I am really excited to publish this guest post from Gabby, who was inspired to write about “how our society positions athleticism and femininity as two sides of a spectrum (or even two opposite constructs) when, in [her] opinion, is a completely false dichotomy.”


I recently came across an article discussing how the female athlete can strike a balance and find her optimal "happy level" of femininity and athleticism.  The article itself was a series of steps meant to initiate self-reflection about what makes the athlete feel feminine, what makes her a "warrior athlete," and where her happy medium lies. I have no qualms with the article, the writer, or anything like that – it was well-written, insightful, and offered genuinely valuable steps for self-reflection on a bothersome issue that is fairly common amongst athletic women. What I do take issue, however, is the notion that the qualities of femininity and athleticism are two separate qualities that need to be "balanced." This is not a reflection on the author in anyway since the article can be interpreted in a subjective (feminine self) way or objective (gender = female) way, and that is one point of the article that I really enjoy. My issue is with the questions that arose from my reaction and reflection of the article and the light it shed on the much larger societal views that we all operate in day in and day out.


One of the first things that struck me about the article was the title, "Athleticism & Femininity: Can They Co-Exist?" – it’s a great eye-catching and thought provoking title, but it struck me as very odd. My initial thought was "Why is that even a question?" I realize that my initial reaction to the title as jarring, confusing, and out right weird is probably not a normal one – I spent my entire college and post-graduate education studying the individual psyche (psychology), deviation from norms (criminal justice), and the constructs in which those things occur (several sociologically focused gender courses).  After re-reading it a few times, I was finally able to pinpoint why the article and title had caused my mind to scramble – the core premise of the article couldn’t be reconciled with my deeply rooted perspective on the topic. To me, the mere action of placing athleticism and femininity  on separate sides of a scale, was strange and foreign. Why? Because it implied that being athletic means being masculine and being feminine means not being athletic and consequently, not being masculine.

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According to most mainstream societal norms and messages, being athletic involves being powerful, fast, strong, and excelling at a physical sport. Few people would disagree with that – although it’s worth mentioning that physical prowess is merely the tip of the athlete iceberg since the mental prowess is also highly important. Now, if someone were to casually ask you which gender is more likely to be "powerful, fast, strong, and excel at sports," you would probably say males would fit that description.  But why? Why do thoughts of strength, power, and sports automatically conjure up images of male athletes for the majority of people (myself included)? That’s a hard question to answer but most would probably say it’s because that’s what is most readily and frequently depicted.   Biological differences aside (muscle mass, hormonal composition, etc), why does society associate athleticism with males? Why are the bodies of athletic women, who are in shape for their sport (aka sporting a six-pack, enviable shoulders, and quads of steel) so frequently subjected to accusations of being "manly" (an even better question, why the eff do we care)? Why do female athletes need to reconcile their happy medium between athletic and feminine?


Simple answer – they don’t.


Female athletes shouldn’t have to balance their athleticism and femininity because they shouldn’t be separate in the first place. In my opinion, the dichotomy between femininity and athleticism is a false one.  Being an athlete doesn’t have to be wrapped up in the notion of being masculine – and furthermore, athleticism and concern about your display of gender-specific indicators/behaviors is just a time waster. Seriously, when the last time you heard a man say "I better not try and deadlift 400lbs, I wouldn’t want to come off as being too manly" or when was the last time you read an article or heard a story about the public critique a male athlete’s physique as being too "manly" or "athletic"? (NOTE: I know there are several issues surrounding gender and athleticism for male athletes, so please don’t think I am discounting male athlete’s experiences). My point is, it seems silly to ask female athletes to partition themselves into their feminine and athletic selves. Being able to squat or deadlift your body weight translates into mental strength for dealing with life struggles.  The confidence you gain by knowing you can heave some heavy stuff over your head spills over to other parts of your life. The dedication and discipline required in any athletic endeavor makes you a better friend, wife, mother, daughter, employee, sister, and human being.

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So can femininity and athleticism co-exist? I’d say that they were never separate in the first place.



  • Claire @ Live and Love to Eat August 31, 2012, 8:33 am

    I never thought of them as mutually exclusive terms! Being fit can help you feel more beautiful and confident, therefore more feminine.

  • Faith @ For the Health of It August 31, 2012, 8:36 am

    I agree that these two qualities are not mutually exclusive. To me, being a well-rounded woman includes having interests and hobbies, and being strong in yourself. That counts physically too!

    Honestly, I feel SO sexy when I beast a run – and yep, that includes smokin’ my boyfriend when we race! Granted, I don’t really do weights, so that makes it tough for me to relate to the muscle-building aspect of this…but I still derive a lot of my positive, feminine self-image from my athleticism!

  • Angela @ Eat Spin Run Repeat August 31, 2012, 8:39 am

    Amen to this!!! I totally agree with you – why is the issue even a question!? To follow on from Claire’s comment above, the strength and stamina I’ve gained through my athletic endeavours has played an enormous part in building my confidence and ability to focus and deal with other parts of life. I can only hope that one day, there WILL be equality for males and females in athletics – in pay, funding, competition coverage, visibility, etc. Awesome post!!

  • Alex @ Brain, Body, Because August 31, 2012, 8:50 am

    *My initial thought was “Why is that even a question?”*

    THIS, times 100. I agree with the above posters, being healthy and athletic has given me mounds more confidence than “traditional” tools of feminity, like heels or lipstick.

  • Amber @ Busy, Bold, Blessed August 31, 2012, 8:53 am

    My giant quad muscles have never made me feel like less of a lady! I agree, this was never even a thought for me.

    “I am strong, I am invincible, I am woman” 😀

  • Sam @ Better With Sprinkles August 31, 2012, 8:56 am

    This article would scramble my brain too!

    I think social norms and media constructions tend to impose on us the idea that femininity does not include athleticism. Look at the “heroin-chic” models of the 90’s – I think it’s safe to say there was no athleticism involved in that look.

    However, I think a lot of us are smarter than that. Through my workouts, I’ve built my strength and stamina too (echoing Angela and Claire) and I love the confidence it’s given me. Physically, it’s allowed me to add curves to my thin frame – which makes me look for feminine in the traditional aspect anyways!

    I feel way better about myself having muscles and I would never question my femininity, nor would anyone else – I can wear a pair of stilettos like it’s my job. I think athleticism only adds to self-confidence, and self confidence is always sexy – which adds to the feminine appeal.

  • Kristen August 31, 2012, 9:01 am

    First of all, let me say that I *love* the sentiment behind this post. As a woman who runs marathons and does Crossfit, I can relate to the challenges associated with the seeming dichotomy between athleticism and femininity. However, I’d like to comment on one part of this post. You are quick to discard “biological differences” such as “muscle mass, hormonal composition, etc.” as not relevant to understanding why athletic women are accused of being “manly.” But the primarily male hormone of testosterone is at least partially responsible for men’s increased muscularity. Women have some testosterone, but not as much, which is why we (generally) aren’t as muscular as men. Simply put, biology has taught us that being more muscular is most often associated with having more testosterone and therefore, being male. Being less muscular mean less testosterone and more estrogen, which often means a “softer” shape with less muscle. When a woman is very athletic and muscular, she is accused of being “manly” because she has characteristics associated with the hormone found in primarily in men. Soooo, while I agree that MUCH of this is socially constructed as a result of gender roles, I think some of those gender roles have their roots in biological differences that will NOT change.

    • Katie @ Soulshine and Sassafras August 31, 2012, 9:47 am

      I agree. I’m a feminist, and fascinated by the social constructs of gender roles. However, I also think that many of them evolved from a biological standpoint. As previously mentioned, men are physically designed to be stronger and more muscular than women, and (either as the precipitating factor or the reaction), men were delegated to more tasks that required strength and testosterone. In today’s society, these gender roles are much less necessary (arguably entirely unnecessary), but it does make sense to me where they initially came from.

    • Gabby @ Gabby's Gluten-Free August 31, 2012, 9:51 am

      Kristen, I definitely did not mean to quickly discard biological differences – they are HUGELY important and can not be ignored! I agree that high levels of muscularity in males is associated with muscularity so when women are very muscular, they are accused of being manly. I wasn’t trying to dismiss the fact that gender roles have roots in biology because they clearly do – I was more trying to emphasize the fact that we have more similarities than differences and that society tends to overemphasize those differences 🙂

  • Laura O. August 31, 2012, 9:33 am

    My first thought was literally Huh?! Should not even be a thought in anyone’s mind.
    BTW, my fiancee is jealous of my calf muscles and that makes me happy! 😉

    • Caitlin August 31, 2012, 3:07 pm

      haha love that.

  • Becky August 31, 2012, 9:41 am

    Thank you for such an interesting article 🙂
    In the run up to the Olympics, British Weightlifter Zoe Smith appeared in a BBC documentary on women and weightlifting. Whilst there was a load of support for her there were also a lot of unwelcome comments on their perception of femininity. Here is a link to Zoe’s blog in response to all her critics –

  • Amy August 31, 2012, 9:44 am

    I’m strong. I’m athletic. I spend my spare time sweating, spinning, running, and playing ball.

    I’m sitting at my desk with acrylic nails, wearing make-up, a skirt and heels.

    Like others, why is this even a question?!

  • Liz @ IHeartVegetables August 31, 2012, 9:59 am

    This is FANTASTIC Gabby!!! I love your perspective on this. I feel like growing up as a gymnastic, I have a weird view of how femininity and athleticism tie together. There is a great book called “Little Girls in Pretty Boxes” that is all about like “behind the scenes” in gymnastics in other countries in the 70s and 80s .You’d probably enjoy it!!

    Have a great weekend!

  • Christina August 31, 2012, 10:04 am

    Just another perspective- some men who do sports that require them not to be muscular (long-distance runners) are accused of being too girly. Hmmm.

  • Marissa August 31, 2012, 10:22 am

    Thank you for reporting on this article, I enjoy reading about gender issues and societal norms,constructs in our daily life. For me, I believe the two terms shouldn’t be dichotomous terms, however we as a society tend to dissect terms into poles often, we could go into many feminist discussions on such. however , for me one theme that came to mind was the attraction factor, what makes a potential mate attractive and what does society deem attractive?? Obviously this has changed througout the years,as the feminine gaze has changed regarding female weight, clothing style etc. however I think some women hold the belief that looking too athletic, manly, etc, will divert a mans attention and reduce their attractiveness. currently i think our societal norms are more flexible regarding female attractiveness , however the male viewpoint has a large impact, ps no gender bashing going on here, just my feminists views apparent.

  • Ali @ Around the VeggieTable August 31, 2012, 10:33 am

    That was awesome…thanks Gabby 🙂

  • Ashley August 31, 2012, 10:45 am

    I race bicycles and am quite tall. I am what most people (including guys) would call “built.” Through my formative years, before I turned into muscle, I had larger than average legs and shoulders of a swimmer or football player. I am 5’10” and towered above most of my guy friends.
    I always portrayed incredible confidence but definitely had some issues on the inside. I would only ever date very tall (6’3″-6’8″) men because they were the only types of people that made me feel small and womanly.
    Although so many women proclaim that they are athletically built and proud of it, there’s definitely a threshold where a person is judged by themselves and society for being too muscular. Any woman that truly is larger than the average woman because of muscles, or fat, or height has to, at some point in her life, fight a little harder to discover her own femininity.
    So I don’t think Gabby’s article is unfounded, maybe just too black and white. Femininity and athleticism absolutely can co-exist but some women have to work to find that emotional balance.

    • Gabby @ Gabby's Gluten-Free August 31, 2012, 11:49 am

      I love your perspective! I think it’s very true that we all have our threshold where judgement gets to us.

  • Chris Donnelly August 31, 2012, 10:59 am

    As a guy its tough to comment on this.. we all have mom,sisters, friends,etc and we don’t want them to be held down or impeded in doing something they love. I’d say there’s no way they are mutually exclusive and can/should go hand and hand (Athletics and Femininity). However…there are way to many studies show that Biologically there are more side effects and risk..(beyond things like a broken hand or things that any athlete can get) that’s NOT societies fault.. So i think that’s where the BALANCE comes in.. So TOO muscular maybe could be if your below i think 15-14% Body fat, women have loss of cycles which damages the reproduction system, Body starts to eat muscle and can damage the heart and there are more effects but i don’t want to write a novel. So of course people can choose to take their body anywhere they want but it’s important at least mention and be aware of the possibilities or dangers.

  • Kevin August 31, 2012, 11:01 am

    The truth is, society associates “feminine” with things like, “delicate, sensitive, fragile, dainty,” and so on. Weightlifting tends to evoke elements that are simply contrary to conventional feminine attributes. From the outfits (functional, form-fitting lycra instead of delicate, flowing silk) to the noises (grunting and groaning), the sweat (a woman NEVER sweats), even the unflattering positions (squatting, bending over, contorting, etc.).

    The end results (fit and toned) can most definitely be feminine, but the process itself is decidedly UNfeminine, according to society. That’s not going to change, nor should it. We NEED such differences. But saying that the activities themselves are not at all contrary to traditional femininity is like saying a male ballet dancer is just as masculine as a bodybuilder doing deadlifts. Again, the end result can still be masculine (that is, you get a muscular build from tossing ballerinas around all day), but the activity itself (ballet) is dissonant with the conventional notion of masculinity. Likewise for weightlifting and femininity.

    • Jackie August 31, 2012, 3:06 pm

      So, if a man cooks does that make him un-masculine? If he cleans up after himself, does his laundry, works with women, etc.? Just like squatting, grunting, and sweating is unfeminine because “it’s been that way forever”, cleaning, cooking, being a male ballet dancer, and treating a woman as an equal has been/was deemed as un-masculine.

      I know that comes across as argumentative, and I apologize, but…my point here is this: just because this has been the traditional way, doesn’t mean that it applies anymore. I find a man who cooks, cleans, and treats all women with respect as incredibly sexy and masculine because he is comfortable with how he stands as a man. And, yes, if the male ballet dancer was attractive, I would find him sexy as well (very general, but you get the point). I personally believe society should change in how they judge women/men…if people are ultimately feminine or masculine, but do things that aren’t “traditional” in their spare time, why should it matter that those activities may not be flattering or feminine/masculine?

      • J August 31, 2012, 3:27 pm

        I agree, Jackie. The status quo isn’t always great for everyone. The whole idea of this divide between masculine and feminine not only reinforces gender norms that oppress women, but it also strengthens the gender binary and disregards transgender and genderqueer individuals. How about we do the things we enjoy that make us feel good about our bodies and our accomplishments and let other people do the same? Sorry if I just don’t really care about what is in someone’s pants.

        • Jackie August 31, 2012, 4:56 pm

          I just suppose I don’t find weightlifting masculine just like I don’t find cooking feminine. I support gender differences…and I don’t agree that women should shun their femininity or vice versa…but I’m tired of hearing that there are “boy things” and “girl things” because SOCIETY says so when there is no other good reason for it. You know why they say so? Because men have been in power for most of history and women have been a certain way for a lot of history as well.

          I’m sure cave women grunted, squatted, and sweated just like women who lift weights in their spare time too. Makes them less feminine? I guess by today’s standards, yes.

          I’m sorry for being on a soap box, but this has come up a lot lately in my daily life, and I guess I just want to be heard. 🙂

          • Chris Donnelly August 31, 2012, 5:10 pm

            Ladies.. balance in all things.. bottom line is there are MEN and WOMEN.. our structures are different, we MOVE different.. we NATURALLY act different, etc…etc… So if a Genetic Woman moves like a Genetic man, talks like him, etc.. that’s emulation…and vise versa.. (how we respond to it is another matter) So while i understand the sentiment we ALL need balance in the views and how we understand it.. BUT .. Men (Masculine) and female (Feminine) ..that’s not Social.. Thats Genetics.. anything else is unproven and/or based in the realm of feelings.

          • Jackie September 1, 2012, 6:57 am

            You’re correct, if a woman was to talk like a man, spit like a man, act like a man, smell like a man, and honestly had a manly figure (not necessarily muscles, but lack of curves, chest, VERY low BF%, etc.) I would probably consider her less feminine. I’m not talking about biology when I’m saying I don’t view weightlifting as something strictly masculine. I see men and women of all shapes and sizes lifting weights. It is not the act that makes one masculine/feminine, it is the person performing the act. That’s what I was trying to say before 🙂

          • Chris September 1, 2012, 5:01 pm

            @Jackie – Ah ok i got you now, yeah i agree with that for sure!

  • Caitlin August 31, 2012, 11:24 am

    I love this post! I agree, they are NOT different from each other at all. In fact more and more I associate words like “strong”, “strength”, “fighter”, etc with females because not just the physical strength we can put forth in the gym but the MENTAL strength we have to put forth each day to fight these kinds of norms, like the fact that femininity and athleticism are considered separate. I know I expend a LOT of mental energy fighting the messages society sends me about being female and I consider myself stronger for being able to fight them. In many senses, to be female is to be strong, automatically 🙂

  • Cait @ Cait Strides August 31, 2012, 11:28 am

    I totally agree. I think the problem is that society has this view that a woman should be “skinny” or “dainty”, you know…5’3″ – 95 lbs. For most athletes, that’s not even possible because their bodies would literally break if they tried to lift heavy weights. Personally, I think athletic women are far more attractive because they radiate health.

  • Cindy @ The Flipping Couple August 31, 2012, 11:55 am

    I love that you posted about this!! I don’t think it should even be a question, but IT IS. I’m a Crossfitter, and one of the top complaints I hear from non-Crossfitting friends is that female crossfitters “look like men.” Really?? Because they have visible muscles they look like men??

    Keep lifting weights, ladies!

  • RachR August 31, 2012, 12:20 pm

    I’ve always done a lot of cardio and toning in my exercise routines, but I never questioned femininity and athleticism until I started rock climbing. All of a sudden my shoulders were getting bulkier and I started to wonder if people would begin to think I had a masculine figure if I continued to build muscle in my upper body. I love climbing enough to not care if I look masculine to some people, however, this made me more aware of how self conscious other women must get in the same situation. Strength in any sense is a beautiful thing, no matter what others may say as a result!

  • Shauna@Pleasure, not Punishment August 31, 2012, 1:10 pm

    This is an excellent post. Thank you!

  • Annette@FitnessPerks August 31, 2012, 2:09 pm

    Great points! I am definitely grateful for being athletic & very feminine <–and they happily coexist in my land 😉 Nothing wrong with doing tough pushups in a pink top in my opinion. I don't think there's anything wrong with liking being girly, but it's great that any woman can do what she wants in the gym too! However, I think there is nothing wrong with being female & loving it. I like being different from men (and would hate to be a man). #sorryimnotsorry

    • Jackie August 31, 2012, 4:59 pm

      I agree with you! I run, a lot, but I love dressing up, wearing makeup sometimes, I hate bugs and would rather cry than kill them, and I love when a man takes care of me. I just don’t view working out and being strong (however you get there) as something that’s utterly masculine…I view it as healthy.

  • Corrie Anne August 31, 2012, 7:17 pm

    What a cool post!! I definitely maintain my femininity even at the gym. I’m all about the neon pink shoes. Haha. I will tell the truth that when I first started things about CrossFit, I shied away a little bit because I didn’t want to look “built” — sorry that can happen for some girls no matter what trainers say, I bulk — but I’ve totally embraced it now. 🙂

  • Alyssa @Sceince and Seitan September 1, 2012, 9:36 pm

    Thank you for this! I wish I could make all my students understand that being an athlete doesn’t make a girl “manly!”

  • Luna665 October 7, 2012, 7:22 am

    I think that the whole definition of “femininity” is misleading, if not wrong and. well, created by men. 🙂

  • elena February 18, 2013, 11:00 pm

    If being feminine means starving myself or being obese with bingo wings, or having osteoporosis when I m old, or, neglecting my health so that the pig on the couch doesn’t feel insecure, I d rather be without such notion of femininity.

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