I got a huge kick out of this post by a 52-year old woman weight lifter on the still prevalent assumption that women shouldn't build up their upper body strength or that it's ridiculous for us to try. (Hat tip: Twisty).
My first semester in college, I and a group of my new dorm-mates tried out for the novice crew team. The try-outs lasted a week and were incredibly competitive-- probably because my college had a very strong rowing program. The distressing thing was that a number of my friends who were going through try-outs with me were upset at the prospect of possibly building up their back and shoulder muscles. Several young women I knew considered dropping out of the try-outs because they didn't want to become "too muscular." The problem was widespread enough that the coach actually called all of us together to "reassure" us that increased muscle mass would result in a leaner rather than a bulkier look.
I was absolutely distraught that young women of my generation in the year 1989 would actually view becoming stronger as a negative thing. I remember saying to one of my friends over and over, "What could possibly be wrong with becoming more physically capable?" and "Doesn't it bother you that standards of attractiveness seem incongruent with female strength?" and "Don't you want to give the bird to those who prefer us in a state of frailty?"
Unfortunately, I haven't yet had the subversive pleasure of becoming a weight lifter myself. I was rejected from the college crew team for being too short, and my default sport of long-distance running actually encourages a physique that is consistent with popular beauty standards for women. But during those times in college when the topic of weight lifting came up (we long distance runners do lift a little bit even if upper strength isn't the emphasis of the sport), some young man would invariably squeeze my bicep and make some mocking comment-- as though my even daring to invade the male province of weight lifting was somehow pure silliness.
Another observation: I have a copy of Collette Dowling's book, The Frailty Myth, on my bookshelf at work. To a man, every single dude who picks up this book, says, "You do realize don't you that women are actually weaker on average than men?" Every single one says something like this! It's really quite amazing! Talk about missing the point . . .
Here's the thing. I want to be as physically strong and fit as I can be. Due to severe time constraints in my life at the moment, that's not very strong or fit, unfortunately. But one day I would love to be as strong as the woman who wrote the post linked above. It's not about besting men (although that's potentially a fun side benefit), and it's not about trying to conform to some societal standard of attractiveness. It's about trying to be as physically capable as possible. Being physically capable has to be viewed as a good thing for everyone, doesn't it?!?!? To the extent that prejudices and norms of attractiveness discourage women from fully developing all of their physical gifts, I say screw that.
UPDATE: Check out Hugo's post entitled My Wife Could Beat Me Up: A Note on Women and Muscles. In fact, check out Hugo's whole blog. Hugo is my favorite evangelical Christian feminist blogger and my role model for encouraging civil and rational discussion of touchy issues.