Tuesday, July 07, 2015

Aly Raisman's Muscles

Olympic gymnast Aly Raisman is posing for ESPN's famous "body issue". A few years ago Jill posted her spin on that forum (stemming from mutual conversations between the two of us), and I think it holds water. I'm a fan of the Body Issue -- it's a useful corrective to SI's "Swimsuit Edition", and I think it treats its subjects with respect and does the concept of the body right. Bodies in the body issue are respected because they can do amazing things -- in Raisman's case, an astounding array of flips, jumps, and twirls that make me dizzy just thinking about it.

I was struck by this statement by Raisman, though, which is a stark commentary on how (female) bodies are viewed normally:
Reisman is five feet and two inches worth of muscle — bulkier than many other gymnasts, she says, but that didn’t stop her from proudly posing before a team of photographers. “I think imperfection is beauty,” says Raisman. “Instead of being insecure about my muscles, I’ve learned to love them. I don’t even think of it as a flaw anymore because it’s made me into the athlete that I am.”
Put aside the idea that Raisman could ever be seen as "bulky". I accept that "bulky" is a relative term and one is naturally going to assess oneself in relation to one's peers. But it is shocking that Raisman could ever have seen her muscles as a "flaw". I say "shocking" not as an indictment of Raisman's rationality, but as a commentary on the sorts of social norms that create such a mentality. It seems obvious that Raisman's muscles should be viewed as amazing, for precisely the reasons she says: they are what makes her into an elite, Olympic-caliber athlete. It takes a heaping truckload of malformed messages about what a woman's body "should" be to take that intuitive awesomeness and turn it into a "flaw" that one must "learn[] to love."

And while people talk about how male athletes are sexualized too -- well, no, not like that they're not. Male athletes can and do absolutely feel insecure about their bodies; but it almost always takes a functional form: Am I as strong as I could be? Am I as fast as I should be? I've yet to hear of male athlete ever consider his muscles, or any other aspect of his physique which enables him to do the amazing athletic feats of his chosen profession, to be a flaw.

Any way, it goes without saying that Aly Raisman is an insanely strong and powerful woman. One doesn't need the Body Issue to know that, of course, but to the extent it provides with a venue to love her loveable muscles, all power to it.

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