Two Little Boys, Gender Stereotypes and Strength Sports
I usually workout either alone or with my buddies at my home gym, known as “the powerhouse” by my friends. One day recently, however, I was at Crossfit Brasil with two other people, doing weightlifts.
The door was open and two little boys, around ten years old, came in. They were poor children, part of the army of quasi-street kids so abundant in more affluent commercial areas in São Paulo. These children have the worst possible educational background and no opportunity for any critical assessment of information. They barely go to school, their parents are illiterate or functionally illiterate and mostly adept of morally conservative views.
Photo by Helena Coutinho courtesy of author
The boys stared at me and one said to the other:
- It’s a man
To which the other replied:
- No, it’s a woman
The dialogue went on a little more:
- But it looks like a man…
At this point Joel was trying to get them to leave but I interrupted the process and asked:
- Why do you think I’m a man and why do you think I’m a woman?
They thought for a while and gave the following answers, respectively:
- Because you have too much muscle.
- Because you have long hair.
Children are delicious subjects for mapping social values since they have poorly developed censorship mechanisms (or at least, more specifically developed ones). The first boy expressed something we frequently protest about, which is the association of strength and its morphological expression, muscularity, to gender stereotypes. Men are strong, therefore, it’s ok to be muscular. Not only “ok”, but in a subjective masculinity scale, they are “more” male. The counterpart of this reasoning is that women become less female if they are muscular because strength (and, therefore, muscularity), is not associated to the female stereotype. The little boy was confused: in his world of poor, conservative, uneducated and non-athletic women, he had never seen a muscular female body. Not in person, not in the TV or any other media, including the porn magazines that the adult males around him obviously consume.
For him, I could only be a guy.
The other little boy expressed another funny gender stereotype: the more male the man is, the shorter his hair. The very masculine super-heroes, the soldiers, policemen and other male role models have very short hair. The more female a woman is, the longer her hair. The little mermaid, Sleeping Beauty, porn magazine center folds and soap opera sweethearts all have long hair.
For this little boy, I could only be a woman.
Little boys (and girls) grow up, mostly with no tools for critical thinking. First, because they are unavailable in conventional education. Second, because even conventional education is unavailable to most. Third, because after a few years of uncritical conservative conditioning, what you have is a conservative individual who will be violently resistant to any challenge to his or her beliefs. The deeper and more unconscious, the stronger these beliefs will be rooted, the harder he or she will hold on to them.
When a grown person reacts to my looks and rejects my muscularity as improper to a woman (or my lack of big boobs, or my excessive number of piercings, or whatever), he or she is acting as a tool for the preservation of an extremely important representation of gender stereotypes concerning their form.
Important to whom? Oh, to society at large, obviously: power relations are maintained through such complex mechanisms and about zillions of gigabytes of academic and non-academic information has already been produced about this. But most importantly, these representations are important to the beauty industry because that is what they sell.
The beauty industry is “formolatrist” because it has to be: the fitness industry, the cosmetic industry, the pharmaceutical, nutraceutical and food industry, the fashion industry, the pornographic industry all sell the same thing: a dehumanized, unattainable ideal of male and female FORM.
And that, my friend, does not include female muscularity. At the most, female muscularity is a minuscule niche of the pornographic industry and a quite marginal and deviant one (“freakish”).
There’s nothing “natural” in that. Biologically, every human being is capable of being strong and muscular. If we were to walk this road, which I do not recommend, our ancestors were more probably strong females. It is not very likely that weak, sedentary proto-humans could survive as hunter-collectors under harsh environmental conditions as the ones in which our species established itself. But I don’t like this unscientific type of speculation. Especially because it doesn’t matter: we are cultural beings and gender representations are socially constructed.
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