Effects of society’s criticism on female athletes with muscular physiques

As an athlete, it is crucial to exercise and maintain your strength and stamina daily if you want to succeed at your sport. No matter what sport you compete in, over time you become aware of what workout routines best match the needs of your sport, and you come to understand your own body and what your strengths and limitations are. While technical skill and knowledge of the game is important, strength and fitness is always an asset, and often sets apart two equally skilled players.

Unfortunately, it is common for female athletes to be criticized on their appearance, but in multiple different forms. On one end, female athletes are often sexually objectified and are even judged on simplistic things such as if they wear makeup or not. Many people comment on whether or not these women fit the stereotypical image of someone attractive. Additionally, many female athletes are attacked because of their physique; their bodies are described as “masculine” or “manly” because they have large muscles. It is just as demeaning for a woman to be called masculine as it is to be sexually objectified.

What is disheartening is the fact that these comments towards women are not just made by envious people; these body standards are enforced by the media as well. Female athletes already deal with enough judgement and are likely to experience many moments of low self-esteem and body negativity. Your physical performance during the game will not be up to speed if you are also battling with negative thoughts of your body. While this is an issue for all female athletes, it is more likely to affect younger girls.

As an athlete myself, I never enjoyed going to the gym when I was younger because it felt awkward and honestly did not think it would impact my game. Once I got older and became more competitive, many of my coaches commented on my strength and level of aggression. I realized that going to the gym was going to become a necessity and it was important for me to find ways to feel confident about working out and gaining significant muscle mass. However, the feeling of being judged crept under my skin each time I went to exercise. In fact, nobody was actually looking at me, I only assumed because of the negative voice of society in my head saying that women who are muscular are unattractive.

Professional Female Athletes’ Experiences with Body Insecurity

There are many female athletes who have been criticized for their muscular features including UFC champion Ronda Rousey and tennis legend Serena Williams. Often, the judgements include comments about the women being masculine and not pretty. An article from the Daily Mail shows multiple accomplished, muscular, professional female athletes who despite having amazing bodies, still feel insecure. For example, track and field gold-medalist Natasha Hastings shares:

“I was body-shamed in high school. I was teased for looking like a boy because I was pretty muscular even before I started lifting weights. I’ve always had an athletic build so even now sometimes people say, ‘Oh, you look like a boy, you don’t have boobs.’”

UFC fighter Jessica Eyes also expressed her thoughts regarding female athletes with muscular bodies:

“I think the biggest misconception about female athletes is that we’re tomboys and that we’re not pretty; we’re not girls. We’re females too. We still like to get dressed up, we still like to put make-up on, we still like to go out on dates and be treated like women.”

It is comforting, yet also upsetting to see that even professional athletes experience these same feelings of body negativity. To see that they have pushed through the stereotypes of what the ideal woman should look like, and ignored the critical comments is inspiring. They are athletes and need to be fit for their sport, but they are also women and deserve to feel beautiful. Just because they are muscular does not mean they can’t be girly as Eyes says. Who are we to say they aren’t beautiful because they don’t match society’s expectations? We all need to start accepting that physical strength is beautiful and is not confined to the male gender.

The Media’s Perspective on Women Who Work Out

The media constantly influences women about their body image; especially when it comes to fitness. Society seems to have this idea that there are specific exercises for men and completely different ones for women. Usually a “feminine” exercise would be cardio or yoga, while a “masculine” workout would be something like weightlifting. There also seems to be this mindset that if you do see a woman at the gym, they are expected to look “sexy” rather than actually break a sweat.

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The above ad is a perfect example of the way the media promotes their idea of how women who work out should look. While there is no denying that this model is fit, I can say for myself that I do not look exactly like her. The model is not an athlete, but the ad still insinuates that this body is the result you should aim for. For my sport, I need to have muscular legs, and I don’t know many soccer-playing girls who have the controversial “thigh-gap.” Why is it that often when a woman is featured in a fitness ad, they are depicted in a sexualized way? What would be unattractive about a woman who is working hard and sweating while lifting a heavy weight?

Even women’s fitness magazines say the main goal of exercise is to become “toned” and not “bulky”. This is totally close-minded to the fact that being toned is not the only fitness goal that exists. For an athlete your goal is to be strong, so why can’t bulky and muscular be considered attractive?

Both of these ads are from fitness magazines that promote a toned body as a result of exercise. An athlete may see these magazines and believe that this is how they should look and as a result can make them hesitant to work out, hoping that they don’t get too muscular. Even if you are unbothered by the media’s interpretation of a woman who works out, the issues are still present in the sports world. For some reason, muscles are seen as attractive on a man, but when a woman shows similar features, they are seen as manly rather than strong. It is not my goal as an athlete or as a woman to be strong like a man. My goal is to be strong like a woman, physically and mentally. Male or female, we should not be compared based on our workout preferences. Strong is strong regardless of gender and society needs to appreciate that.

How Gender Can Influence an Athlete’s Workouts

Sadly, because of media influences and general stereotypes of the ideal woman, female athletes may not be achieving as great of results in their sport as they are capable of. Think about it: how often do you see a woman completing a deadlift in the place of a man? This is not because we are not capable of doing so; rather, there is the perception that we will be judged for attempting a “masculine” exercise. Many times women have been in this position where they feel uncomfortable being in the weightlifting space surrounded by men. Half the time there is always a man at the weight rack or spending an hour at the squat rack. It takes a lot of courage to walk over and ask if you could have time to use the machine. Instead, many female athletes may force themselves to feel more comfortable working on their cardio, or relocating themselves to the yoga mats. Why is this? Why should women feel nervous or out of line when entering the supposed male-dominated section of the gym?

In an interesting study done by Stephanie E. Coen titled “’It’s gym, like g-y-m not J-i-m’: Exploring the role of place in the gendering of physical activity” she explores how gender norms and stereotypes are put in place at the gym. Coen interviewed 52 people (men and women) who frequently go to the gym and asked them to record their experiences during their workout. An article from Phys.Org summarizes her findings noting that all the participants from Coen’s study commented that there seemed to be a “real and perceived threat for not conforming to stereotyped activities.” This feeling influenced the types of exercises and the machines used by each person; they would only do what they perceived as a normal activity for their gender. Many men noted in the study that they would not use a machine they considered “feminine” while most of the women were more worried about taking up too much space in the gym. They felt like they would be in the way of other people if they used certain equipment.

Coen writes that a younger woman said she “couldn’t be authoritative in asserting her place and using the equipment because she might be perceived negatively.” In the gym, there should be no worries about being judged and each person should do what they feel is right for their bodies and what makes them feel the best. This study was very interesting as sometimes we don’t even notice that these things happen and we can’t always figure out why we think this way.

The important thing to take away from this is that we all need to be more accepting of the female athlete’s body. We need to separate ourselves from society’s image of the ideal woman as well as the ideal woman who works out. We must understand that a muscular physique does not equal unattractiveness or masculine qualities. Female athletes have a right to be fit and excel at their sport and be girly if they choose. Muscularity should never be related to masculinity; strength is something all athletes should strive to achieve. Future generations of female athletes need to know that being strong is beautiful and should never let anyone tell them otherwise.

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