Toxic Femininity: Time to throw out the term “too muscular”
Article by Vivian Lee
Society paints a very poisonous image for teenage girls:
“Thin is good”, “Skinny is good”, “How are you ever going to get a boyfriend if you don’t lose weight?”
There are countless articles on how to look thinner in photos. There are countless ads for products claiming to help you lose a lot of weight, very quickly. Body image is something that every single young girl struggles with, no matter their size, shape, or weight. In the minds of many young girls, if you are not thin, you are not beautiful.
When I was 12, I started running to lose weight because I had the phrase, “Thin is good. Skinny is good” relentlessly playing in my head.
As a naïve 12-year old, I thought all athletes were very confident in their bodies. As I became more competitive, I realized this could not be further from the truth. Each sport has an “ideal body” for the sport. In rowing, it’s height and muscle to get the most out of each stroke. In swimming, it’s a strong, long upper body for a long reach, and shorter legs to reduce drag. In cross-country, it’s being lean in order to be quick. I have seen so many female athletes torn between wanting the “ideal body” for their sport, or the “ideal thin body” like Victoria Secret models. It often comes down to being either “too muscular” to be considered beautiful, or “too thin” to excel at a sport. For many young athletic girls, it feels like a lose-lose situation, leading to deteriorating mental health, low self-esteem, and loss of love for their sport.
When I entered high school, my parents thought I was fast in the pool and suggested I try out for the swim team. My arms, shoulders, legs, and whole body started to get bigger, making me a very good swimmer. In my first year of competitive swimming, I qualified for city finals in all of my events. My coach told me that if I kept up the progression, I could be aiming to qualify for provincials the following year. As a competitive person who loves winning, that got me very excited. I cranked up my training even more, filling my spare time with cardio sessions and weight lifting.
However, I also became more self-conscious about how “masculine” I looked. I had a male friend who would often call me “gorilla” because of how strong my arms were. I realized how different my body looked from models I saw on social media, so I started to avoid wearing tank tops, especially halter tops, because they accentuated my shoulders too much. I thought my thighs looked too fat when I wore shorts. I thought my feet looked too big to wear sandals and ankles too fat to wear heels. When taking photos, I tried to make sure my body was directly facing the camera, since I hated how defined my “un-thin” arms looked from the side. I was torn between looking thin and beautiful, versus building more muscle and getting faster in the pool. I went into sports wanting to be thinner and be more confident in my body, but looking “manlier” did not align with that. At 16, I still didn’t look like what I wanted to look like when I was 12—and that was “thin” and “feminine”.
In high school, some boys made lists of, “what makes girls attractive” and “what makes girls unattractive”. On the “attractive” list was “athletic”, but on the “unattractive” list was “muscular”. Many men (and women) encourage women to do sports that involve nothing but endless cardio and endless calorie-burning. That way, women can be relatively fit without worrying whether men will still want them. I guess this is why many girls, including myself, turned to running to lose weight. However, when girls participate in sports that involve strength, it suddenly becomes unattractive in the eyes of many men.
If you are a male reading this article, honestly ask yourself: do I find a muscular woman unattractive? If the answer is yes, why do you feel that way? Is it because you believe a woman should be thinner than you? Is it because you believe women should be weaker than you? If we want to start changing the way we look at female bodies, at both the individual and societal levels, these are important questions to consider.
Toxic femininity needs to be talked about more. Especially in the context of young girls in sports. We need to get rid of the notion that women need to be passive, patient, tender, receptive, and soft. While those are good traits to have (I’ll admit it, I would definitely be a better person if I was more patient and understanding), the idea of toxic femininity is ingrained deep into the minds of young girls. Toxic femininity culture perpetuates the idea that if a woman is physically strong, or goes against the traditional ideals of being feminine, then there is something wrong with her.
And what does this toxic mindset result in for young female athletes? Here are some statistics:
Of girls involved in sports, one in three quit by their late teens (Butler, 2020). For boys, the statistic is one in ten. The dropout rate for teenage girls in sport is six times higher, compared to boys. This is because many teenage girls, compared to their male counterparts, are discouraged to play sports, discouraged to get fast and strong. In one study (Wallace, 2015), nearly 70% of girls said that they “felt like they didn’t belong in sports” and felt that “society doesn’t encourage women in sports”. 89% of girls report that they feel pressured to act and look a certain way. “Thin is good. Skinny is good. Act more like a girl.” This is toxic femininity.
Additionally, female athletes are at a higher risk for eating disorders compared to non-athlete females. While this is more prevalent in aesthetic sports (ie: gymnastics, ballet, etc.) or endurance sports (ie: cross country running), many athletes make extreme modifications in their diet in order to look a certain way. Eating disorders are often comorbid for other mental disorders, such as major depression, anxiety, PTSD, self-harm and suicidal thoughts, and many others (National Eating Disorders Collaboration, 2020).
When young teenage girls get too caught up in how their body looks, sports are no longer fun. Sport is no longer a lesson taught in collaboration, respect, and discipline, but rather it is a lesson taught in self-criticism and societal criticism. These are the effects of toxic femininity.
I have realized that the type of environment an athlete is in is so important. It’s not that I was in an unsupportive, body-shaming environment back when I did competitive swimming. The problem was the lack of guidance on healthy eating, body positivity, and muscle building for girls. It was not a particularly competitive team, so there was no urgency to address the “elephant in the room”. That stuff just wasn’t normalized.
Now, I am surrounded by the most supportive athletes; athletes of all shapes and sizes. No one shames anyone for how they look. Muscle is actually encouraged because it makes you go faster on the water. Any shame about how my body looks happens within my own head, often due what I see on social media, not because of the pressures from my sport. Though I am nowhere near 100% confident in the way I look, I no longer exercise to be thin. I no longer skip weight sessions in order to stay slim and “feminine”. I now do weight-lifting sessions to get the most out of each stroke I take on the boat. I now do cardio and cross training to build my aerobic base—not to lose weight.
Now, I am proud of my body. My defined arms, broad shoulders, and muscular legs are the product of thousands of hours of training. I put in blood, sweat, and tears into it—I’ve earned it. I can run up steep hills very quick. I can swim for hours on end before my arms give out. I have a pretty impressive VO2 max. I love the look of surprise on some guys at the gym, when they see me reaching for the same dumbbell weight as them. I love the feeling of sore muscles the day after a weight session because that means I’m getting stronger. I love what my body can do for me in sports. I love the final burst of energy my muscles can give me in the last quarter of a race. I love the thrill of bettering myself, physically and mentally, every single day. And I wouldn’t ever give that up to be thin.
It is so important that female athletes are surrounded by a culture that promotes body positivity, no matter how their body looks. It doesn’t matter if an athlete is “too muscular”—she can probably lift more than most people. It doesn’t matter if an athlete is “too large”—she can probably exert more power than most people. And it doesn’t matter if an athlete has “unconventional body proportions”— she is built to be fast, strong, and empowered. Sport exists to give women a sense of empowerment, but society strips it away from them. It is time to throw away the term “too muscular”. And it is time to encourage women to be the strong individuals they were meant to be.
Signa, B. (2020, June 11). 1 in 3 girls drops out of sports by late teens, study finds | CBC Sports. Retrieved July 31, 2020, from https://www.cbc.ca/sports/youth-sports-teenagers-female-male-participation-1.5607509#:~:text=A%20new%20report%20on%20participation,t%20play%20sports%20at%20all&text=104-,Teenage%20girls%20continue%20to%20drop%20out%20of%20sport%20at%20starkly,national%20study%20on%20sport%20participation.
Wallace, Kelly. (2015, July 9). How to teach girls to be confident #LikeAGirl”. CNN. Retrieved July 31, 2020, from https://www.cnn.com/2015/07/09/living/feat-teach-girls-confidence-likeagirl/
National Eating Disorders Collaboration. (n.d.). Retrieved August 14, 2020, from https://www.nedc.com.au/eating-disorders/eating-disorders-explained/types/comorbidity/