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?