Thursday, April 10, 2014

Who's Afraid of Bulking Up?: Of Fitness, Fatness, and Strength

I read a really, really ridiculous article yesterday. It's from the August 2013 issue of Harper's Bazaar, and it's titled "Is Spinning Making You Fat?"

The whole premise of the article is that many women are abandoning their beloved spinning classes because all that physical exertion is resulting in (gasp, shock) more muscular lower halves. That's right, ladies, using the muscles in your legs may, in fact, cause them to get--wait for it--bigger!

According to the article, some people are still allowed to take a spin class now and then. One trainer  admits that he "lets [lets!], say, an apple-shaped woman with skinny legs go once a week." But for those of us not blessed with a shape that allows that kind of training, we'd best avoid it all together.

What if you've already made the mistake? What if you already built those horrendous, bulging thighs? Well, you're in luck! One interviewee explains how she dealt with the problem:
She gave up all exercise for a month to let the muscles atrophy, then switched to yoga.
That's right. You should let your muscles atrophy rather than accept that unattractive junk in the trunk. Actually, I'm really glad they chose that word. The definition (from of "atrophy" is "waste away, typically due to the degeneration of cells, or become vestigial during evolution."

And that's exactly what this article is calling for: a waste, a degeneration, an (d)evolution of human conceptions of beauty where form and function become vestigial.

Fitness is not measured by appearance; it is measured by function. And developing muscles in your legs does not make you "fat" (as the headline insists), but muscular, a completely different type of body composition. There are a range of ways to be "fit," and while the lean body that the women in this article seem to hold above all can be one representation, it is not the only one.

For instance, have you seen the LSU gymnast Lloimincia Hall who scored a perfect 10 for her amazing hip hop routine?

Doing that requires a whole hell of a lot of talent, and it also requires muscles. You're not launching your body through the air and sticking those landings on atrophied quads.

The reason that I'm writing about this ridiculous article from last year, though, is because it hit a personal nerve. I intellectually know all of the things I just wrote. Muscles are part of fitness. Gaining size does not mean getting "fat." Fitness is about function, not appearance. I know these things.

Still, I had a moment of body image crisis recently. Since starting roller derby back in January, I've been gaining a lot of muscle in my lower body. My body composition is changing, and my jeans don't fit right anymore. I've lost weight, and my jeans had to go up a size. (I almost wrote "I've lost weight, but my jeans had to go up a size" but these facts are not in opposition. They are part of the whole.)

There was a moment in the dressing room where I wanted to resist this reality. There was even a fleeting moment where I wondered if I should continue playing the sport. "What if I get too big?" that little voice in the back of my mind asked me.

Too big for what? Too big for a specific pair of jeans but big enough to make my minimum laps, finally manage these damn crossovers, and to knock someone else to the floor when the time comes? That seems like a fair trade. After all, I can buy more jeans; I can't buy the strength and confidence that come with playing a sport I love and feeling physically powerful for the first time in my life.

Caitlin at Fit and Feminist felt compelled to write about the Harper's post, too, and her explanation really hit home with me:
You know what I say?  If you love something, do it.  And if doing that thing changes your body in ways that stray from the beauty standard, then fuck the beauty standard.  There are a lot of ways to be beautiful and fabulous. 
And that gets to the real problem with the Harper's article. It's not simply that they are once again privileging thinness over fitness or that we're defining beauty in such a narrow and hard-to-maintain way. The problem is that messages like this are actively telling women not to do things they love that will make them strong.

I'm not the only one who has the roller derby jean problem. And as I was browsing the Body by Derby project (a project aimed at cataloging how roller derby changes people's bodies), I couldn't help but notice that a lot of the women in the series weigh more than they did when they started playing. Roller derby is hard work, hard work that builds muscles.

And the benefits aren't limited to the track. Sure, there aren't too many times in my day-to-day life that I need to skate 27 laps in five minutes, but I can chase after my daughter during a game of tag longer, catch myself when I'm stumbling on the stairs with a basket of laundry on my hip easier, and (yes, vainly) admire that newly-formed silhouette when I put on that little black dress.

I can buy bigger jeans.

Photo: tbn97


  1. I'm a fat woman, and like most fat women I 1) buy clothing in special fat stores that is allegedly made for fat bodies and 2) have muscular calves and thighs under my fat, from hauling around all my heavy fat. I have skinny jeans that I can barely wear because while they're loose in the waist/stomach/butt the CALVES are so tight I can barely pull them on.

    I really hate this assumption that women shouldn't have muscles. It's so gross.

  2. Gross is right! Saying women shouldn't have muscles is essentially saying that we should not use our own bodies!

    It's interesting that male standards of fitness and attractiveness (while still narrowly defined and certainly troubling) do just the opposite. Without the visible evidence of hard work in the form of chiseled abs and bulging biceps, male bodies are devalued. These dueling beauty standards are just one more way to reinforce a binary of female submission and male dominance that limits everyone.

  3. Beautiful post!

  4. Found your blog through "Fit is a Feminist Issue" - when I read that she "let her muscles atrophy" I was horrified as well. To me that would be something akin to saying "I let my bone density waste away because my wrists were getting too thick."

    To each their own I suppose, but I don't think that's the message that should be sent. Anyways, lovely blog, glad to have found it!

  5. Thanks for reading!

    And right. If someone prefers a slim, thin look, I'm not going to tell them they have to bulk up, but to admit that "atrophying" is the goal is disturbing to me.