Are muscles and femininity mutually exclusive?

In between blogging and housework and working on my first book and child-rearing, I've been putting more time into a running routine. I'm not training for a race, or trying to beat a certain goal. I just like how running makes me feel. 

The other night I was lying in bed, stretching out my legs, when I noticed how defined my calves are getting. Not just defined - wider. More solid. More muscular. It seemed that I had muscles where I didn't know any existed. And it kind of freaked me out. Was all this running causing me to bulk up? Even worse, did my new muscles make me unfeminine? I feared I was transforming, Hulk-style, into a monster, some kind of half-man, half-woman. And I really, really like being a woman.

As I stared at my legs, I was reminded of  a 2008 article  featuring Dana Torres, the then 41 year-old Olympic swimmer, and the following photo:

This photo, taken by Robert Maxwell, elevated Torres' awe-inspiring figure from merely admired to iconic. Torres is a mother of one and a nine-time Olympic medalist. Her body is a product of genetics and a lifelong dedication to physical fitness. Torres employs a substantial team of fitness and wellness professionals to support her, including a head coach, a sprint coach, a strength coach, two stretchers, two massage therapists, a chiropractor, and a nanny, at the cost of at least $100,000 per year. Torres' has a figure that is strong, rugged and intimidating - one that many women might admire, and even obsess over.

Unsurprisingly, Maxwell's photo received a huge reaction when it was originally printed in the New York Times Magazine. The portrait of the phenomenally ripped Torres made her, understandably, a topic of breathless conversation on morning chat shows, held up as a physical ideal for mothers, women at or approaching middle age, and just women in general. A body as sculpted Torres' is something unusual and captivating, both in its capacity for athletic prowess as its musculature.

As I read through the comments accompanying the Times piece, it became clear that readers were either impressed - even envious - of Torres' physique, or horrified. What should have been a healthy discussion about female athletes dissolved into discourse regarding the attractiveness of her physique. One commenter stated the following:

"It isn’t a woman’s body Torres has, its a man’s. There’s nothing feminine about that look. If that’s your ideal for women then go get a sex change. Men are built to have abs like that (maybe), women are not. That’s not jealousy or misogyny, that’s just biology. Torres is a freak, and I believe ugly for that."
Some countered with the fact that Torres' figure was "healthy and fit", and that muscles were not exclusive to masculinity. Furthermore,  others argued that "feminine" is a social and personal construct, and what some regard as feminine might not match with the opinion of others.

The debate regarding Torres' figure led me to question what our physical standards (as they are our most used instruments for judging what is "attractive") are at this moment in time - particularly those that concern femininity.  There seems to be a tendency to equate "athletic" with "powerful" and "feminine" with "attractive." In recent history, Western society has swung from embracing narrow figures to voluptuous, buxom silhouettes; from short, bobbed hair to waves of artificial extensions; from the surgically plumped to lean and toned; and from pale, translucent skin to that possessing a deeply bronzed glow. And those feminine beauty standards are always shifting.

A compelling study by Allure Magazine found that the overwhelming shift in perceptions of beauty in the last 20 years has moved away from what are typically Caucasian characteristics - pale skin, slender physiques, smaller breasts and hips - to the curvy, sun-kissed beauty of multi-ethnic women. According to the survey, 70 percent of those who wish to change their skin color wanted it to be darker, and 74 percent believe that a curvier body type is more appealing now than it has been over the past 10 years.

Furthermore, a year ago, The New York Times’ Fashion Review highlighted the shift from the 1960’s Twiggy standards of beauty towards the more rounded, classically feminine figure (as illustrated in Marc Jacobs' Fall 2010 collection, which featured models in padded girdles to create the illusion of hourglass figures.)

I should note that while it is certain that beauty standards will continue to change and evolve, the fashion world rarely compromises on its one hard and fast criterion: all models must be the same. With minor exceptions, the models chosen for the runway are carbon copies of one another: Frequently European, and size-zero. Models are the least diverse constituent of the business.

So what to make of Torres' abs? Can a woman be muscular and athletic, and still be considered feminine? Must femininity depend on the classical idea of rounded hips and full breasts? Do you believe muscles equal masculine? Do you consider Torres your physical ideal, or do you prefer a softer, more rounded body type? Do you have an ideal body type at all?


  1. If a woman can't be muscular and feminine at the same time I'm screwed. I've been a dancer for twenty years, and I'm proud of the muscles I've developed. As a dancer, I've also developed calluses on my feet that are not always pretty in my opinion. However, my husband says they are amazing all of the time. They are tools of my trade. Without each and every callus and blister I have left my heart on the dance floor, and that is something that is beautiful to me.

    Be proud of your awesome new muscles. You look amazing!
    No Guilt Fashion

  2. Living in the UK I've never seen that photo before.

    It's wrong that the conversations around it turned into yet another debate about physical beauty - as you say her body shape is due to her lifelong dedication to fitness. It's her 'machine' or her 'tool of the trade'.

    Whilst I would like to tone up, personally I wouldn't like to be that muscular. My body is not a machine and I am very physically unfit. I have no desire to dedicate that much time to my body, no time, and no need to either.

    But that makes me respect the effort that Torres has put in even more.

  3. I think we can all agree that's an abnormally muscular woman. Clearly she has more testosterone than the average female, hopefully not through the form of steroids. As women we do not produce enough testosterone to bulk, plain and simple. For this reason, steroids matter which gender uses it. I find tone attractive and have learned healthier body image since I've built more tone and muscle in my body. Before I had muscle, I was afraid. Now, as I see what it truly looks like on my body, I understand that I'm thinner and more fit looking because of it.

  4. I am disheartened by the reactions to the times article. I am heavy but I try to be feminine. Body type isn't the basis of femininity. Dana looks wonderful. But as to the accepted body styles, there is a real dichotomy between the curvy figure and the one seen on the runway. The obesity epidemic and the eating disorder. I believe what is needed is to accept oneself and not to compare.

  5. I think that each woman has the right to decide what makes her feel feminine and womanly and often that has nothing to do with body type. Generally speaking there will always be people who find something attractive or to be an ideal that others will find unattractive or even repellent but as they are not the person inhabiting the body in question, it's not really up to them to decided whether or not it's feminine.

    I swam competitively through junior high and high school. I enjoyed it immensely but never cared all that much about winning and therefore never excelled as much as some. I never, ever wanted to have that kind of muscle definition. At various stages of my life I have had some lightly defined muscle tone (and at other times, far more and less) and I have enjoyed it, it fits in with my softer and rounder but still fit, personal ideal; I don't feel attractive with more than that. Woman can look fantastic with both more and less musculature than I have. I think Dana looks amazing and it must take dedication like I have never felt to maintain her body.

  6. I have been in awe of that picture of Dana. It represents such achievement. It is not something most of us will achieve but to deny it is "feminine" is crazy. Brava to you for your running, that is hard work. You look gorgeous in your vintage outfit and modern necklaces!

  7. What an amazing woman! I think her muscles are sexy, in that "I'm a woman, and I"m sexy, but I can still kick your ass six ways from Sunday" kind of look. Yeah, maybe overly-frilly frocks won't work for her, but stick her in a little black dress and watch jaws drop. Even the amount of work she puts into her body is inspiring.

    I, on the other hand, do not have that kind of body. I have a really hard time with body and body-image related thoughts, and I've kind of reached a point of "this is the body I have, and it's sexy and beautiful and I'm fine with it".

    Great, great post. As usual.

    The Bombshell Manifesto

  8. I think most will agree that her body is not attainable for most of us. I know my personal genetics would make it nearly impossible to look like that, but perhaps $100K a year in helpers would make it happen. That's her job, so it is understandable that she looks like that. It's sad that the photo of her received so many negative comments.

    The ideal body is something that very few of us will obtain. I'm sure even models have things they would like to change about themselves. I would love to have a flat abdomen, but not sure I can take the time or calorie/carb/dairy reduction to get there again. Right now I'm just dealing with my puffy center.

    Enjoy your new muscles. You earned them and it doesn't make you unfeminine at all. YOu look wonderful. :)

  9. Hmm evolution says hip to waist ratio. These new "trends" And swaying from smaller to buxom is kind of a joke. Women can have very pleasing hip to waist ratio at a size 0 upwards to even a size 18 (possibly larger). If they have a hip to waist ratio (Kate Moss to Marilyn Monroe, mother goddess figure from the paleolithic age are a fantastic example). What magazines don't tell you is we all walk around looking at each other for fertility hallmarks. We did it for millions of years and that will not change over night. Once you grasp human sexuality the articles and research just seems like sheep bleating about nothing in these "trend" alerts.

  10. I probably shouldn't admit this - but - I've actually stopped doing sit-ups because they were making my neck too wide and muscular. How pathetic is that?
    We all struggle with feminine vs. muscular, if we exercise at all, but it takes a confident woman to flaunt her muscles like Dana does. I'm inspired.
    btw - I'm new to your blog, and loving it.

  11. What I probably hold as "ideal" is definitely self serving. The women who have been icons of beauty in my life have been curvy women....Sofia Loren, Marilyn Monroe, Raquel Welch, Catherine Zeta Jones and the like. Self serving because I'm no skinny woman. I'm an avid exerciser and hiker and my body shows it, but I think I'll always be curvy. Just born that way. Femininity is more than just a look, it's a way one thinks, feels, and presents herself. Torres is an athlete. I'm guessing that what we see in her body is how it responds to the training she puts herself through to perform like she does. You or I could do the exact same training and never look like that, bodies respond differently. I don't think it de-femininizes her. By the way, isn't it the coolest thing to find muscles on your body?!?! It's like being a SHE stud!! You look gorgeous! ~Serene

  12. I think feminine isn't about body type but rather attitude. When I think of feminine, visions of soft spoken, elegant and graceful women come to my mind. By elegant I mean perfectly polished and by graceful I'm referring to the way a woman moves, walks and her facial expressions as well as hand gestures. Obviously this image of feminine is only an ideal not meant to be replicated or strictly adhered to, I was just trying to emphasise that when I think of what feminine represents to me, the issue of weight, skin tone or body shape don't even come into play.

  13. As an ex-ballet dancer, I know that muscles on a woman can be damn sexy and many men agree. Although not exactly typical in western culture, women with strong musculature is in no way unnatural nor ugly. Thing to remember though, torres is an athlete and it is her job to be built as she is, just as someone who dances is paid to be built as they are and a blogger is paid to write well, etc. Torres' body is not only a figure of unconventionaly feminity, but it is also a tool for her to do what she loves and I believe it is important that people not forget this.

  14. It seems to me that muscles and "femininity" are not mutually exclusive. What's more important is what a woman WANTS to do with her body. A swimmer is always going to have a longer, leaner body--the movement trains the muscles that way. It seems to me that humanity comes in all sizes and shapes because each body is ideal for a certain purpose...

  15. I love Dara Torres because she was willing to still do the work to become, again, an athlete of Olympic caliber, after becoming a mother. I thought she looked great. I still do! And what a great thing to share with all women who become mothers, that you can still get out there and kick ass, in your 40's, competing against girls who are young enough to be your daughters. Hell yeah! Another of my athletic role models is the English runner Paula Radcliffe, holder of the world's fastest marathon time for women, who won the NYC marathon 10 months after giving birth to her daughter! Muscles on women are sexy!

  16. I don't think her abs are attractive, but then, I don't find six-packs attractive on men, either.

    There's a kind of grisliness inherent in body-builders of either sex. All that worrying about lowering percentages of body fat so that every ounce of muscle will stand out--it's very far from sexy.

    But come on--extreme athleticism is extreme. It's all about function. Basketball players are giraffes in human form; jockeys are tiny; sumo wrestlers pack on enormous amounts of fat. I admire the athleticism, but I wouldn't want to date any of them.

  17. One of my favourite things about landscaping is the muscle that builds up over a season. I know I can't do this forever...or at least not at this full on capacity...because my back strains and cracks and I just feel tired but I will always appreciate my body shape in the middle of a landscape summer. There is this muscle in my forearm that gives me great joy. It's kind of stupid but seeing it pop out reminds me of what my body is capable of and to have respect for it.

  18. Great topic! Torres is AMAZING. Her body represents her focus and discipline for her sport. I don't want to say yes or no because I think it depends on the person and body type. Muscles don't look the best on all women but that's not to say some women look gorgeous with them (Michelle Obama's arms!). Personally, I like a softer curvier figure for myself but can style admire women like Torres or Jillian Michaels.


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