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On Women, Weight Lifting, and the Dreaded Bulk  
22nd-Jul-2011 07:12 am
Nearly everything you read on the subject of women's weight training starts off by reassuring women that if they lift weights, they won't get bulky. Apparently, fear of bulk is keeping women out of the weight room in droves.

One thing that irks me about this kind of discussion is how seldom it directly addresses the perspective of women who are fat. (One notable exception is Miriam Nelson's Strong Women Stay Slim, which specifically addresses strength training for weight loss.) When someone says to me, "Don't worry, you won't get bulky," my response is, "Look, I started out bulky. Strength training offers me the opportunity to express some of that bulk as muscle rather than fat. Don't be so eager to take that away from me!" (Conversely, I knew I'd picked the right personal trainer when he said to me, "Sorry, you don't have the testosterone to put on a huge amount of muscle mass, but we'll put a few pounds of muscle on you.")

Another thing that's interesting is that these discussions almost always assume that the feared bulkiness is that possessed by female body-builders, who only manage to look the way they do by virtue of genetics, intense training, strict diet, and the use of anabolic steroids.

Personal trainer Leigh Peele decided to go a step further and actually ask a bunch of women what they meant by "too bulky". I recommend going and reading all three of her blog posts on the subject (links below), but to summarize, she asked a large number of women to evaluate photos of popular actresses and other celebrities according to their bulkiness.

To summarize the results:

  • Roughly 3/4 of the respondents said that they didn't find muscles on women attractive, and didn't think that men found muscles on women attractive either.

  • Women with much more modest muscular development than your average female bodybuilder were singled out by a large portion of respondents as being "bulky" and "unnatractive". (Jessica Biel and Hilary Swank as she looked in the movie "Million Dollar Baby" were two of the names singled out here that I actually sorta recognized.)

  • Both level of muscular development and level of bodyfat influenced the perception of bulkiness. Big muscles with a moderate level of bodyfat were perceived as bulky, but so were smaller muscles at lower levels of bodyfat that made muscle definition visible. The most desireable look was "lean but soft".

Links to the full blog posts here:

Not really the results I'd have predicted. Personally, I think women can be attractive at a whole range of body types, including fat, thin, muscular, or in-between. In terms of my own body, I like the way it looks with more muscle (to the extent that I've been able to develop any), and I think that will probably be true for any level of muscle mass I can realistically expect to attain. (I don't find the bodybuilder look particularly attractive on either men or women, but as noted above, nobody ends up looking that way without trying really really hard.) And most of the women that I've talked to about fitness seem to feel much the same way - some of them can envision some level of muscular development that they would find "unfeminine" on themselves, but I haven't encountered the "eew, visible muscles" attitude that these blog posts suggest is prevalent.
22nd-Jul-2011 03:09 pm (UTC)
Yeah, those results are weird. I like muscle definition on women and I wish I had a lot more of it. I hate when I talk about eating better and exercising more and other women tell me I don't need to lose weight. I'm not going to lose weight! I'm going to get fitter! I'm going to look hotter! Less fat, more muscle, better distribution of said assets, and more energy and ability overall. The world is full of women with distorted perceptions.
22nd-Jul-2011 04:14 pm (UTC)
I do wonder if there was something about the way the survey population was selected that skewed the results.

We are incredibly fixated as a culture on weight as a proxy for health and fitness, and it does distort perceptions. I've had a couple of conversations lately with people that have really weirded me out: usually, they comment that I'm looking healthy and energetic, I tell them a bit about what I've been doing exercise-wise and how it's been good for my mood and energy level and ability to sling heavy luggage around, and then they start talking about how much they "need" to lose weight. These are invariably people who are way, way, thinner than I am. It's odd.
22nd-Jul-2011 04:20 pm (UTC)
And I'm sure you've seen my posts about the opposite effect, where you appear to be thin to people and they try to force donuts and pastries on you. People are nuts.
22nd-Jul-2011 05:23 pm (UTC)
That just seems so bizarre to me. One of the women I used to train with was frequently taken for an off-season bodybuilder because she was built, but had a bigger fat layer than bodybuilders do when they're competing. Another was a triathlete who had so much trouble putting weight ON that she had difficulty floating during swim events. She looked like Linda Hamilton circa Terminator 2.

I thought both of them were immensely attractive and saw them as role models—I'll never have minuscule body fat (and don't especially want to, insulation and buoyancy are good things) but they were both so FIT.

When I was bulkier than I am now, I regularly received compliments from both women and men.

Now, all that said, the steroidal overdevelopment that a lot of bodybuilders achieve does look weird and unhealthy to me on women and men both.
22nd-Jul-2011 07:31 pm (UTC)
I think my ideal is to look like muscular!Jessica Biel (#5 in that second post).
22nd-Jul-2011 08:25 pm (UTC)
My ideal is to look like Serena Williams, but that's just my deltoid fetish talkin' crazytalk. I'd be more than delighted to look like muscular!JessicaBiel.
22nd-Jul-2011 08:28 pm (UTC)
I'm fine-boned enough, and lacking in shoulder breadth enough, that I suspect I would look a little wonky with Serena Williams' musculature on my skeleton. I'd like to show some muscle definition, though.
22nd-Jul-2011 08:55 pm (UTC)
Conversely, part of the reason for my deltoid fetish is that I'm broad-shouldered (or maybe just broad) anyway, so I figure I might as well flaunt it.
24th-Jul-2011 12:32 am (UTC)
Back in the 80s & 90s I worked in a lab where one of the front office people (secretary to the general manager at one point) was an amateur female bodybuilder. She had serious definition, and a fair bit of what these folks seem to mean by "bulk" (about as much as you can get without anabolic help). But she didn't train to the point of losing her breasts (which happens when women drive their bodyfat way low).

She had a killer body. She knew it. And she dressed to show it off - the tight sweaters, low-cut blouses, short skirts and hose that you see on every stereotypical secretary in movies and theater. Except of course she was married with two kids so she wasn't trying to climb the corporate ladder on her back. She just knew she had it and she liked flaunting it.

Interestingly the other women in the office didn't hate her for this, as far as I could tell - probably in part because she really wasn't trying to use her looks as an advantage for promotion or easier work. And no one suggested that the men in the office didn't think that look was hot because people would have laughed at the idea.
27th-Sep-2013 12:01 am (UTC) - Surprising
My husband loves muscle definition on a woman. I would have predicted totally different results also. But beauty is subjective, or should be.

I think strong is beautiful.
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