“Semiotics” is the study of signs and symbols as elements of communicative behavior. A more comprehensive definition is “a general philosophical theory of signs and symbols that deals especially with their function in both artificially constructed and natural languages and comprises syntactics, semantics, and pragmatics.”
Let’s dispense with the complicated academic language. “Semiotics” is a fancy way of figuring out what signs and symbols mean and why they mean it. And by “signs,” we’re not just talking about STOP signs or “Do Not Walk on the Grass” signs. The most basic and obvious form of symbols is your basic alphabet. When put together, letters of the alphabet can form words. And words have meaning (or as Led Zeppelin would like to point out, sometimes words have two meanings).
But let’s look at a few less obvious but common signs and symbols. When someone raises their middle finger at you, that usually means they’re expressing displeasure toward you at that particular moment. When someone is wearing the jersey of their favorite sports team, they’re saying – even without using any words – that they love their team and are not ashamed to show it. When someone wears a tattoo featuring the Nazi swastika, that’s a pretty good indication you probably don’t want to interact with this person at any level.
Signs and symbols are the basic ways people communicate. Speaking, writing and nonverbal indicating (such as pointing, nodding your head or clapping your hands) are only one form of communication. But there are numerous other ways people can express ideas. For example:
- Hand gestures
- Hair style
- Decorations inside and outside your home
- Body language
- Bumper stickers
- Facebook profile picture
- Job title
- Dietary choices
- Choice of spouse or significant other
- Choice of what city/neighborhood/region you live
- Choice of when to use certain languages (English, Spanish, French, Cantonese, Arabic, etc.)
- Religious insignias (cross in Christianity, Star of David in Judaism, bindi in Hinduism, etc.)
- Volume (of words, actions, and so on)
- Word choices
- Transportation choices
- Body art
- Facial expressions
The list goes on. Flags can be an expression of nationalistic pride. Religious-themed clothing or jewelry can signify adherence to a certain faith. Dietary choices communicates to the world messages like how you view your own health, opinions on environmental stewardship and social responsibility. In fact, here’s an old joke. How do you know if someone is a vegan? Don’t worry. They’ll tell you over and over again!
I’m not anti-vegan, but you get the idea. Being a vegan isn’t just a set of eating choices. It’s a statement on your views pertaining to health, animal rights, the environment, urbanization, human rights, sustainability, ethics, and so forth. Can it get annoying? Perhaps, but it gets annoying because from a semiotic perspective, they’re trying to tell you much more than the mere fact they prefer not to eat animal-based products.
All of this brings us to the focal point of this post: A muscular woman’s body. I’ve covered the topic of muscular women and semiotics in previous blog articles, but I’d love to explore this in further detail.
A muscular woman; whether she’s a professional or amateur bodybuilder, personal trainer, athlete, or noncompetitive gym rat; makes a lot of statements even without saying a single word. And not just statements, but definitive statements. I once had a college professor who told our class that “you can never not communicate.” Everything you do, whether you intend to or not, is a form of communication.
To help us understand what this means, imagine this scenario: You’re walking down a crowded street. You’re minding your own business. It’s a perfectly sunny Saturday afternoon. Clear skies, tourists and pedestrians out everywhere. All of a sudden, you see walking down the sidewalk a beautiful muscular woman. She’s making no attempts to hide her muscularity by wearing sleeveless shirt and yoga pants. She casually strolls by you. You stop and stare, but she keeps on moving at her own pace. She’s minding her own business. Most important, she doesn’t utter a single word to you. Nada. Nothing. Although she doesn’t verbally speak to you, she’s told you a whole encyclopedia’s worth of material…whether you realize it or not.
When I talk about a muscular woman’s body, I’m not referring to her hairstyle, choice of clothing, tattoos, piercings or anything like that. I’m only talking about her flesh and blood body. By themselves, her muscles are a symbol. They carry with it meaning beyond her physiological composition. So what we’re talking about isn’t a muscular woman’s entire appearance, just her muscles. Everything else is very interesting unto itself, but let’s keep it simple for the sake of this discussion.
Let’s look at some of the messages inherent in a muscular woman’s body:
1. Social defiance
Perhaps most jarring, social defiance is the loudest message being communicated by a woman’s muscles.
If we presume that society traditionally equates femininity with weakness, a muscular woman shatters those stereotypes with a sledgehammer. Female frailty is an ancient and overused theme that goes back centuries, crossing almost all cultures and continuing to persist even to the present day. Outside of a few fringe cultures that treat women as equals (or superiors) to men, for the most part human civilization has associated femininity with feebleness, softness and fragility.
Muscular women defy all that. They defy the notion that women are the weaker sex. They defy the assumption of female frailty as inevitable. They defy traditional standards of beauty. They challenge us to accept that muscles on a woman can be sexy. They refuse to be put into a box.
Unlike political beliefs, religious beliefs or any other kind of ideological system, a woman’s choice to develop muscle is obvious for all to see. There’s an old saying about how some people “wear their opinions on their sleeve,” which is to say they don’t just have opinions; they shove it in your face and persistently let the entire world know about it. However, that can get exhausting. No matter how passionate you are about something, even at the most superficial level it takes a small conversation with someone to know about it. But that’s not true with a muscular woman. Her decision to bulk up her body can’t be hidden. You can’t wear baggy clothes forever.
A woman’s decision to bulk up flies in the face of our conventional expectations of beautiful women having to be slender and curvy. Big muscles are supposed to be reserved for guys. Big muscles on a woman, on the other hand, aren’t what any of us expect to see. So when we do see it, we instantly realize what she’s doing. She’s creating her own standards of beauty. She’s redefining what it means to be attractive. She’s defying other people’s expectations and setting her own.
Anyone, whether male or female, who can boast having a fit, muscular body might as well carry around a sign that says in big bold letters “I Take Care of Myself.” Generally speaking, you don’t look that way unless you make a conscious decision to do so. You don’t become muscular by accident. It’s a choice you make to sculpt your body to fit a certain aesthetic.
Becoming “buff” isn’t just about lifting weights. It requires watching your diet. So no excessive sugary sweets, rich coffee drinks or deep fried foods. You have to make sacrifices most of us in the general public (me included!) wouldn’t want to make. While it’s true that excessive exercise and extreme dieting can be unhealthy if taken too far, generally speaking men and women who “look good” take specific measures to look that way.
Self-respect means believing in your own potential. It means setting goals and having an actionable plan to achieve those goals. Goal-oriented people tend to achieve more in life than people who wander around aimlessly. A female bodybuilder, for example, wants to be a winner. Professional (and dedicated amateur) athletes all want to be winners. You don’t get to that level unless you sincerely believe you can do it.
But even if a muscular woman doesn’t compete at any level, she still has self-respect. Perhaps her goals are different. She wants to look fantastic. She wants to inspire others. She wants to prove to herself that she can do whatever she wants. Regardless, the common denominator is that she has her goals set high and will never back down from reaching her full potential. This determination is obvious just from looking at her hard-earned physique. You don’t have to ask her about it. You can see it right in front of you.
3. A desire to shatter social stereotypes
Directly related to point #1, a muscular woman’s body can be an indication that she wants to shatter the stereotypes we have about strength and gender identity. The most obvious example is the idea of female weakness/male superiority. But, if you add elements of race, height, sex appeal and fashion choices into the mix, things can get very complicated.
For example, if a muscular woman chooses to wear baggy jeans and a fur coat everywhere – even if it’s not particularly cold – that’s probably an indication she doesn’t want the public to notice her muscularity. If, on the other hand, she chooses to wear yoga pants and a skimpy top that generously shows off her arms and torso, she definitely wants people to notice her. Not bother or harass her, but see her. Whether she’s motivated by narcissism or personal comfort is impossible to tell. What is obvious is that she’s okay with people seeing her hard work on full display.
In addition to social defiance, a muscular woman who chooses to show off her body is also maybe trying to change the way people view women as a whole. Not just muscular women, but every woman on planet Earth. She wants people to no longer believe women are destined for weakness. She wants people to be convinced that men don’t have a monopoly on strength. Maybe she wants society to redefine what it means to be “beautiful,” “feminine,” and “desirable.” Instead of telling people that “strong is beautiful,” she decides instead to put her money where her mouth is and let the entire world know that she’s a muscular woman who believes she’s just as beautiful as the women you see on the cover of magazines.
Stereotypes are commonly accepted boxes we use to put people into. Not all stereotypes are malicious. Some are quite flattering (all Asians are good at math, anyone?). But some are hurtful. For example:
Muscular women are gross. Women shouldn’t look like that! Big muscles makes her look like a man! Men will never find that attractive. She needs to stop bulking up or else she might actually become a man!
All these stereotypes are complete B.S. We female muscle fans know it. But not everyone shares our perspective. Muscular women know this as well, probably better than us. This is why her biceps aren’t just an indication that she works out. They’re a metaphorical hammer of Thor intended to smash into a million pieces every one of these sophomoric beliefs.
4. A redefinition of sexuality
For many of us, the first thing that catches our attention when it comes to sex appeal is a person’s physical appearance. Their face, body, the way they walk, etc. What really catches our attention is anything out of the norm. A stunningly gorgeous face or a killer pair of legs, for example, stand out because of their uniqueness in addition to their obvious aesthetic appeal.
A muscular woman’s sexuality also stands out. Because so much of sex appeal is based on looks, a muscular woman’s intentional transformation of her physical appearance makes this discussion almost inevitable. How can she not be making a statement about her sexuality?
As mentioned before, not everyone who appears “sexy” is intentionally trying to look sexy. But if you have natural good looks, no matter what you do (outside of covering your entire body with a sheet) you’re going to communicate desirability. Or, perhaps, how we as a society defines “desirable.”
Consider this: How many people in our world consider muscles on a woman to be sexy? A number of us, obviously. But certainly not everyone. A woman who chooses to sculpt large muscles on her body cannot help but make a statement about what limits we should or should not put on female attractiveness. She’s saying (implicitly or explicitly, it doesn’t really matter) muscles on a woman can be sexy. She’s saying guys who find her attractive are right to do so. She isn’t necessarily saying that people who find her unattractive solely because of her muscles are wrong, but they shouldn’t discount the opinions of others who do.
Muscles challenge our preconceived thoughts about female sexuality. It shows they can be both strong and beautiful, muscular and feminine, unconventional and desirable, empowered and nonthreatening. They’re not trying to shatter how we view female sexuality. They’re trying to expand how we think about female sexuality (and male sexuality, for that matter). They’re not trying to destroy the box. They’re trying to make the box bigger.
Why must we limit how we define “beautiful?” It makes no sense.
This is probably the broadest point of all, but a muscular woman’s body communicates that she’s an unconventional person. Unconventionality comes in many forms. We’ve already discussed a few of these aspects above. But generally speaking, muscles on a woman’s body tell us many things such as:
“I’m the most competitive person you’ll ever meet.”
“I may not look traditionally beautiful, but I am.”
“I’m stronger than most women around here.”
“I will fight back if provoked, unlike others.”
“You can doubt me all you want, but I’ll prove you wrong every single time.”
“My life is different than the rest. But it’s the life I choose to live.”
“I don’t eat the same foods you do, nor eat at the same times you do.”
“I’m a professional athlete. I don’t spend 8 hours behind a desk every day.”
“I truly don’t care what other people think.”
“I love being different.”
“I will prove that muscles on a woman can be sexy. See? Look at me!”
How can a muscular woman not be unconventional? Anyone who consciously defies social norms is intentionally going against tradition. She may not abhor tradition or wish to knock it down with a wrecking ball, but she’s definitely a daisy growing in a field of red roses.
It’s hard not to return back to the point of female frailty. Everything revolves around this paradigm. A muscular woman is so fascinating precisely because she forces us to rethink our preconceived notions about the fundamental differences between men and women. Everything we thought we knew about the world may be wrong. They may be right, but every once in a while we encounter situations that challenge us to open our minds to new hypotheses.
The unconventional challenge us not to alter our conventions, but question why we have conventions in the first place.
Strong women raise these questions. It is now up to us to try to answer them.
In conclusion, there is no doubt that muscular women are a fascinating topic to talk about. Whether you love them, hate them, or aren’t quite sure what to feel, you cannot help but have an opinion about them – even if you’ve never actually met one in the flesh. These snap judgements are at the heart of this semiotic analysis of a muscular woman’s body.
Fairly or unfairly, every one of us communicates something every single moment of our lives. Intention has nothing to do with it. We see signs and messages everywhere we go. Messages telling us what to think, what to believe, how to feel, how to behave, how to interact with others, and so on. Our world is full of these symbols. Most of us are not aware of them, myself included. But the more alert we are to them, the better we can understand our world.
What interests me on a personal level is talking about how mesmerizing muscular women are. They’re captivating for reasons that go beyond their beauty. When we look at the symbols inherent in her physique, we start to better understand things like sexism, misogyny, human sexuality, relationships, biology, social prejudice, social defiance, the business of advertising, marketing strategies, double standards, beauty, aesthetics, power dynamics, expectations, gender roles, stereotypes, femininity, masculinity, world history, politics, money, human communication, cognitive development, and much more. The list can go on forever. When we really think about female bodybuilding, female athletes and the presence of muscles on a female body, almost every problem we face in the 21st century starts to become clearer. Think about how fundamentally different our society would be if women were just as biologically strong as men. Think hard about that. It’s enough to blow your mind, isn’t it?
Semiotics is all about being aware of what we’re being taught, how we’re being taught, and how we can teach others. Communication is the building block of human civilization. Cities, nations, communities and families would not exist without communication. So the better we understand how we communicate; both verbally and nonverbally, both intentionally and unintentionally, both implicitly and explicitly; the better people we’ll be.
Sound like a big task? It should because it is. Muscular women are creatures who blow my mind. I can’t stop thinking about them on both a primal and intellectual level. They demand closer inspection. They demand our attention. They demand our respect. They demand us to understand them better. Let’s hope that comprehending them on a semiotic level is a productive first step.