Sunday, February 21, 2016

Sexuality, Strength and Power

Ponder this: a human uterus in active labor exerts the equivalent of 397 pounds of pressure per square foot with each contraction. In fact, all things being equal, which of course, they rarely are, your uterus, my uterus, most every human uterus on the planet, has evolved to be the single strongest, most powerful muscle in the human body. And not surprisingly, I haven’t heard many people whining about that fact, since the very existence of our species - at least for the time being - pretty much depends upon our collective uteri being sufficiently awesome, tough, and brawny enough to be able to do their jobs.

On the other hand… when it comes to women being physically powerful, demonstrably muscular and visibly strong in contexts outside of reproduction, apparently, there’s a problem, at least in terms of what our current body-shaming culture is willing to put up with. If you doubt this, just lend your ear to the body-shaming critique unleashed against Serena Williams, by most accounts the most powerful and spectacular woman tennis player of all time. If form really follows function, it’s no wonder that Serena’s success at the pinnacle of her game remains legendary.

While it used to be bedrock “truth” that thinness - a lack of visible body fat - was the arbitrary standard that all women were expected to achieve in order to be considered sexually attractive, these days, there are other ways to instigate the body shamers’ wrath. Judging from their critique of Serena Williams, we of the uterus-having crowd shouldn’t be too toned, powerful, splendidly muscular elsewhere – at least not in ways that the rest of the world can see.

Of course, if that kind of thinking wasn’t so sad and hurtful, it might actually be laughable. But in light of all the wisdom about the importance of being fit, it seems to me that when powerful, sturdy, agile, and inimitably fit female bodies are derided for being somehow too masculine in form and function and therefore, not feminine enough it seems we’ve sunk to a ludicrous and depressingly monodimensional new low.

Of course, this particular attack from the body shaming police has been a part of the public discourse for quite some time now, especially as it pertains to Serena Williams and to a lesser degree, her older sister Venus, ever since they - with their beaded braids and coffee colored skin -  overtook the white world of tennis by the grace, skill and ferocity of their game back when they were pre-teens.

Both personally and professionally, I’ve had more than enough of the body shaming venom directed at these women and others like them including mixed martial arts champion Ronda Rousey and other women of their disciplined kind who’ve done the grueling labor required to develop their entire exquisitely powerful female bodies way past the threshold of sinewy perfection.

Critics of these women seem to wallow in the notion that body types such as Serena’s - firm and flexing with the symphonic power of thickly muscled arms, legs and thighs - simply exude way too much power to be sexually attractive and “feminine.”  


What’s not feminine about maximizing, sculpting, accentuating one’s physical prowess? What’s not feminine about being proudly unapologetic about having the focus, discipline and determination to reach one’s personal best? What’s not feminine about legs thick and powerful enough to enable a woman to leap and soar - to seemingly become airborne? To charge towards her goals with enough power and drive to reach them with energy to spare? What’s not feminine about having biceps and deltoids strong enough to enable a woman to reach for the stars – and attain them, stuffing them up beneath the hem of her skirt for safe-keeping?

It seems to me that criticism like this is simply coded language for what’s really going on here, the need on the parts of some to punish these women for just not being conformist enough to stay within the margins of what we’re taught are the gender norms. After all, powerful women aren’t so easily controlled; visibly powerful women remind us of that every time we lay eyes on them. And in the arena of sports, wherein the visibility of athletes is a critical part of the allure, the rippled tautness of well-developed female muscles is an in-your-face reminder of the tenuous hold a patriarchal system really has on the status quo. In other words, women like the Williamses and Rousey, whose visible strength and power are the material inverse of some outdated notion of the “weaker” sex, can be seen as leveraging their powerful selves on behalf of all women - not just themselves.

And then there’s this: For some folk, it appears that there’s a willful refusal to recognize the overt sexuality inherent in powerful female bodies.

In fact, paradigms for femininity that privilege thin, slightly-built, undefined female musculature reside in the view that it’s fine for women to be strong - powerful, even - so long as the source of their strength and power remains unseen.  

And what better way to attempt keeping physically powerful women duly chastened than to assail their notion of their own inherent desirability? Embedded in all this is the unmistakable view that if a woman simply must be powerful, dominant and strong, she most certainly shouldn’t allow herself to look that way. Transgressing this imperative means she forfeits her right to be seen as feminine… Desirable… Sexually attractive.

Even today, it’s apparently quite fine for women to have physical strength so long we don’t parade before crowds of ardent sports lovers, lest the body-shaming police assert that we’re inexcusably out of line in upsetting the social order. And most certainly, Serena’s intentionality is important here. While genetics play a role in determining individual body types, the kind of muscularity and toned definition she displays are quite obviously the result of will-power, focus, discipline and endless exhausting hours of hard work. 

Perhaps had she simply been born this way the hateful critiques might have been lesser in number. But the fact that Williams has the steely temerity to deliberately transgress the boundary between what are perceived as the standards for male and female body types angers some folk all the more.

Add to this troubling stew the very nature of the sport in which she participates; singles tennis is a solitary endeavor. All spectator eyes are on the lone contestants, a single human being on each side of the net. For better or worse, they are the stars of their individual shows. And in such contexts, for a woman - of color, no less - to deliberately transgress the norms when she knows she’ll be the focus of undivided attention, speaks of an inner strength that others might seriously envy. And of course, such a woman should fully expect to be chastened; should fully expect to forfeit her claim on female sexual desirability as her punishment, right?

Let’s be clear: Somewhere embedded in this extraordinary mash-up that we fondly refer to as US culture, we are acutely aware of the age-old necessity that women’s bodies remain resilient, powerful, strong throughout our lives. In our traditional - and socially sanctioned - female roles of child-bearer and nurturer, strong bodies enable us to carry, bear and care for our young. When our societies were overwhelmingly agrarian and women worked in the fields for endless, backbreaking days on end, powerful bodies enabled us to do what was required, oftentimes while simultaneously toting offspring on our fronts and backs. While this is still the way of life for many women globally, in those scenarios and times in the US, when the fitness of female bodies served exclusively to uphold the well-being of families, having demonstrably well-developed musculature was a commended and indisputable asset.

So perhaps what’s going on here is the sad but inevitable push-back from society’s body-policing trolls who adhere to the view that it’s perfectly fine for women to be physically powerful so long as we do it without threatening the male-normative status quo by actually looking powerful. In other words, it’s permissible for women to be physically strong in the service of our traditionally approved roles of child bearer, nurturer and even helpmate to our male counterparts so long as we don’t flaunt that power in visible (read: threatening) ways. And for heaven’s sake, we certainly don’t want to flaunt that power in the performative arena of competitive sports – an arena in which many males had hoped they would predominate when all other areas of human endeavor had succumbed to the call for gender equality.

As a 64-year-old woman academic of color, my seat in the arena affords me a particular view. For me, women like Serena, Venus and even Rousey who are roughly the ages of my three daughters, call to mind a time in the dawn of the history of human kind when the power of women warriors was deemed an asset to the entire community, when one’s uterus wasn’t the only attribute of a young woman’s body lauded for being powerful, muscular and strong. And for Serena in particular, there’s been a more systemic sort of body shaming animus. Long an aspect of star athletes’ world, product endorsement contract offers have been considerably fewer for her, since certain companies believe her body type is unattractive to their target demographics.

So sad… Still, we know all too well the socially constructed boundaries that pertain to women’s bodies: We shouldn’t be too tall. Too fat. Too hairy. Have gapped teeth. A thick waist. Thick legs. Biceps too developed… and on ad nauseam. 

But the reality is this: Serena and others like her who’ve toned, trained and disciplined their female bodies to the awesome, stunning height of physical perfection are welcome role models for untold numbers of female children. Happily, among them are my two spectacular granddaughters, babies now, but who show every hopeful evidence of loving, exalting, being proud of their exquisite bodies – powerful and perfect, resilient and unencumbered by suffocating gender bias - and that, thank the Universe, is as it should be.  

photo credit: <a href="">US Open 2013 Part 2 668</a> via <a href="">photopin</a> <a href="">(license)</a>

photo credit: <a href="">_D800675</a> via <a href="">photopin</a> <a href="">(license)</a>

photo credit: <a href="">Six pack with two on the side.</a> via <a href="">photopin</a> <a href="">(license)</a>

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