of patriarchy  puts man as sole authority.This at times was not always as oppressive, but none the less took subtlety  offensive paternalistic overtones. Women needed to be protected because they were too weak mentally and physically to survive on their own. Men were strong and brave and therefore were women’s protectors. This by definition in terms of law  was known as protectionism stating women had to be shielded from life’s cruelties.This justification was used to discriminate against women in various occupations and educational institutions. Many top ivy league universities were resistant to admit women on this principle. Also, it was used as an excuse women were too physically weak to engage in sports and it would damage their health. False information and pseudoscientic beliefs about women’s bodies became prevalent, but were discredited.  When women gained more power men began to feel threatened. Sports was considered a male only domain, but by the late 20th century that was changing. Women began displaying more powerful physiques and were no longer ashamed of them. This overturned the long held conviction that women were weak and child like. The strict gender role binaries had been breached and misogynistic backlash occurred. This was tied to another form of intolerance when athletic and muscular women were accused of being lesbians. Sports has a long history of homophobia and women of a different sexuality had to deal with sexism as well. Racism has never disappeared either. Serena Williams, one of the greatest tennis champions has not only been criticized unfairly because of race, but her appearance. Sports writers have said ” her body is built like a man’s and that’s why she wins matches.”This follows a long tradition of disparaging African Americans in the US and degrading women.

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Serena bikini pics
There is nothing “mannish” about her.

   These negative comments are not only uttered in traditional media, but over social media. Social media has exposed the vast amount of hate that exists in people. Video sites are even infested with hateful commentary  that is either racist, sexist, homophobic, or prejudice against a particular religious faith. While this new media format is great at connecting fans, it also opened a platform for unsavory individuals. Besides standing up for reproductive rights, women who change there bodies to this extent are making a revolutionary statement. Men do not have sole ownership of physical strength and women can control their bodies.

         Harsh criticism is not always hateful, but comes from fear of the unknown . Muscular women are rare. Even very muscular men are few compared to the entire population. The muscular woman simply is something that many in the general public are not used to. There are certain reactions that are evoked by first time observers. One is that of being perplexed. Seeing some one who does not fit common standards can be difficult for people to comprehend. It challenges personal schemas. Everyone has a general model or opinion in regards to certain groups. When the group does not fit into that schema it creates conflict. Media and cultural images of how certain groups should be create a horrid cycle of stereotypes and myths. The woman who does not fit the frailty stereotype, then induces a negative or confused reaction from people who’s only knowledge is presented by surrounding factors. More extreme reactions are disgust. Shunning or excluding  people who deviate from the standard of conformity are common in most societies.


Another reaction to the muscular woman is fear. This is just as irrational as the vitriolic behavior by some detractors. Common phrases like “she is scary” or ” I would not talk to her because she would beat me up” are repeated ad nauseum. There is the idea that the strong woman would naturally be aggressive toward men. This ludicrous assumption has no basis in fact. Women who are involved in sport have husbands, partners,  or boyfriends. Many have families and they are a support  structure when pressure and stress becomes high. Some women credit their boyfriends for getting them involved in fitness. This bully and “man hater” image seems to be a psychological projection of certain individuals. There are men who think that if women get some power they will use it to harm men as a form of revenge for past injustices. No such thing will ever happen. Equality does not mean you have a desire to harm other people. The other reactions to physically strong women are either curiosity or lust. Curiosity is not a negative trait. It is the strong desire to discover or find out about something unknown. The muscular woman becomes a curiosity to people who are more open minded. It was not uncommon to see women athletes or muscular women being interviewed on day time talk shows. Jenny Jones and Montel Williams  had female bodybuilders on their programs from time to time. Reactions from a studio audience varied. Sometimes it could negative, positive, or changing some people previous conceptions. This shows exposure and help deal with prejudice and misunderstanding. There has been a zietgeist among fitness circles that “strong is the new skinny.” This new concept forms a another paradigm of beauty trying to challenge the old one. the comes to the reaction to the muscular woman as something to lusted over. This poses a problem. While its great that there are men who find different types of women attractive, there is the problem of sexual objectification.



The muscular woman or athlete then becomes fetish object under a new part of the “sex sells” ideology. This is questionable because it seems to be reliant on dated sexist convictions of the past. Some wonder if the “strong is the new skinny” motto is replacing one unrealistic beauty standard with another. This debate seems to have no definite answer. These are just a few reactions that the muscular female physique can generate.

          Everyone has a different opinion and perspective on certain matters. This unique look may not be people’s ideal. People have the right to there opinion, but that does not give them a right to be rude, obnoxious, or vituperative. Women with a muscular physique face insults and ridicule from a closed minded public. It was worse in the past when women were just entering professional sports. Gradual progress has been made, with women themselves defining what is beautiful. Although not the majority some women actively pursue muscle and strength. Women are displaying more powerful physiques in athletic competition. Women are discovering the joys of lifting  and a doing it as a recreational activity. The phenomenon seems to be spreading. There are also a growing number of male admirers who enjoy various types of women’s physiques. Strength once considered a masculine trait has now become neutral in gender description. Women no longer have to be weak to be considered feminine.  Body image continues to be an issue for many women with the influence of media and advertisement. Yet, an alternative has emerged. It is unclear whether  this a temporary fad or a genuine paradigm shift. Only as time progresses will the result of women’s new fascinating with strength be known. From what is observed now, it is no longer wrong to be strong.

Wrong To Be Strong? Understanding the Double Standards and Criticisms in Regards to the Muscular Woman

2 thoughts on “Wrong To Be Strong? Understanding the Double Standards and Criticisms in Regards to the Muscular Woman

  1. turner says:

    ‘Nothing scares the stalwarts of our culture and church and state nearly so resoundingly as even the most tender-hearted and kindly disposed female mesomorph.’
    Al Thomas(1930-2008) American journalist and crusader for giving recognition to muscular women.

    Liked by 1 person

  2. jackson says:

    i love muscular women..if we could travel back before processed foods..we could see that women were muscular 100 s of years ago..as life was a daily workout for us all.


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