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Why Are Female Athletes Criticised For Developing a "Masculine" Physique?

In becoming strong and muscular through sport, women prove that anatomy is not destiny, and that gender is not a determinant of ability or power. But society doesn't always see that as a good thing.
July 29, 2016, 3:40pm
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This article originally appeared on VICE Sports UK.

There's a whole host of sexist shit grounded in the notion that a man's role is to protect women. From those blokes who pull out women's chairs for them on First Dates to that joke my dad always tells about polishing his gun when I bring home a boyfriend, the idea of man as the noble protector is a patriarchal trope as old and tired as Arsene Wenger's "I didn't see it" excuse. It's founded on one laughable assumption: that women are weak and fragile beings in need of safeguarding by strong menfolk.


The list of things we need to start doing to dismantle patriarchy is longer than England's first pass under Sam Allardyce, but challenging notions of women's essential frailty is a really important one. Sacking off chivalry is totally crucial – and not just because it's 2016 and tbh there's no need for a man to walk on the traffic side of the pavement to shield you from mud kicked up by donkeys. Saying "no thank you" to gallantry is a big deal because it involves confronting the way in which we assign strength and weaknesses based on gender. By coding strength as a decidedly masculine trait, women can in turn be dismissed for their weakness. While this might seem harmless when it manifests itself as some dude giving up his seat on the bus, it can also present itself as damagingly as failing to entrust a woman with the nuclear launch codes because you think her uterus could foster apocalyptic hysteria.

The prevalent and pervasive notion of female frailty takes on a physical manifestation in the type of bodies we assign as 'feminine' and those we code as 'masculine'. The ideal woman is gentle and slight, defined by comparison to the hunk of hegemonic masculinity that exists to protect her. Female strength is scary, because it challenges the notion that women need men to protect them. Once you remove that dependency, you take away some of the power men have as the natural leaders, protectors, and owners of women.

Like Serena Williams, Jessica Ennis-Hill has been criticised for her "masculine" physique // PA Images

The sports that are coded as 'appropriately female' correspond closely to the kinds of bodies that they build. If you don't believe me, please consult Tory blert Helen Grant on how the key to widening women's participation in sport is to provide "what women want". Much like the trashy turn-of-the-millennium movie of the same name, "what women want" is apparently reductionist tropes of femininity in the form of cheerleading or some other lady-sport where you can burn calories without worrying about whether you still look fuckable or not. It's super easy to accept a female athlete who excels in a sport that builds an acceptably feminine figure, like gymnastics or figure skating. On the other hand, women who defy femininity in their athleticism seem far less palatable to the kind of cockwombles who trash Serena Williams, Rebecca Addlington or Jessica Ennis-Hill for the way they look. Society still sees strong and muscular women as somehow unnatural for daring to inhabit a body that is coded as masculine.

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A few months ago, I got into the kind of self-hating Instagram stalk where you get 75 weeks deep into photos of your high-school boyfriend with his wife and child. In the process, I found Daisy, an old school friend who I knew battled with an eating disorder for most of her formative years. I had started pounding non-prescription laxatives around the same age, so between starving ourselves and exercising obsessively, we had a lot in common. Hence my surprise when I came across videos of Daisy squatting 120kg and showing an incredibly built body on her Instagram.

Daisy at work

When I asked what prompted such a huge change, she told me that weightlifting had "completely cured her" by teaching her to relish getting bigger because it meant she was becoming stronger. In fostering a body type that diverges from the ideal of fragile femininity, Daisy told me she felt "empowered" through realising her own strength; this started to emerge as a theme throughout my conversations with women who are heavily involved in the kinds of sports that build 'unfeminine' figures.

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My mate Maddie and a group of friends founded the Edinburgh roller derby league in 2008, so as you can imagine she's a total fucking badass. When we spoke, Maddie told me that in the early years of Edinburgh's roller derby scene people would say to her, "I enjoy having a big ass – it's useful in roller derby because you use your hips quite a lot", and that many members of the community appreciated their ability to take up space in a sport where their size became an advantage, rather than a source of shame.

In becoming involved in their sports, the women I spoke to said their bodies became about more than aesthetics as they began to regard them as a means to attain a greater goal. For Maddie, roller derby provided a community where women could self-organise sport on their own terms, according to a do-it-yourself model. For Daisy and my pal Rhona – who plays rugby for Scotland – the goal was to achieve competitive success in their respective sports. Rhona told me that whereas in her teens she didn't want to look muscular or strong, now she needs to be in order to make the team and be successful. Similarly, Daisy told me: "I don't do it for aesthetics at all, and especially not in CrossFit. You can't be like that to get good. You've got to let your body forget that. There's more to it than looks."

Scottish international Rhona faces English assaults from all angles

There were a lot of things that I took away with me from talking to Daisy, Maddie and Rhona – namely that I have the core body strength of a blancmange and wouldn't survive a zombie apocalypse. But, perhaps more importantly, I learnt that through building the kinds of physique that society regards as unfeminine, these women began to use their bodies instrumentally and as an active extension of their own will, rather that existing solely to serve the male gaze. When we were talking, Maddie brought tears to my joyless feminist eyes when she said: "I enjoyed using [my body] to pursue a goal and thinking: 'Oh wow, I'm concentrating so much on where my legs are I've stopped worrying about how fat my thighs are'." And while Maddie may have articulated it with all of the eloquence of a woman who's written a book about roller derby (seriously, she's fucking awesome) the same thing came up time and again in the conversations I was having.

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As with any action that involves challenging patriarchal norms and prescribed gender differences, women who embody a challenge to the notion of female frailty are subjected to shit from the kind of thundercunts who do the double-gun-finger pose in nightclub photos. Rhona told me she struggled with this a lot when she was younger: people used to call her a man for playing rugby and she worried about what society would think of her when she was put on a weights programme. She said that she used to worry about getting too muscular before prom, as if being a 16-year-old girl isn't enough of a mindfuck without having to worry that people will mock you for working hard in a sport you're great at. When I went to Daisy's CrossFit gym, her trainer Angie told me that despite having competed at the highest international level possible, her family still tell her she looks like a man and rebuke her for nurturing physical strength so keenly.

The Auld Reekie Roller Girls league Maddie co-founded in Edinburgh // Credit: Xys Xysio Photography

It became apparent from all of these conversations that the process of building immense physical strength has to be accompanied by the kind of emotional muscle needed to take the backlash these women receive for their sports. Daisy told me that she found inspiration from Lauren Fischer, a legend in the CrossFit world who spearheads the Growing Up Strong social media campaign, which encourages young women to embrace the strength they are capable of and to love their muscular bodies. Daisy told me she aspires to have that level of confidence in her new body, because the power she feels inside the CrossFit gym is often undermined when she goes to nightclubs and feels out of place next to other women.

READ MORE: Sexism Still Rules British Football

In pursuing sports like CrossFit, rugby and roller derby, the women I spoke with were able to find a new sense of ownership over their bodies. Daisy, Maddie and Rhona each gave up caring whether they were bruised or bloodied by training, because they found an empowerment through the realisation that their bodies are more than aesthetic shells built to ornament a scene created by and for men. That's fucking important and they are all amazing.

In becoming strong and muscular through sport, women prove unequivocally that anatomy is not destiny, and that gender is not a determinant of ability or power. In showing that strength knows no gender, they demonstrate the notion of men as women's natural protectors for the lie it has always been. In embodying a challenge to the narrative we are fed about the ideal female figure, these women are rewriting the story of female frailty.