What does it mean to have an athletic body?

Autumn over at The Beheld wrote a post yesterday entitled “On Athletic Bodies,” and I found it very thought-provoking.  Here’s the meat of her post (although I think you should read the whole thing anyway, and in fact, you should probably just go ahead and put her blog into your RSS reader while you’re at it):

So the first time I saw “athletic body” in the “dress your figure” pages of a women’s magazine, I got excited. Finally, someone was acknowledging that not all women who work out are doing so to lose weight—and, hey, maybe I’d finally, once and for all, learn what kind of figure I actually had. But when the advice focused on “creating curves,” I was confused: I’m not particularly busty, but lacking curves has never been my problem. In fact, since muscles generally are not shaped like squares but instead are gently sloping, I probably have more curves than I did before I started lifting weights.

All the arguments I’ve made before about “dressing for your figure” apply to “athletic.” For starters, it’s meaningless: Some magazines use it to mean “broad-shouldered and thick-waisted,” others use it to mean “big thighs, little hips,” others use it to mean “naturally slender and small-breasted.” The one thing they always say is to “create curves”—something I don’t think, say, Jennie Finch or Gabrielle Reece ever worried about.

More important, though, the idea of the “athletic body” ignores the enormous range of sports and the athletes who play them. Different sports work better with different bodies, as beautifully photographed by Howard Schatz in Athlete, a collaboration with Beverly Ornstein that depicts the enormous range in athletes’ bodies, from high jumper Amy Acuff to gymnast Olga Karmansky to weightlifter Cheryl Haworth. And even if we make room for the prototypical body of each sport, as Ragen at Dances With Fat—whose blog roots are in showing the world that a 284-pound dancer is, in fact, a dancer (she’s won three National Dance Championships)—asked us last week, “When did being an athlete become more about how a body looks and less about what it can do?”

The whole post is just a heaping pile of awesome, and I really suggest you go read it.

I went and checked out one of the links Autumn referenced, in which a blogger provides suggestions for women with “athletic” figures.  The suggestion left me feeling rather nonplussed.

The blogger starts off with:

With broader shoulders, a phenomenal build and toned arms and legs, you’ve got a lot to show off!

But then the blogger suggests you don’t actually show off your body:

We recommend steering clear of cap-sleeves, high neck tanks and loose-sleeved dresses that add “bulk” to the upper body.

It’s evident from this – and from countless women’s magazine features – that only specific kinds of bodies can be “athletic” and that those bodies are in need of correction via specific styles of clothing.  After all, heaven forbid a woman have “bulk” on her upper body.

But the problem goes even deeper than that, as champion dancer Ragen over at Dances With Fat says:

My understanding of the perception of athletic (as verified by two of my heterosexual male friends)  is “thin, possibly with muscles, definitely small boobs”.   But the idea is obviously problematic.  I’m an athlete but if I checked the box for “athletic body”, the person I ended up on a date with would likely feel that I had been disingenuous.

As Autumn writes, the entire point of having an athletic body is that it is capable of doing things.  An athletic body can run, can dance, can do push-ups, can play soccer, can do any number of things.  I’d argue that pursuit of an athletic female body is a rather subversive act in our society, which prizes the appearance of women’s bodies above all else.  When you choose to put your focus on the things your body can do, you are actively rejecting the idea that your worth is tied up in the way you look.

Yet the idea that an athletic body is one that looks a specific way undercuts that subversion and turns the notion of an “athletic body” into yet another avenue by which to create body hate and self-consciousness.  (Especially when that definition of what it means to have an athletic body is followed up with tips on ways to disguise that body!)   Because once again, it’s no longer about what your body can do as much as it is what your body looks like.

I’m with Ragen and Autumn in rejecting this idea that an athletic body is one that looks a specific way.  In May, I wrote in a post entitled “What racing has taught me about health at every size“:

But it also really calls the idea of what it means to be “healthy” and “athletic” into question. In our society, we definitely have this predefined idea of what these words mean. It usually involves a slender build with some muscle tone (how much varies depending on the gender of the athlete). One thing that does not come to mind for most of us are people whose bodies are thick or have fat on them.

Yet it becomes very difficult to watch a woman whose body is an exaggerated pear shape as she finishes a triathlon and to think that she is not healthy or not in shape or not athletic. Because if she was unhealthy or out of shape or unathletic, would she have been able to swim a half-mile, bike 15 miles AND run a 5K? She is, by definition, an athlete!

Even if you look at athletes who actually get paid to play their sport, you see a wide variation in bodies.  The compact muscularity of a hurdler is different from the lanky build of a marathoner is different from the sturdiness of the Olympic weight lifter is different from the broad shoulders of the swimmer…

The “muscular with no boobs or hips” is an image of the athletic body that only applies to a small sliver of athletes.  Yet fashion media keeps putting it out there, and why?  Because of a need to slot bodies into categories that can then be easily turned into a feature meant to sell you on $600 dresses and $100 swimsuits?

With so many barriers already in place that prevent women from pursuing a life of sport and athletics, why contribute to that by creating some imaginary idea of what it means to have an “athletic body”?

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9 responses to “What does it mean to have an athletic body?

  1. Thank you so much for linking, and for the glowing recommendation! I’m so glad that my thoughts could prompt such a thoughtful post (as Ragen’s did for me; we’re a regular daisy cyberchain!).

    That’s an excellent point about the contradiction in the fashion advice–it’s like they knew they “should” say that athletic women should show off their bodies, but clearly they don’t actually believe that they should.

    I wonder how many young women would enjoy sports more if it weren’t presented to us as something that only people whom we envision as athletes engaged in. I truly wasn’t sporty in the least growing up, but part of that was because I felt like it was barred to me because I was chubby. I wonder what I might have learned about myself otherwise.

    • Hey, it’s my pleasure! I found your blog through your guest posts on Feministing – your post on domestic violence really struck a chord with me.

      I’ve often wondered the same thing myself, about how many people would participate in sports if they didn’t feel like it was something that was only allowable if you had a specific kind of body or you had a certain personality. Obviously I don’t think everyone should play sports or be athletic, especially if they really don’t want to, but I do think that a lot of barriers have been put up that really don’t need to be there. And it’s a shame, because I can’t think of many things that have had more of a positive impact on my life than sports and running. Maybe learning about feminism and social justice as a kid was more important, but that’s really about it.

  2. I have broad shoulders and a simmer lower body, like narrow hips… I think that’s the athletic shape and really, I don’t think its cute… For a man to have that body is sexy; his bigger upper body and smaller lower body, but on a lady it looks wrong. The same way it would look wrong for a man to have am hour glass or narrow droplets and wider hips…some shapes look feminine and some look masculine and the athletic body, unless you are blessed with hips, looks very masculine. I wish my hips were wider but they aren’t. Pretty much the athletic shape goes gown like a cone. The upper body is big and bulky while the lower body is tiny. That’s the ideal shape for a man and I wish I didn’t have it. I want curves. I want nice curved wide hips for me to shake and dance. Narrow hips don’t look right when you dance.

    • I generally disagree with the idea that there is a specific way for a man or a woman’s body to look in order to be considered sexy, as I think sex appeal is something that radiates from within a person and as such can be found in people of all body types. To say that a body must be x or y to be sexy is very limiting.

  3. Thank you for this empowering article. I am an extreme hourglass figure and have spent years trying to torture myself into another build. For years this meant hiding my body and not supporting my nutritional needs in order to obtain some idealized version of an athletic build. Despite running intervals 6 times a week and doing resistance training 3 times a week I do not have a small bust or thin hips. I am genetically predisposed to create muscle and ‘curves’. At any weight I find my fundamental shape does not change. I love the feeling of liberation and self-possession that exercise provides. Now that I have embraced my body as it is I find that I can simply enjoy the feeling of capability that being an athlete provides, whether or not clothes cut for athletic women fit me properly or if I conform to a societal construct that determines what a woman athlete ‘should’ look like. Allowing another person’s gaze to define my existence is terribly disempowering. It sends the message that my worth is determined by someone’s projected needs. My sexuality and body image are an expression of myself, not a judgment rendered against me by an external agent. Again, thank for the thought provoking and emotionally potent post.

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