Arming Women With The Right Sort Of Muscle

ALICE STEINBACH

May 07, 1992|By ALICE STEINBACH

Enough already about Arms and the Man, what really interests people today is: Arms and the Woman.

Arms -- or to be precise, women's upper arms -- are hot, hot, hot nowadays. It seems women everywhere are reaching out for the perfect arm. "The Arm Fetish," the New York Times recently called this phenomenon.

And just what do women want? Arm-wise, that is.

Well, they don't want the soft, shapeless arms of a Renoir woman. Nor do they want their arms to be ripe and round, a la Marilyn Monroe. And they certainly don't want the thin, bony arms belonging to the women Tom Wolfe calls "social X-rays."

No, the arms that today's women want are sculptured and sinewy; well-defined arms shaped by curvy biceps and triceps. The new arms suggest strength not vulnerability. And the new arms are sexy.

Think of Linda Hamilton's arms in "Terminator 2." Or Madonna's arms in "Truth or Dare." Or Tina Turner's arms in anything.

But a word of caution to those contemplating this look: The new arms are not easy to come by.

Such arms require an enormous amount of concentrated effort and time. After all, the sinewy, muscular look is not a completely natural look for women -- whose bodies are genetically programmed to have a fairly high percentage of fat. So remaking a body at the gym requires a strong motivation and real commitment to achieving the new look.

Sometimes it can even take on an obsessive quality.

Which brings up an interesting question: Is there a politically correct way for women to change their bodies?

For instance, is it more acceptable for us to spend hundreds of dollars and hundreds of hours at the gym reshaping our bodies than it is to change them through cosmetic surgery?

And is the woman who chooses liposuction of the fat from her upper arms less "worthy" than women who spend countless hours lifting arm weights at a health club?

Question: In a country whose culture and history owe a lot to the concept of an individual's right to self-determination and self-invention, who is to say that one way of remaking yourself is right and another wrong?

Yet, there is a subtle attitude that says it's all right to change the way you look -- but only if the way you do it meets with society's approval.

We saw evidence of that in the recent decision by the Food and Drug Administration to allow breast implants for most post-mastectomy patients, but to limit their use in women who simply want to change their appearance. Although one could make a case that what post-mastectomy patients want is the same thing: to change their appearance -- back to what it was before the operation.

Given that argument it seems fair to say the FDA made a judgmental decision based not on safety -- either implants are safe for all women or they're not -- but on a puritanical view of deserving women vs. frivolous ones.

But the fact is, the strongest disapproval about a woman's choice of cosmetic surgery to change her appearance for non-medical reasons comes from . . . other women.

And not just from feminists such as Naomi Wolf and Susan Faludi, both of whom have denounced cosmetic surgery as part of an organized backlash against feminism. Often the disapproval of a woman's choice to change herself through surgery comes from women who have dramatically altered their bodies by religiously working out with personal trainers or fitness gurus.

Recently, however, a number of feminists have voiced their opposition to the view that women who alter their appearance surgically do so only to conform with the male idea of what is beautiful. Instead of throwing vanity onto the bonfires of a right reason or a wrong reason for wishing to change one's appearance, such feminists argue women should do what they want to do with their bodies. Choice, they remind us, was the foundation of feminism.

Psychologists say the concept of what's beautiful is socialized into us at an early age. And if we accept Naomi Wolfe's "Beauty Myth" theory, a male-dominated society dictates to little girls what is beautiful.

To me, what's always been so amazing about this whole business of what's beautiful and what isn't is the sheer diversity of it. For instance, one woman's idea of beauty is embodied in Diane Sawyer; another sees her as odd-looking. The consensus on beauty -- except in rare cases such as Michelle Pfeiffer -- is that there is little consensus on beauty.

Which is all to the good. It means those of us too lazy to go about acquiring the new arms can breathe a sigh of relief about making do with the old ones.

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