I recently had a conversation with a guy about how much muscle toning is sexy in a woman (relax Aunty, we were just talking). I think many women athletes can agree this is always a sensitive topic. As a former pro tennis player I have had my share of body image issues and being Indian hasn’t made it any easier (cue petite and super curvy Bollywood actresses gracefully prancing around the TV screen).
Society tells us that women with big strong muscular physiques are not sexy. Most men I know find female fitness models unattractive. How much muscle tone is sexy and at what point does it become unattractive?
How much muscle tone is sexy and at what point does it become unattractive?
I have always had an athletic build. As a young teenager, I was lean and toned from all the hours I spent on the tennis court. I felt fit and confident. Weight lifting drastically improved my foot speed and the pace at which I hit the ball.
At one point in my career, however, I felt I got a little too big. I held on to a few extra pounds (seriously no more than 5-10 pounds) and had a lot of muscle mass. I loved being able to hit the ball so hard, and being so strong. I loved being physically powerful; it gave me so much confidence as a female athlete. But as a young woman I often felt so self-conscious and unsexy, especially in social settings.
My friends made comments that made me feel uncomfortable. My extended family would straight up tell me I was “fat” and “manly.” I walked like a man. Buying jeans that fit my quadriceps and butt was always an unfruitful mission. It was a nightmare trying to squeeze my biceps into Indian blouses.
I loved being physically powerful; it gave me so much confidence as a female athlete.
I could never look and act as gracefully as all those other girls. My shoulders were big, my abs were ripped, arms were thick, my hands had ugly callouses and my legs were bulging. At times I felt really embarrassed. Luckily, I always felt a little more feminine than my sister, Shikha who was constantly reprimanded for “walking like a man.”
Now at 27, I’ve been off the tour and training regime for 5 years and have naturally lost a lot of muscle mass. I definitely feel a lot more feminine than I used to but I really miss my strength and power. I like my body but always want to feel more toned. I drool over Michelle Obama and Serena Williams’ arms.
It still bothers me when I go to India and friends/family tell me “you lost so much weight, you used to be so fat.” Their ignorance of how important my muscles were to my tennis career irritates me. Or maybe it is their lack of appreciation for how hard I worked to create that body that bothers me.
It was a nightmare trying to squeeze my biceps into Indian blouses.
In my book, female body builders are unattractive but track and fielders are beautiful. I also find women who are ‘skinny fat’, that is, thin by nature and lacking any muscle definition whatsoever, very unappealing.
A lot of women such as Flo Jo, Serena Williams and Anna Watson have started to change the notion that muscles on a woman are not sexy. But to what extent? And what about men? Is lack of large muscle mass unattractive in a man?
What do you think?
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Neha Uberoi is a respected wellness authority and former professional tennis player. She traveled the world playing in elite women’s tennis tournaments, such as the US Open. Neha graduated from Princeton University after leaving pro tennis. Her website, www.nehauberoi.com, features the original version of this post and covers personal development, fitness, style and tennis with deeply personal insight and honesty.