Let me begin by saying that I love my Mom and she's one of my biggest supporters. That being said, my Mom has always offered her two cents on my appearance (like many well-meaning mothers out there). My Mom was always outspoken when it came to my muscles and my hair.
I would frequently be reminded when I was getting "too bulky" or "too muscular" and it was clear to me that my Mom preferred my hair long and blonde (because she told me constantly). But what was so wrong about a muscular physique and short hair? God forbid my hair also be brown!
It took me a while to realize this, but I think my Mom was projecting her own fears, beliefs and insecurities she held regarding looking too masculine. I also realized that I had embedded and embodied many of these fears and I spent many years loathing too much muscle on my body (for which I naturally develop quickly as a genetic mesomorph). For years I steered clear of lifting weights and tried to run enough miles to slenderize my 5'3 frame. And of course, I tried my best to keep my hair long and yes, blonde.
Why is this problematic? The short asnwer is that a binary understanding of gender and beauty is just wrong. This binary thinking often assumes that muscles are masculine and that this is bad for someone who identifies as female. It assumes that to be feminine is to be slight and slender, and that thin is the preferred representation of the female body. This same binary cataloging of feminine vs. masculine has also informed us that long, flowing hair is the preferred signifier of femininity. I grew up on a steady diet of mainstream media culture and Cosmopolitan Magazine informed me that long hair was sexy and feminine. I, like many, internalized these messages.
Before social media helped democratize images of what femmes and women could look like and do look like, and before the widespread dissemination of queer theory and the increasing visibility of LGBTQI community, many of us were stuck in the binary, unknowingly perpetuating normative gender constructs.
I can't tell you how many times I've had women come into my studio and utter the following: "I don't want to lift too heavy and get bulky", or "If I do cycling will my legs get big?". Is it really a problem to put muscle on your body and to increase your strength? Is it so bad to take up space? Is it so bad to not be a Size 0 or XS? Why are we clinging to these values so desperately? Why are we upholding these normative gender constructs and patriarchy?
It took me decades to be comfortable in my body, and even today I still struggle (who doesn't?). We live in a culture where people comment on people's bodies constantly. In fact, just yesterday I met someone new and the first thing he said was "You're jacked." Actually sir, my name is Sarah, not Jack. And yeah, I have muscles, is that cool? (Wait, don't answer that because I don't need your approval). We can all do better by not commenting on other people's bodies, even if you think you are being complimentary.
In 2018 I decided to act on something I had wanted to do since 2006: cut my hair, really short. This may not seem like a big deal to some, or maybe the thought of doing this is your literal worst nightmare. What's interesting is that I got a lot of feedback from women that they had thought a lot about cutting their hair but what stopped them was one or all of the following: 1) They would look or feel too masculine; 2) Their heterosexual partner wouldn't approve; and 3) The idea was just too terrifying.
I had harbored those thoughts and feelings too at one time. I clung to my long hair like every strand represented my entire feminine being. I used to need constant approval and validation by my partner that I was feminine, beautiful and sexy (as opposed to confidently affirming that for myself). I used to think that short hair would make me look and feel masculine and I had identified that with all kinds of bad.
I can only speak for myself when I say that cutting most of my hair off made me feel more feminine and beautiful than I've ever felt before. And no, I didn't consult with my partner before I made this decision about what to do with my body (if he no longer liked me with short hair then I guess we weren't a good match); and it wasn't terrifying at all, it was actually super liberating.
I'm not here to tell you to cut your hair, or get into weight training (but it would be totally awesome if you did one or both). I'm here to affirm that muscles and short hair are feminine. My muscular physique doesn't make me a man and neither does my haircut and I am no longer scared of, or ashamed by my muscular body and I'm no longer convinced that short hair has stripped me of my female Goddess status.
So, Mom, I love you and my muscular arms and my short hair. It's never too late to do the work of unlearning, break down toxic norms that keep us confined to binary labels, or celebrate the beauty in us all.