Myth Busters: Women and Upper-Body Strength

28 01 2008

This entry is a follow-up/sister post to the one I guest-wrote on The Capoeira Blog, “6 Keys to Building Upper-Body Strength“.

So, I have a confession to make.  Originally, the guest post I wrote for Faisca wasn’t supposed to be a general guide to building upper-body strength.  Originally, it was going to be something with a title like “Upper-Body Strength-Building for Women”.  It was my idea, but it wasn’t until I actually started working on the post that I realized something like that would actually go against everything I’ve/this blog has been standing for!  Mandingueira is not for women; it is about women, and for everyone. 

The reason I changed my mind is because to write an article about “strength-building for women” would imply that it is separate from the same for men; yet a strong woman would need the same level of advice as a strong man, regardless of her gender.  By the end of my first draft, however, I realized that my post read more like a beginner’s guide to strength-building—but all my information had come from purported “women’s guides” to strength-building!  Is anyone else seeing a pattern here

Abada capoeirista shows how it's done!There was one thing in particular that nearly every article I came across had in common:

“Women generally have far less upper-body strength than men.”
“Typically women do not have strong upper bodies.”
“These statistics merely illustrate what everyone knows, that women naturally develop less strength than men.”
“In terms of inherent upper body strength, we really are the weaker sex.”
“Most women have trouble performing a standard push-up.”  (And adding insult to injury: “To perform a modified push up, simply push up from your knees.  Most women can perform a push-up in this position.”  Really, now??  Some of us actually CAN do knee push-ups?!?  That’s AMAZING!!)

Wow, I feel weaker already.  Kind of ironic, considering all these articles purported to help you build your strength, not doubt it!

The age-old myth of women having less muscular strength than men do is just that—a myth.  This excerpt from Shameless Magazine puts it best:

Many people believe that all men, as some sort of single unit, are stronger than women. And reason says that simply isn’t true. Men’s strength is just as variable as women’s. Men, on average, are bigger than women, with a higher lean body mass-to-fat ratio. But women generate the same force per unit of muscle as men. That is, muscle pound to muscle pound, women and men are similar in strength. A strong woman is strong, full stop. (emphasis mine)

This observation was confirmed by a study from the US National Strength and Conditioning Foundation, which adds that although women and men have the same muscle strength, the reason many men appear stronger on the surface is because they have more muscle mass from being bigger (as opposed to muscle strength), have a higher lean body mass-to-fat ratio, and have different fat distribution in the body than women do.

Wait a minute (I can hear someone say), aren’t we just picking nits now?  What does it matter if technically women’s muscles produce the same amount of power, if due to the other factors mentioned above, a woman’s body altogether still produces less power, on average, than a man’s body altogether?  And if this is true, what’s wrong with saying so?

First, this distinction is important to make because it’s actually a pretty big one, with implications and consequences depending on whether one makes it or not.  Stating without qualification that women have less strength than men, period, is inaccurate and suggests that this is an inherent trait in women, something that can’t be changed.  As mentioned though, women’s muscles have the exact same strength as men do, and it is in fat distribution and lean body mass where they differ—factors which are variable and can be changed through training or exercise. 

Moreover, even though muscle mass is cited as a contributing factor of men’s strength, the same studies have shown that women build strength the same way men do yet without building as much muscle mass—which is interesting, because if both men and women build strength equally, but only men’s muscles build much mass to go with it, to me that suggests that in the end, women’s muscles would actually have more power per inch/pound than men’s, to do the calculations!  And as Shameless said, if a strong woman were matched with a man with less muscle (or lesser built muscles), more fat, and less lean body mass, she would in that case definitely not be “the weaker sex”.

Second, making this distinction is important because it affects how people approach this and related topics, and this ties in to the last question above.  There is nothing wrong with explaining why many women have less net strength output than many men.  After all, a fact is a fact, right?  The problem arises when people start making unqualified statements like the ones at the beginning of this post, and making them frequently and thoughtlessly.  Although clearly I was kidding when I said “I feel weaker already”, can you imagine what the effects of reading or hearing statements like that over and over again would be on someone’s mindset, whether consciously or subconsciously? 

If you imagined the logical, you’re right: other studies have shown that women significantly underestimate their own strength, compared to men.  Because we’re told we’re weaker, we think we have even less strength than we have to begin with.  This affects everything from whether or not a woman will reach her full potential while weight training, to whether or not she’ll choose to fight off a man who attacks her in the street, or just “let it happen” because to fight back would make it worse (according to another disastrous, popular myth). 

It’s all woven into one more narrative about what women are or aren’t or should be or shouldn’t be, whether it’s a young Mestra Edna’s relatives telling her “martial arts aren’t for girls”, or today’s average female capoeira student only able to find articles reiterating how weak she is compared to all the male capoeira students in her class—which may be true, but also just as well may not, and who’s the article’s author to say?  So mulhers é meninas, remember this the next time you aim for that macaco/s-dobrado/bananeira/cool upper-body strength-requiring move!

Picture source: http://www.worldartswest.org/Assets/Performers/AbadaAndyMogg.jpg

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Women, Men, and Brazilian Bikinis

30 12 2007

Brazilian beach 

So, I have a friend who is very cool, very nice, and generally awesome.  But then he said this (below) the other day, which made me think, and then made me think he was wrong.  So despite his coolness/niceness/general awesomeness, I’m going to talk about that today.

(paraphrased due to inexact memory)

If you go to Brazil, have you seen the bikinis they have there?  Tiny—tiny little things, barely covering anything.  If I see a woman wearing one of those, then I’ve basically seen all of her.  But if she’s changing and I accidentally see her, she freaks out and screams.  Well, so what?  I’ve already seen her in her bra and underwear, because I’ve seen her in her swimsuit–they’re exactly the same.

Women are…they wear clothes that show things, to be noticed.  But if a man shows that he notices, and says something, then she gets mad.  It’s hypocritical.

Where do I start?  On the surface, I don’t think that’s all completely wrong, and might be fair enough in many cases.  At the same time, something about it still doesn’t feel right to me.  Both statements involve assumptions that could do real harm if taken too far or too generally.

Assumption #1: If two articles of clothing look the same, they are the same for all intents and purposes, and are interchangeable, as are the situations in which they are used; thus, the woman shouldn’t care.

This assumption is flawed because it makes clothing the issue, when what must be differentiated is situations and contexts.  A woman who is fine wearing bikinis on the beach wouldn’t be fine wearing just underwear in class because it’s a completely different environment.  She wouldn’t be fine wearing a bikini in class, either.  The clothes are the same, but it is the situations that are different and so the significance of the clothes changes accordingly.  (To take an extreme example, imagine a Playboy model walking around naked in a mall.  It’s okay for her to be naked in the magazine, but not in the mall, right?  But since people have already seen her naked in the magazine, why not?  Because the situations/contexts are different.)

You could say that that’s bs and doesn’t make sense, that if you wore a bikini, the fact you’re inside a building doesn’t mean people will see an iota more of you than if you were on the beach, so it really doesn’t matter.  And you would be right.  However, society for hundreds and thousands of years has conditioned most of us to believe otherwise, to believe it does matter.  Society, in general, says to us: “It’s okay to be nearly naked on a beach in Brazil.  It’s not okay to be nearly naked inside your capoeira academy.”  This is dictated in the same way society once dictated: “Women can wear skirts, but a woman wearing pants is indecent” and “Women can wear long dresses, but anything above ankle-length is for harlots.” 

Today, obviously, women do wear pants and skirts shorter than ankle-length.  However, that was because they decided to take ownership of the situation and make it acceptable.  No men said to them, “Pants cover your legs as much as skirts cover your legs, therefore you will now feel comfortable wearing pants, and we will all be okay with that.”  So even if a guy were genuinely being forward-thinking and advocating for the further liberation of women/their bodies, it might not exactly be for him to say, since it’s not his body. 

And as much as I’m for the breaking of socially constructed mentalities like the “where is a bikini acceptable?” one, it’s not fair to ask/tell women to blatantly flout the dictatorship, since everyone else is still ruled by it and will react accordingly, to the detriment of the woman.  (For example, if a woman were to train in a bikini, she might be fine with it and my friend might be fine with it and not care, but all the other men and women would care and think certain things about that woman, since they are still ruled by the general mentality that bikinis are fine on the beach but not in class.) 

It’s almost a chicken-and-the-egg situation: people’s behaviour won’t change unless the mentality of society changes, but its mentality won’t change if people’s behaviour never changes.

Assumption #2: All women wear revealing clothes always with the intention of showing or flaunting it and getting attention.

First of all: not true.  It’s so probable that a woman just thinks a certain top looks nice or flattering on her overall, and that’s why she wears it; if it happens to be slightly revealing (within reason), that does not necessarily mean she wants guys staring at or making comments to her, etc.  It’s also possible that the top’s neckline moved or shifted without the woman noticing, although perhaps ignorance is a weak defense.  Still, the point is that you can’t assume

Now, what if a woman does wear revealing clothes deliberately to get attention?  What “rights” does that give men with respect to their behaviour or words towards this woman, if any

I think this again has to do with perceptions and social mentality.  In most places, it’s generally expected that men would “notice” this woman tactfully and unspokenly; thus if someone were to break this unspoken code and actually mention to the woman just how revealing her top is, she might feel affronted.  The point quoted at the beginning of this post attacks just this: the woman shouldn’t feel affronted, and would be hypocritical to feel so, because she got the attention she was seeking.  I think I agree with this, although obviously, whatever the “attention” entails must not exclude respect for the woman, and her dignity.  This is where it gets tricky though, because where do you draw the line?

I suppose part of it also rests on each individual woman and man involved in any interactions like that.  And that’s why it’s even more important to not make such generalizations or assumptions.  Because if you get one person wrong, what’s to say you won’t stop at the rest?

Update: I found a line that puts Assumption #2 in another, perhaps clearer, way.  From Just a girl in short shorts talking about whatever: “If a woman is not totally covered, or otherwise looks sorta sexy, she is asking for it, since men cannot be expected to control themselves.”  (That’s like saying doing a floreio in the middle of  a game is asking to be kicked or smashed to the ground, since obviously the other player can’t control themselves.  It’s insulting and unjust to both parties.)

Update 2: A friend of mine added that it doesn’t matter how revealing someone’s clothes are; she should be able to wear anything and not be judged or derogated for it, because what you wear has (should have) nothing to do with other people.  It’s a personal choice, it doesn’t change their personality or make them more or less anything they aready are or aren’t, and really it’s none of anyone else’s business.  If only people would/could realize that!

Picture source:
http://www.travelpod.com/travel-blog-entries/tomandbecky/2005_brazil/1123546560.html

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