Recently on Facebook, an old friend reflected on the fact that people frequently tell her she has arms like a man’s. She’s a competitive bodybuilder and has worked hard for those arms, so she takes the observation as a compliment. But she’s not stupid. She knows it frequently isn’t intended as a compliment, and she mentioned that in her post.
Her theory is that people are jealous. I suspect that’s part of it, but I think it goes much deeper. I see two primary things going on here:
1. People don’t know how to respond to beauty that doesn’t fit Madison Avenue’s rubric. I’ve riffed on this before, but it bears repeating: When someone strays too far from society’s artificial (bigoted) standards of beauty, we don’t know what to do with her, so we either attack her or ignore her. That’s because …
2. Madison Avenue’s rubric is based on every hangup you can think of. It’s sexist, racist, homophobic, transphobic, ageist and ableist.
I suspect most of the comments about my friend’s physique are — like most attempts at body-shaming — motivated by pure misogyny. A man in her sport will reap nothing but compliments, but female fitness competitors frequently are derided because they refuse to accept the notion that women should be small, soft and weak.
If you’ve got the gumption to spend umpteen hours a day in a weight room and then walk out onto a stage for the express purpose of having other people critique your appearance in microscopic detail, you are clearly not the kind of girl who can be controlled through conventional means, and you are most definitely not following society’s unwritten rules, which state that as a woman, you have exactly two options: Be invisible or be a target.
Think about it.
An overweight woman who keeps her mouth shut and hides her body under baggy clothing generally will be ignored. An overweight woman who wears stylish or revealing clothes will be fat-shamed for daring to be confident. And an overweight woman who goes to the gym, works her arse off and becomes a highly competitive athlete will have her femininity called into question at every turn.
Meanwhile, the same rules apply to underweight women. I was a skinny kid, which meant I could either hide my body under oversized clothes or be ridiculed for my flat chest and “flamingo legs.” But of course, once I grew up and found myself hauling around a set of triple-Ds on an otherwise average frame, I discovered that my choices remained the same: I could dress for invisibility, or I could wear something flattering and be slut-shamed.
The insults change, but the demand remains the same: Disappear or pay the consequences.
It’s not about our bodies. It’s about other people feeling they have the right to police our bodies. It’s about other people projecting their hangups onto us. It’s about other people trying to control us. It’s about silencing us and rendering us invisible.
And it’s about damn time it stopped.