Natural Bodies Are Hard Work

muscle manby Lisa Wade, PhD @ Sociological Images

We commonly hear claims that men are naturally more muscular and physically intimidating than women.  “It’s a biological fact,” someone might say.  If that were true, though, we wouldn’t have to work so incredibly hard to make it so.

@IllMakeItMyself sent in this great example of the way in which we are pushed to force our bodies into a gender binary that we pretend is natural.  On the upper right part of the Men’s Health cover, it reads: “Add 15lb of muscle” and, right next door on the Women’s Health cover, it reads “5 ways to lose 15 lbs.” 

If we have to try this hard to make it true, maybe we’re not as different as we think we are.


Lisa Wade is a professor of sociology at Occidental College and the co-author of Gender: Ideas, Interactions, Institutions. You can follow her on Twitter and Facebook.

Originally posted on Sociological Images, and reposted with permission.

BroadBlogs postscript:

A male commentor on my blog once pointed out that women are expected to be skinnier than men, and yet Mother Nature wants women to have higher fat levels. After all, estrogen turns a higher percentage of calories into fat for women, while testosterone turns a higher percentage of calories into muscle for men. Yet women often end up feeling that they have to work to have a “natural” skinny body.

So I would say that yes, men are on average more muscular due to testosterone. But then we put a lot of work into turning that biological sex difference into a more exaggerated gender difference, whether through men’s weightlifting, supplements, steroids, or “tough guy” stances.

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About BroadBlogs

I have a Ph.D. from UCLA in sociology (emphasis: gender, social psych). I currently teach sociology and women's studies at Foothill College in Los Altos Hills, CA. I have also lectured at San Jose State. And I have blogged for Feminispire, Ms. Magazine, The Good Men Project and Daily Kos. Also been picked up by The Alternet.

Posted on June 11, 2014, in body image, feminism, gender, men, psychology, sexism, women and tagged , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink. 33 Comments.

  1. Charlotte Greatwood

    I think another thing about being “natural”, is the idea of “natural” make-up. Very colorful and dramatic makeup is often looked down upon. Women are expected to have great skin, which often requires them to use makeup. The idea of “ideal” weight or BMI, is so unrealistic. Genetics have a huge role to play in what a person’s naturally healthy weight, and body type is. Frankly, a one size fits all look at bodies is unrealistic and perpetuates an unnatural and unattainable standard. As someone who is in recovery from an eating disorder, how people describe “natural” perfection and “ideal” weight can be very damaging. This is especially true when the rhetoric comes from doctors, or other trusted adults. Children and teens are easily manipulated, and their opinions are based on what they hear and what they see in the world around them.

  2. I do think it’s more work for a man though to have an appealing body than women. Women have built in sexualized features (curves). So if a women slims down a little bit, she will be appealing because of her boobs and butt and legs. Whereas, muscle and definition makes a man’s body aesthetic, which takes lifting weights, weight loss, cardio, crazy diet, etc. Even though women may feel insecure if they don’t have big boobs, men love small boobs too and just boobs.

    • Well, most women think they aren’t good enough and 80% of young women — YOUNG women — have poor body image, with the impossible ideals.

      Men have less to work with but lower ideals. And it’s easier to lift some weights and get muscle tone. (And easier for men to lose weight due to testosterone)

      But I guess people focus on what affects them most.

  3. Shelley greenaway

    i consider myself lucky that due to genetics and environmental factors, i happen to be a size 14 woman with Asperger’s who grew up in a male dominated environment that is quite relaxed about body image!!! i also hate the standards women have to live up to, be a size 0 triple d cup s*x doll to please men (some, not all). because of who i am , i hope what i lack in the ideal looks to compensate for that by doing a degree in my chosen area so i could be a good VFX artist! IMO, i kinda find the edgy style of dress more appealing than the idea of being cloned and brainwashed by society to be the ideal, as well as the so called raunch culture. maybe that’s who i am but i detest society’s body and personality ideals for both genders and the idea that men must want a skinny, big brested women and women must desire a over muscular man. please don’t take offence but the ideas that we are bombarded with doesn’t appeal to me in the slightest.

    just my two cents ! 🙂

    • Opposite of offense taken. We’re all a mix of biology, culture, and social interactions, which create unique human beings. So I internalized the desire to be skinny, but not the desire for d-cups. So happy for you.

  4. I think this issue is more into how you define ‘natural’ for human body. Research has proven biologically that man has more muscle mass than women, however, this does not mean that it is easily attainable. There are lots of man in the gym working really hard to put more muscle mass in their body, and there is one reason on why they routinely go to the gym. And the answer is that bulking up is not an instant. It needs time, dedication, and hard work.

    I figured that the media is planting this idea of what men and women should look like into the system, and this is exactly why people are competing to meet up this socially ideal.

  5. Very true! A natural body is becoming less and less desirable. There are definitely pressures on both genders to have the stereotypical perfect body. Interesting to read others comments as well as the post 🙂 x

  6. I agree with the point this article made in that I have learned in my health class that men can get muscle more easily while women can get fat more easily. Actually, I naturally have more body to make muscles more easily. Without much hard working, i was able to make quite big amount of muscles in short period. However, without biological advantage, it is possible for people to get muscle or make good body shapes. I know friend who had hard time making good body and muscle. Even though he needed to make great efforts, finally he made good body and muscles.

  7. Shahin Larhnimi

    I think that we view “natural” as the bodies that we see in social media. As Heta said in her comment, that “Being fit is more important. Now a days even women are adding muscles ! Being slim is what expected from a woman and having a more muscular body for a man.” We strive for something that is expected from us, however, building muscles is generally easier for men than women. And what is “natural” does also have to do with cultural aspects, whether they believe in being muscular or thin.

  8. I would have to say that it is true, men have a more muscular body then women do. And when it comes to working out, it is said that it is harder for women to lose and look as good as men do when they work out. And men seem to have big heavy bodies which are covered mostly by muscle, but when women have heavy bodies it is all mostly fat. So I think it is harder for women especially young girls who are worried about their weight. But in some cases, I think girls compare themselves to models in magazines and they wonder why their body is not like that. And I think that gives them a natural look to their body.

  9. I agree with this post. I think because women are more sexualized in the media, women have a higher standard on beauty and their weight. They are expected to be very skinny, however, mother nature does work against them because biologically women are programmed to put on fat for child bearing purposes and etc. Men are generally physically stronger but i do know some women who work out to get nice bodies and are just as strong as some men.

  10. As you pointed out on your blog men and women have different hormones, like testosterone and estrogen which influences the development of parts of their body. Men’s hormones cause them to have a higher percentage of muscle than women, making them physically stronger in general. But yes, either men or women, no matter how different their bodies is built, still have to work out to get a nice body. What is different here is the standard of beauty that the societal norms put on the concept of “nice body” for men and women. But I think there’s one important fact that you left out from your article which is that men grew stronger than women due to evolution. Indeed, women don’t “need” to be stronger. It takes extra food calories to develop that muscle mass and since it’s not needed in women, lean times weeded out women who used food calories unproductively whereas men still needed to hunt and fight and defend their reproductive rights, so they were not similarly weeded out by evolution.

  11. I feel like trying to add muscles as a man is not a natural process. It just makes us civilized, maybe marking us differently from that of an animal. Humanity has always valued physical strength, and this is true whether we believe it or not. However, throughout the years, humanity has of course developed, so physical strength has become less critical for us, but it has always remained important. In our society, a weak man is not as happy as that same man would be if he were strong, and some might find that offensive. Having a natural body is in some ways hard work. Back in the old days, people needed to do heavy lifting and other labor intensive work to get by, and of course their bodies would naturally gain muscle. Our view of a natural body has certainly changed over the course of humanity, it is simply our definition of the term natural that has changed.

  12. I think that the society rules of men being big and buff and women being naturally skinny are ridiculous. I think that people should definitely be healthy and cautious of what is good for their body but going above and beyond to make their bodies acceptable to society is not good. I mean come on girls are literally starving themselves to fit in..and men are taking steroids. Its crazy!

  13. To be a individual is something that a majority of us no nothing about. I would like to go back in time and see who implanted all of these things into the media, and society because at one point this couldn’t be the norm something else had to be.

    • It’s odd that culture both frees and imprisons us.

      There have been instances of children who haven’t been raised in society for one reason or another. They are called feral children. Or even Helen Keller was not able to be socialized for a long time because she couldn’t see or hear. Before she could understand language she had very few thoughts, Like feral children. As she learned language she had far more thought than she had before.

      At the same time, culture imprisons us, too. It keeps us thinking in a particular way. One of the easiest ways to get outside that cultural prison is to do cross-cultural research. Which is increasingly difficult in modern societies since most of them have been so affected by the west. Luckily a few non-Westernized, or not entirely westernized, societies are left. And we have historical records.

      I’ll have to write about this sometime.


    Ya i figured This is such a good point but in a way funny men and women’s bodes are so different and thats not fair men are more naturally built and women are trying to loose weight and men want to gain muscle well that just saying all men and women are like this when duh they are def not ! but yes

  15. Oh boy !! What planet am I living on ? I am definitely no hunk !! 😉 ❤

  16. Being fit is more important. Now a days even women are adding muscles ! Being slim is what expected from a woman and having a muscular body for a man. It depends on choices whether one wants to stay fit orelse even have six pack or bisceps.

  17. I feel it is fitness and strength that must be maintained with regular exercise by both men as well as women. Adding muscles may be a matter of personal choice.

    Thanks 🙂

    • Yes. And then as women choose to make their bodies smaller than what is naturally healthy, and then choose to make their bodies bigger than what is naturally healthy, it can all seem naturally feminine or masculine, yet it’s not. It’s a lot of work!

  18. And to correct something. She said that the men’s magazines are about “how to get 15 lbs of muscle” but the women’s magazines are about “how to loose 15 lbs of fat”.
    That’s not entirely correct.
    Men’s magazines are about getting muscle AND loosing fat.
    The men who work out are obsessed about loosing fat, they are probably more obsessed about losing fat than women are.

    • Well, the point is that men are trying to add muscle and women are trying to lose fat and that we all think that these are the natural body types that we should all aspire to, yet they are not.

      • Not entirely correct. Men are obsessing about being ripped these days which includes adding muscles and then loosing fat. Despite the biological differences I’d say it’s even harder for men to achieve the “ideal body” as presented by media.Even if women have a harder time losing fat the ideal male body is still considerably more ripped AND muscular than what’s true for women.

      • 1) the fact that men naturally have higher levels of muscle and lower levels of fat will help them greatly to achieve that look. But it does cause eating disorders among men too.

        David Beckham’s Sex Sells
        Objectifying Men’s Bodies for Profit

        Also, we don’t hold men to such narrow standards. In self-assessments overweight men thought they were just right. Normal weight women thought they were too fat.

        2) it is simply impossible for women to have skinny bodies an enormous breasts and or butts. The only way you can do that is to starve yourself and go under the knife. The knife may be “Easy” in some ways, But it’s not healthy. And women shouldn’t feel like they have to do that to their bodies. The impossible standard is market manipulation. Create an ideal that is impossible to achieve, then no matter how much product you buy it’s never enough.

      • Well, I think will help them “greatly” is an overstatement. Sure, it helps to reach a normal fitness level, but it’s almost as difficult for men to reach a state of 5% body fat for example. You do need to “starve” yourself as well, male models going for a photoshoot are cutting down heavily on both food and water before their shoots. I’d say this is quite unhealthy for both men and women.

        It’s not impossible to be skinny/muscular/cut and have a “big butt”, depends on how you bulk your gluteus first, this applies to both men and women. Agree to the breasts though, they tend to lose fat as you get fitter, thus it’s almost impossible to have large boobs and low body fat.

        No one should feel that they must meet the ideal created by media. Fitness goals can be great due to the health reasons but people in general shouldn’t aim for the almost impossible ripped standard, it should suffice to get rid of _unhealthy_ overweight. The past years or so, women too have been amassing at fitness centres for the purpose of weight training. I’m still ambivalent to whether this is a healthier body image or not but at least getting a stronger body seems better than the “old” skinny image that seems less popular these days.

      • Agreed. And I don’t think it’s important to argue about whether women or men have it harder, anyway. The reality is that media ideals can distort ideas and create problems for all of us.

  19. I know this blog is more about the social constructs and not about biological facts but she didn’t get it right.
    Yes, men have to work to become muscular but this doesn’t change the fact that for men is more easy and more natural to become muscular due to testosterone.
    Men on average have 20x higher levels of testosterone than women.
    There are many women who work out and become muscular but they are nowhere near at the level a man could get with the same volume of work out.

    How about facial hair. Men have more facial hair than women because they have higher levels of testosterone.

    If men and women had the same levels of testosterone then men and women would have the same amount of muscles, body fat, facial hair, baldness, voice tone, breast size, penis/clitoris size, testicles.
    Then there be would only one sex and not two sexes.
    So the question isn’t whether if men and women are different but why there are two sexes.
    The book “Red Queen” explains why humans and all animals evolved having two sexes.

    I understand that the media are shaping people’s view.
    In some societies, women who were larger considered to be sexy but nowdays the media are promoting the unnatural unhealthy image of the ultra thin woman.
    But there are some biological differences who can’t be changed by the media.

    For example, would anyone argue that society has made men to be taller ‘on average’ than women?

    • Did you see the post script I added? There is a natural biological sex difference, And then we play with or exaggerate those natural differences to create the social construct of gender.

      Another example is how boys are encouraged do sports and girls aren’t. That’s going to also exaggerated national sex difference, making guys more muscular and girls less muscular.

  20. Good points. The word “natural” has become more “civilized” really when it comes to the body. What is natural, really when it comes to the human body? As much as I love words, sometimes they display their limits. If I work out four times a week, does that mean my body is no longer natural because I have tone I wouldn’t have otherwise? If I don’t work out and I develop health issues because of it, does that mean I’m in my natural body?

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