Now THIS is what I call scary muscles. (Don’t worry, it’s only a tattoo)
It was a bevy of blonds recently when dark blond Ryan Seacrest sat down with platinum blond Ellen Degeneres (married to honey blond Portia di Rossi) to talk about… something… and the conversation turned to his golden blond girlfriend, Julianne Hough. Specifically how he’s “afraid” of her because she’s so strong and tough. At least that’s how it got reported. What he actually said was, “‘She’s such an athlete. I’m afraid sometimes to do stuff with her because I know I’m going to get injured.” So I don’t think he’s really scared of her and her lady muscles but more scared for himself and his 13-years-older-than-hers muscles. But nevertheless, it’s sparked some interesting discussion about how women with muscles are “scary.”
I’ve been called scary before, by a man. Several years ago, in the middle of a workout, one of the personal trainers commented loudly to another trainer, “Those girls scare me!” Those girls meaning Gym Buddy Allison and I.
My first reaction was disbelief. “Us? Scary??” We’re about as scary as the Hamburgler. (Seriously, Ronald McDonald is scary. But if I met the Hamburgler in a dark alley? You know it’d start with “gimme your wallet” and end with fist bumps and “just messin’ with you, man!”)
My second reaction was to puff out my chest and growl, “He should be scared, by golly! We could kick his butt!” And then I realized that anyone who says “by golly” – even in their imagination – is inherently not scary. Plus, I like to talk big (and kiss my biceps when no one’s looking) but I really have no idea how to handle myself in a fight. In a showdown, I’m sure I’d be the one eating mat. Allison and I can’t even play basketball without apologizing every 2 minutes and saying, “No really, you take another shot – I had the ball last time!”
Our friend Mike had his own theory. “It’s because you guys have no fear and that’s what personal trainers usually do, is help people overcome their fears. He knows you don’t need him.” He added, “Take it as a compliment, really.” It’s true. Allison and I do not worship the personal trainers as the purveyors of all fitness knowledge. Which isn’t to say that he is stupid. I’m sure he knows many things that I do not. I’m just saying that we dare to use the “weird” equipment and try out new exercises and we’re not reliant on the personal trainers to show us how. And it’s also possible – since at the time he spoke Allison and I were doing weighted sled pulls with a sled we’d jerry-rigged out of an upside down aerobic step and a stack of weight plates tied together with jump ropes – that he was just afraid we’d drop something on our heads and sue the gym.
But while that trainer may have been the first, he certainly hasn’t been the last man to call me or one of my strong lady friends “scary.” And if I’m being completely honest, sometimes I find my own strength to be scary. All of which made me stop thinking about the names for all the various shades of blond and made me start thinking about what exactly it is that makes female strength so frightening to people. I don’t really know but I have a few guesses:
1. We intimidate them. Strength, at least for me, often manifests as confidence and this increased confidence leads me to stand up straighter, look people in the eye, be more firm about what I want and take more risks – all of which can also appear intimidating.
2. They’re afraid we won’t need them anymore. Whether it’s in the sense of the personal trainer above or simply that we’ll be opening our own pickle jars, there is a feeling that we’ve moved on from them. People of both genders like to be needed and when we stop needing them as much it can change the whole dynamic of the relationship.
3. It feels “unfeminine.” Strong women don’t conform to the narrow standards of feminine beauty – and the farther one strays the “scarier” she becomes. Perhaps this is why fitness models and bodybuilding competitors often feel that breast implants (and string bikinis and sequins and stage makeup) are a job requirement; the boobs soften the muscles and make them less scary. And this pertains to themselves as well as the menfolk. I’ve never interviewed a single female bodybuilder or fitness model – and I’ve interviewed quite a few now – who say they want to be a man or look like a man. They want to be a girl. And they want to have big muscles. All the stuff in the middle is trying to reconcile all the conflicting messages we get about the two.
4. They’re afraid they can’t control us. With strength comes power and a powerful woman can be scary to a lot of people. I’m not trying to bash men in general but rather pointing out that there are a few who relish being able to physically control another person and losing that upper hand, even a little bit, can be very scary for them.
5. Our strength highlights their weakness. Genetic freaks aside, strong muscles take a lot of self discipline, hard work and willpower to acquire. Sometimes people dislike others’ strengths because it makes them more aware of their weaknesses.
I’m not just trying to put these thoughts on other people – I have them myself too. Just this morning I was talking to a friend about how I dislike the emphasis on getting “big” over getting “strong” in certain circles. One is about looks and the other is about function and while the two can go together, they don’t always. But it was also in part because of the above reasons, #5 especially. Seeing the super ripped girls at the gym made me feel guilty for not working out harder. And because they made me feel guilty, I kinda hated them – even though I’ve talked to all of them before and I know they’re super nice, sweet people!
While I’m ‘fessing up to bad thoughts: I’ve also thought a man to be scary simply because he was massively muscular. There was one gym employee who I used to always go out of my way to avoid because I found him physically intimidating even though he’d never done anything remotely menacing. Part of that instinct is self-preservation I think – it’s sad but true that we have to think like that – but I was also happy to be proven wrong when I ended up taking a class with him and he turned out to be one of the nicest guys in the place. Even worse, as we talked more, he mentioned that he knows he scares women sometimes and so he tries extra hard to be friendly. I felt like a huge jerk.
So it definitely goes both ways.
In the end I have to say that I’m always a little sad when someone finds me scary, for whatever reason. And yet it’s not enough to make me regret my increased strength over the past few years – not even a little bit! I’d rather be scary than weak so if being strong makes me scary then bring it on.
Why do you think people are often afraid of strong or muscular women? Have you ever had anyone tell you they’re scared of you? Have you ever found someone (man or woman) scary because of their strength??
[UPDATE: For all of you who asked for The Great Fitness Experiment (c) 2011. If you enjoyed this, please check out my new book The Great Fitness Experiment: One Year of Trying Everythingfor more of my crazy antics and uncomfortable over-shares!