Serena, Ronda and Our Fear of Strong Women

“Oh my goodness, she’s so ripped and I love it! Her biceps and traps are so sexy”…says hardly anyone, ever.  For centuries a muscular build has been a sign of beauty for men, not women.  In western culture, a woman’s beauty and femininity are often based on her softness and her curves; not on how chiseled her muscles are or how much she can lift.  Despite all of the strides that women have made in society, the masses seem hell-bent on maintaining these archaic images of beauty.  Whether they make their livings as gym teachers or as soccer moms, women are expected to maintain soft, slender looking bodies.  But it’s about time that we stopped fearing strong women and started embracing beauty strength.        

One of the greatest athletes to walk the face of the earth is forced to confront these antiquated standards of beauty on a regular basis.  Last month after winning her 6th Wimbledon (and 21st Major) title, Serena Williams’ name trended throughout social media.  Some of the commentary celebrated her victory and athletic prowess; but far too many felt the need to comment on Williams’ physique.  As expected, many of the comments were not favorable.  The media and individuals alike felt the need to comment on the manliness and powerfulness of her appearance.  The New York Times, for instance, felt the need to publish an article focusing on her physique rather than what an awesome athlete she is.  In the poorly written article Williams provided comment about her body image and shared a little about the issues she’s had to overcome as they relate to her body.  For years, rather than placing her sole focus on being the best athlete she could be, Williams (like so many other female athletes) dealt with body issues. She and others admitted to having an internal battle which required them to somehow choose between feeling and looking more feminine (read “less muscular”) and preparing their bodies to be the best athletes possible.  Essentially, they felt they had to choose between social normalcy and career success.

This internal conversation that female athletes struggle with should never have to take place.  After all, male athletes certainly don’t have to have these conversations.  In a culture that praises strong, defined muscles in men; male athletes don’t have to worry about their physiques affecting their public images.  Rather, the bodies they need for high performance and those that grace the front covers of magazines are one in the same. Working out for male athletes is simultaneously improving their athleticism and self-confidence and public perception.  That freedom to build their physiques without question is one many female athletes simply do not have.  And that lack of freedom can often stand in the way of getting the most out of their bodies and their careers.  

So why does society champion the less imposing female stature over that of power?  One word, fear.  Much of society was established on a system of patriarchy.  Households, businesses and governments were established on a system that placed men in positions of power and control, and women in positions of subservience and subordination.  For centuries men have attempted to maintain this system through propaganda about the strengths, abilities and roles of men and women.  Images and literature, for example, promote men as strong, domineering and powerful while promoting women as docile, weak and unassuming.  The more women are portrayed as frail and incapable, the more society believes in the necessity to maintain patriarchy.  By in large, these images have become acceptable for both men and women, allowing men to comfortably maintain their power and control in society.  

So herein lies society’s problem with physically strong women like Williams; they challenge patriarchy and make people fearful of a shift in societal norms.  Strong women do not fit into the system that has promoted women as the weaker, needy member of the species.  Rather they challenge it and suggest that women are also powerful and capable.  They promote self-reliance and self-determination, not reliance on men. Many men see images of strong women as a threat to their power and dominance.  And many women (who are uncertain about their own inner strength) are uncomfortable with the ideas of true equality among the sexes.  I mean for some it really is scary to think that if women can be both beautiful and strong; feminine and powerful, is there really any need to have men run the world?

Rather than conquer their fears and embrace strong women, many resort to childish antics.  The fearful choose to ridicule strong women as being manly and abnormal, often going as far as questioning their sexuality. For many, degrading women with powerful physiques and fearlessness is a way to maintain the status quo, calm the fears about change and assure the masses that they really don’t want strong women having voices in society.  Berating and belittling strong women discourages others from testing the limits of their own strength. Unfortunately, these tactics are oftentimes successful; convincing girls and women to give up on or diminish their athletic prowess in favor of acceptance.  It really is a pity.    

Lucky for us, patriarchy and fear of strong women has never been the end of the story.  Women have been testing the boundaries of their strength and pushing the envelope on definitions of beauty and femininity for quite some time.  The likes of Babe Zaharias, Mary Lou Retton, Florence Griffith Joyner, Lisa Leslie, and everyone in between have been showing us that beauty and strength are not mutually exclusive.  Williams has refused to succumb to the societal pressures of beauty.  She has answered the internal and external battle by basking in the glory of her trophies and her triceps.  Thankfully, Williams isn’t alone in her present-day quest to redefine beauty.  Just the other day UFC champion Ronda Rousey took the opportunity to inspire women to embrace their inner and outer strength.  When asked about her body on the vlog series UFC 190 Embedded Rousey proudly responded:

     Listen, just because my body was developed for a purpose other than f***ing      millionaires doesn’t mean it’s masculine.  I think it’s femininely bada**                  because there’s not a single muscle on my body that isn’t for a purpose,              because I’m not a do-nothing b***h.  It’s not very eloquently said, but it’s to          the point and maybe that’s just what I am.  

Really, how can you not love every word?  We need our megastars like Williams and Rousey to take such bold stands in redefining and embracing their bodies and their beauties.  Without their willingness to go against the status quo we’ll continue to have girls and women have issues with their bodies.  Girls will continue to feel the need to choose between striving for worldly beauty and being their bests.  We need girls to know that there is absolutely nothing wrong with their protruding calf muscles and structured quads.  Those things are equally and simultaneously strong and beautiful.  

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