Last fall, I engaged in one of the first of many conversations I've had about "manliness" in the past year, and it was with my 8-year-old son.
It was October, and we were enjoying a hot day at the beach. While the weather was unseasonably warm, the ocean remained cold.
Anyone with kids knows that the temperature of the water doesn't stop them, and as a result, Mama has to brave the cold water too. I giggled and shrieked when the waves touched above my waist, and Isaac laughed at me. But mostly we just laughed together, diving under and over the waves.
On this particular day, we were joined by one of my long-time besties. She and I have been friends for more than 12 years, and she's often my beach bum buddy. Unlike me, though, she didn't get into the water.
As Isaac and I ventured farther and farther away from the shore, he turned to me and said, "Why isn't she coming?" I told him I thought it was because she doesn't actually know how to swim, to which my then 8-year-old replied, "Ohhhh. So you're just a manly girl, and that's why you're tough enough to handle the cold water?"
Cue my "WTF" face. For a second, I was completely speechless.
Isaac is a smart, clever, insightful child. He has loads of empathy and is, at times, excessively sensitive. So needless to say, this type of comment (however well-intended) took me completely by surprise. It also prompted a conversation—both with him and in a general sense—about this concept of "manliness."
In fairness, he's virtually grown up in the gym. From a very young age, he's accompanied me to numerous gyms while I've trained clients and taught classes. He's been raised by a strong, confident mom that lifts heavy weights, is her own boss, and never takes sh*t from anyone. To some extent, I sort of understand his frame of reference. I sort of get why he thinks his mom is tougher than others. But to insinuate that toughness is somehow comparable to manliness? Now that is a thought process I simply cannot condone.
We had a little discussion and have continued to touch on it since to ensure that he understood one simple fact: Some people are tenacious/strong/brave and others are less so. Some people. Not men, not women. People. And everyone, regardless of gender, is capable of developing and cultivating strength, both inside and out. Masculine or feminine really has nothing to do with it.
And as much as I like to think I'm teaching him well, what are the chances that I've said things—however offhandedly—to the contrary? I'm pretty aware of my words, but I'm sure there are times I've mindlessly contributed to the stereotype, at least in the eyes of a child.
We throw around phrases in day-to-day life that we may deem perfectly harmless:
Be a man.
She looks manly.
He's too feminine.
Even in the strength world, we often refer to women's bodies in comparison to men and with a level of judgment that we have no right to convey. We tell women not to get too muscular or they'll look "manly." We tell women they are "muscular for a girl" or "strong for a girl." I've gotten comments that flat out say, "Ew. Gross. Too muscular. Too manly." In fact, I recently received the following comment on an Instagram video in which I was demonstrating a pretty killer workout finisher in short shorts and a sports bra:
"Why do women want to look like men? I'm sure you inspire all the chunkier girls to like their bodies and big legs which is nice and everything, but whatever happened to femininity? You're as 'big' as your husband. I don't understand this woman-hulk movement."
It does make me sad that we live in a society where our bodies are judged such as they are, and that we can't possibly keep up with the ever-changing standard that women's bodies are held to.
I didn't engage with the commenter because, well, I just don't want to spend my energy arguing with people. I have no interest in wasting my breath trying to convince them that words like "feminine" and "manly" are completely subjective and that each of us has a unique genetic makeup. Instead, I choose to use my power for good, to incite positive change through my writing and my work, and to recruit women all over the world to have the courage to share their stories. (Obviously, that's why I'm here!)
When I initially read this comment, it made me sad for women as a whole. It's unfortunate that we can have this sort of viewpoint—that we can be unkind and judgmental toward other women who choose to embrace strength and power.
It does make me sad that we live in a society where our bodies are judged such as they are, and that we can't possibly keep up with the ever-changing standard that women's bodies are held to. One day it's "feminine" and "voluptuous"; the next day it's "skinny" and "slim." Some say it's better to be uber lean, jacked, and shredded; others prefer thigh gaps and flat tummies without visible abs.
I mean, let's be honest: This is total bullsh*t. Who makes these rules? Who gets to decide what is and isn't feminine? Who decides that manly equals strong and womanly equals soft? Who decides that women aren't meant to be muscular and men aren't meant to be sensitive?
I have a vagina. I think that's pretty feminine.
Again, that's just my opinion and part of how I define my femininity. I've given birth to a child. Once a month, I have my moon time and crave chocolate so badly I could cut someone for it. I own at least 25 different bottles of nail polish, and I have an actual Kaboodle to house my makeup collection. But I also like to smash weights, get dirty, and watch sci-fi films. So somehow, because I'm muscular, I'm no longer "feminine"?
Now don't get me wrong. I don't take any of this personally. I'm not concerned with what anyone thinks of my physique and whether or not some random person on the Internet thinks I'm too muscular or a "woman hulk." (Truth be told, I think "woman hulk" sounds pretty fab.)
I post pictures and videos because it's my intention to help
women empower themselves through strength, take ownership of their lives, and embrace their bodies at all stages of life.
What I am concerned with is the general climate regarding gender roles and the rhetoric that surrounds women, our abilities, and our bodies. Because here's the deal: My femininity is not defined by what other people think makes a woman feminine. My femininity is mine to own and define—and mine alone.
I realize that cultural norms are complex and deeply rooted. But I also realize that words are powerful and that we can choose them wisely. If we don't, we can and will contribute to the idea that manliness equates to toughness. We can add to the stereotype that if women choose to be strong and fearless, they must also be manly.
We can get pissed off and take comments like this personally, ranting and raving, or we can be a part of the solution. We can use our words and actions to reinforce the idea that anyone can be physically and/or mentally strong and tough. Anyone can be muscular. Anyone can be fearless. Each and every one of us can define our own femininity in a way that is authentic to ourselves, our preferences, and our way of life.
Hearing words like "manly" thrown around so flippantly makes me frustrated. But then I take that sadness, that frustration, and I use it to fuel my message.
I use it to write, film, and create. I use it to relentlessly make positive headway on this movement. I give myself about a minute to be angry and fired up, really lean into in the emotions, and then I think, How can I take positive action? How can I be a part of the solution?
Ultimately, part of my deeper purpose as a writer and a coach is to dispel these myths and empower women to define their own femininity and believe that no one's opinion of their body matters but their own.
This is about strength. It's about love. It's about living authentically, fully engaged in the life you have created for yourself on every level.
Manliness has nothing to do with it.
This article originally appeared on NegharFonooni.com and was republished with the author's permission. Neghar Fonooni is a fitness and lifestyle coach who's passionate about empowering women through strength. The views expressed herein are hers and hers alone. Follow her on Instagram and Twitter.