Thursday, 1 May 2008

Women and Muscle Bulk

I see this topic surfacing time and time again on climbing discussion forums. Women state they are afraid of ’bulking up’ or increasing their muscle tissue mass. Indeed some say they are even worried about being seen as ‘sporty’. I would go so far as to say that my experiences of the above statements in the UK seem to be much higher than in the US, but of course this is anecdotal.

Let’s look at some facts.

But obesity is dramatic and surely not seen as being the ideal. I guess for some people stick insect thin is the body shape held in high regard.

However the flip side of these two extremes, being ‘in shape’ or athletic, seems to hold just as many negative connotations particularly for women. Since this blog has mostly been about bouldering, I’ll use it as an example. In a review on UK Climbing of the UK’s top boulderers in 2007 there was no mention of any women. Since the article was published the UK has witnessed a few stellar female achievements in bouldering, but it is still far off from the numbers of notable male ascents. According to Momentum Video Magazine "to date 12 women have climbed routes rated 5.14b or harder". Has anybody even thought to count how many men have?

Maybe it’s time that we started to re-think our definition of ‘fit’. Why does the world look negatively on strong athletic women and label them as ‘man-ish’.

You don’t need to be as extreme as Arnold to reap the benefits, indeed it is very difficult for women to put on a lot of muscle mass due to lacking testosterone in large quantities, so why are many women still afraid of putting on a little muscle. I suspect this sad state has to do with people’s perceptions. Attitudes like ‘women should be girly and cute, not strong and powerful’ don’t exactly help the situation.

Well the two aren’t mutually exclusive.

I never thought I had an athletic bone in my body (some would argue that I still don’t). I played a few sports when I was young, but nothing seriously. I never thought I could be strong and so I never sought to be. A few years ago I started climbing. I climbed because I loved it. A by-product of this was putting on muscle. After years of going to the gym and seeing no results other than increased aerobic capacity, I never thought this was a possibility. But sure enough, shirts became tighter around the top of my arm and on my back, eventually my tendons grew thicker and even my ankles became unrecognisable from their spindly former self. But we’re talking millimetres here. Most people probably wouldn’t even notice. All this from a few boulder problems? Yes, I did find it a bit odd at first, but eventually I came to accept it as part of the game.

Gaining strength noticeably increased my climbing ability. Being short, I needed something up my sleeve and having a good strenght to weight ratio fit the bill. I wanted to climb as hard as I possibly could and accepted that this meant getting stronger and by default increasing my muscle mass.

I didn’t exactly lose myself in the process. I still spend an inordinate amount of time doing my hair and gasp; yes I have worn lip gloss while climbing. Why not? I maintain that I am just as girly as before I started climbing. My feet are a bit more mangled and I struggle to find sweaters that don’t make me look like an American Football player, but those issues aside, I never want to go back. I want to be as strong as I can for as long as I can and I won’t let a little bit of muscle get in the way.

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