Surprisingly, those bare biceps routinely made headlines — even sparking controversy in her first official photo as First Lady just eight years ago. And they made news again last year when FLOTUS finally revealed her workout routine.
Yet as we reflect on her legacy, it’s worth noting that the First Lady has done more for female arms than showing them off in presidential sleeveless sheaths. She helped normalize them as a symbol of strength for professional women — a status usually reserved for female athletes.
In case you forgot that sculpted arms weren’t a mainstream beauty ideal until the last decade, here’s a look back at the trend’s evolution through the years. It might even motivate you to tick off those upper body workouts with more pride and purpose.
Wait — Fitspo Wasn’t Always a Thing?
Take a scroll through Instagram and it’s hard to believe there was once a time when women were encouraged not to exercise. “If we go back 100 years ago, femininity was tied to frailness, weakness and vulnerability. Think of the damsels in distress in the 1920s expecting men to swoop in and save them,” explains Linda Lin, PhD, psychologist at Emmanuel College in Boston who researches how women’s body image is portrayed in celebrity gossip magazines. “Power, strength and muscularity were thought of as masculine traits, and gyms were for bodybuilders and athletes.”
Even in the 1960s, women were warned that exercise could damage their health and cause them to stop menstruating, she says. “The prevailing myth of the time was that women’s bodies couldn’t handle strenuous exercise,” Lin says. (Check out this eye-opening BuzzFeed video to see how the feminine beauty ideal has changed over time: “Women’s Ideal Body Types Throughout History.”)
The Step Aerobics Years
Even if you didn’t own your very own pair of leg warmers, you probably remember Aerobics Queen Jane Fonda, who helped popularize fitness for women (and this mean fire hydrant maneuver) in the early eighties. But the craze that led to millions of Americans jumping around in their living rooms in Easter egg-colored leotards focused predominantly on cardio and weight loss.
It wasn’t until 1991 when actress Linda Hamilton swung a Colt Commando semi-automatic weapon over her chiseled shoulder in Terminator 2, that the world recognized a little more muscle could be mainstream hot.
“I remember how shocked everyone was,” says Lin. “It was the first time a woman’s muscles were presented as something attractive and didn’t make her look grotesque.” Still, women weren’t encouraged to be too active. Supermodels, such as Cindy Crawford and Christie Brinkley, of the eighties and nineties were praised for being thin, rather than toned.
The Changing Meaning of a ‘Bikini Body’
Although it seems as if we’ve been fawning over Madonna’s sinewy biceps since she got pumped for her “Blonde Ambition” tour in 1990, it was the aughts that really brought athletic arms to the pages of celebrity magazines. If you missed paparazzi pics of actress Jessica Biel emerging from the ocean, you might not have realized the chatter about her buff bikini bod signified a cultural shift. “Everyone was always talking about how toned and fit she was,” says Lin. “That’s something people didn’t talk about before, and now it’s common in the media.”
It was around the same time that San Diego-based personal trainer Jessica Matthews began to notice some of her female clients were asking for more defined arm muscles. “Initially, they wanted a more sleek, sculpted look — what many people at the time were associating with yoga or Pilates,” says Matthews, senior advisor for heath and fitness education for the American Council on Exercise.
“Women are working with barbells and doing pull-ups now, and posting fitness inspiration photos on social media. We’re seeing a celebration of women’s strength as feminine. People now talk about being fit and toned instead of skinny. That’s a big shift.”
Where Biology Comes In
Historically, women’s toned arms weren’t considered attractive (that is, until recently) because they didn’t offer any biological benefit, explains David Bainbridge, PhD, reproductive biologist from Cambridge University and author of Curvology: The Origins and Power of Female Body Shape. In other words, unlike fleshy baby-making hips and bellies, which signal women’s fat reserves available to fuel breast-feeding, arm heft wasn’t important in an evolutionary sense.
“It was more important that limbs be straight,” says Bainbridge. “Until 100 years ago, a lot of people had bent limbs from malnutrition and inbreeding.” And despite our brief obsession with shoulder pads in the eighties, studies show that big shoulders generally don’t lure in the opposite sex, either. “Perhaps they were part of the feminist journey and were a visual display of strength,” he says.
But now, the arm obsession could be as simple as this: “Arm tone is seen as a symbol of youth and vitality,” says Lin.
Although many see the shift in focus from “skinny” to “strong” as an advance for women, Lin worries we may be trading one standard of beauty for another. “The culture is defining what’s attractive, and it’s not more accepting,” says Lin. “Now women can feel bad if they don’t have the right muscle tone.” According to the new standard, thin women with flabby arms will be viewed as less desirable than thin women with toned arms, she says.
As for women sporting mega muscles, such as Serena Williams? Society has been slow to come around. But the tennis star hasn’t shied away from celebrating her body — most notably on the cover of Sports Illustrated wearing a black lace bodysuit and black pumps. (Named 2015 Sportsperson of the Year, the honor hadn’t been bestowed on a solo woman since 1983 track and field athlete Mary Decker.) “The cover was Serena’s idea, to express her own ideal of femininity, strength and power,” the editors wrote.
“She’s a strong, powerful and beautiful woman who some see as more masculine than feminine. People aren’t quite comfortable with that yet,” says Lin. “So if we’re being just as narrow-minded in thinking what’s beautiful, we’re not empowering women and allowing them to feel ownership of their bodies, regardless of their shape and size.”
Yet the toned-up arm trend goes beyond cultivating the right bicep contour as a fashion accessory. It’s more of an internal shift that changes the way women view themselves — never mind feeling proud of being able to hoist a suitcase into the airplane overhead luggage space.
“If women think they look good, they feel better about themselves,” says Bainbridge. Now that’s feeling attractive and powerful.