How muscular a woman looks influences perceptions of her lifestyle and personality, according to new research published in The Journal of Social Psychology. The study provides evidence that women with heavily muscled physiques tend to be perceived as having more stereotypically masculine personality traits and men in particular expect them to have less positive life outcomes.
Bodybuilding has become increasingly mainstream in North America since the 1960s. Researchers at the University of British Columbia were interested in how differing degrees of muscularity influenced social perceptions of female bodybuilders.
“I became interested in this topic after dabbling in amateur bodybuilding competitions myself,” said study author Evanya A. Musolino. “While involved in these competitions, I noticed some stark contradictions. For example, the purpose of bodybuilding (regardless of the category being competed in) is to achieve a physique that is muscular and lean. This type of activity tends to be associated with men and notions of masculinity.”
“With that said, there are plenty of women who compete in these competitions, and although they are expected to display comparable physiques in terms of development, they are also expected to engage in other behaviors to ‘off-set’ the masculinity (e.g., sport heavy stage makeup.)”
“Additionally, when discussing my hobby with people outside of the bodybuilding community, there was quite a bit of judgement (for example, questions about why I would ‘ruin’ my womanly physique,)” Musolino said. “Thus, I became aware that although we, as a society, have progressed in many ways, there is still the presence of archaic attitudes and beliefs in terms of what is appropriate for men vs. what is appropriate for women.”
The researchers showed photographs of female bodybuilders with varying levels of muscularity to 170 women and 93 men from a Canadian university. After viewing each photograph, the participants were asked to assess various attributes related to the bodybuilder.
Musolino and her colleagues found that women with the lowest level of muscularity received the highest ratings of physical attractiveness, followed by those with moderate and high levels. They also found evidence that muscularity influenced perceptions of stereotypical gender traits. Women with the lowest level of muscularity were viewed as being more aware of the feelings of others, neat in habits, submissive, and gentle, while those with higher muscularity were viewed as being more aggressive, ambitious, logical, and independent.
“I think the most important take-away is that we still have the tendency to judge others based on aspects like appearance. Additionally, these judgements often go beyond the information presented to us,” Musolino told PsyPost.
The participants also believed that female bodybuilders with higher levels of muscularity were more likely to be homosexual. Among male but not female participants, expected life outcomes — such as the likelihood of experiencing marital happiness, occupational success, parental competence, and self-fulfillment — were lower for female bodybuilders with higher level of muscularity.
“Muscularity suggests power. When it occurs in women, it is in violation of gender expectations and such violations typically provoke status-quo-maintaining and possibly derogatory reactions,” the researchers wrote in their study.
But the study, like all research, includes some caveats.
“One of the major limitations of the present study was the lack of a control photo (i.e., a photo that depicted an average woman in terms of muscular development,)” Musolino explained. “The women depicted in the low muscularity condition were still significantly more muscular than the average woman. Thus, we are missing that reference point in terms of level of muscular development.”
The study, “Bigger isn’t always better: an exploration of social perception bias against high levels of muscularity in women“, was authored by Evanya A. Musolino, Brian P. O’Connor, and Jan D. Cioe.