Toning, defined

Confession time: I use the word “toned” with clients when we discuss the results of weight lifting. Many in the fitness industry consider this word blasphemous, or at least inaccurate. At my gym, the trainers and other staff often discuss ways of tactfully turning our clients away from the word, directing their attention instead to the underlying concept the word masks: building muscle and getting rid of fat to make everything seem less flabby, but not necessarily losing so much fat that every nook, cranny or muscle fiber is visible to the naked eye.

 “Toning” has no strict definition, but implies that there are different types of strength training with distinct results—ie, this routine will “bulk you up” and this one will make you “long and lean.”  Yet, in actuality, no strength training process simply makes muscles firmer without building more of them, or turns fat into muscle, or creates nice little shadows around some of the arm muscles without also doing the same things that could make those arms look like Madonna’s  or Cameron Diaz’s or whichever female celebrity is considered too “mannish” this week.  All of the above concepts fall under the umbrella term of “toning.”

Yet many women—yes, even young, well-educated women who’ve bought a copy or two of Women’s Health in their day and presumably grown up entirely in a feminist era—are afraid of the concept of strength training or building muscle, and prefer to describe their fitness goals as “toning” or “tightening,” even if the words are generally meaningless.  Worse, the term “toning” often represents extreme misconceptions about exercise and how the body works.

The first issue, of course, is the myth about women’s ability to put on muscle. For some reason, despite much evidence to the contrary, women fear weights larger than 10 or 15 pounds because they assume heavy weights will make them suddenly grow a beard or chest hair.  Or, if not the body hair, then extremely large, manly muscles, which, it turns out, also come from testosterone and are equally unlikely to show up just because a woman forays onto the rack of dumbbells weighing over 20 pounds. 

Genetics, hormonal balance, skeletal frame, etc, can affect how muscle is distributed—and possibly in a way that a person might not fully appreciate.  Generally speaking, though, the women who look like they have a lot of muscle typically spend a lot of time working on building that muscle and reducing the fat covering it, with workouts that last two or more hours and relatively strict eating plans. You may remember putting muscle on easily during college rowing season, but there’s a good chance it was because you were working out for multiple hours per day in training and maintained a fairly low body fat percentage so said muscle was more visible– not because your body has an overactive response to muscle-building.  Even female bodybuilders or fitness competitors don’t look that “big” when you see them in person.  A former professional bodybuilder I interviewed competed at 135 pounds on her 5’9” frame—which, she said, made her look more like “a shriveled-up raisin” than a goliath in a bikini and heels.  Similarly, good friend of mine is in the process of preparing for fitness competition; when she turned in some recent progress photos to her coaches that showed how her legs had gotten too bulky in proportion to the rest of her body, she was a mammoth size 2.  No, there’s no second digit missing there.  For most women, who take a Body Pump class here or there or even learn some basic Olympic lifts, the threat of strength-training making them look like She-Hulk is fairly minimal.

“Toning,” in part, is a response to this fear of putting on too much muscle.  It’s a concept to convince women that they can lift weights without their bodies becoming too unattractive and unfeminine.  And yes, women will avoid activities that boast a myriad of health benefits because of its effect on their appearance– consider the Surgeon General’s warning to women of color who avoid sweating too much because hair care is too expensive and time consuming to ruin with a workout. Feeling attractive is important to many  (if not most) women, and almost as many will make unhealthy sacrifices to continue to feel attractive—which means everything from wearing heels that ruin their feet and knees, slathering their faces with cosmetics filled with a myriad of carcinogens, and  skipping strength training because it threatens the femininity of their appearance.

Which inherently ties into the second problem with the concept of toning: it implies that one type of appearance is ideal for all women.  A woman should not be muscular or brawny or any other sort of descriptor of fitness that doesn’t lend itself to this particular ideal feminine body type that’s plastered across most forms of media.  But really: Your quads are big?  So what?  Maybe that’s what’s attractive when you consider your entire body as a whole, even if the chick on the cover of Women’s Fitness has thighs that winnow into her kneecaps with nary a bulge.  Women have been taught to fear what their bodies can become rather than embrace the unique way our particular bodies function or change under different circumstances.

Thus, the fact that I don’t correct women when they use the word “toning” to describe their fitness goals may surprise some who know me.  My own workouts consist of a lot of heavy lifting, jumping, and use of large, “scary” equipment like the squat rack and weight plates the size of bike tires—the stuff that many women shy away from for fear that they’ll get “big.”  And, to be honest, when I first started lifting this way, it was because I realized that I was never going to look like a ballerina; thus, I reasoned, better to be big and muscular than big and flabby.  As it turned out, I only ended up getting smaller in the process, and my body became more traditionally feminine looking, not less—my typically thick waist thinned out, my narrow hips got a bit of a boost in the bum region, and so on. When I get big, it’s because of too many peanut butter cups, not too much strength-training.  Even more, lifting heavy and challenging myself to do what the guys in the weight room could do has been a way to appreciate my body in terms outside of whether or not I fit the mold of how women should look.

So why would I want to let any client live under any sort of misconception about strength-training, then, and potentially miss out on how inspiring it feels to achieve something she never has before—be it a “girl-style” pushup on her knees, a totally unassisted chin-up, or jumping onto a 24” tall box?

Because, in short, “toning” acts as a gateway for women in the first place.  It helps them out of the rows of ellipticals, stairclimbers, and recumbent bikes, and into the weight rooms, among the men. “Toning” is an intrinsically feminine term– go look through a couple issues of Men’s Health or Muscle Mag and see if you find the word even once.   Having a female-specific word about lifting weights allows us to view and discuss a typically masculine activity as something that can be feminine. We can co-opt strength-training and redefine it in a means that best serves women.  Introducing the vocabulary allows us to have a conversation we once couldn’t have: what do women need when we workout, what allows us to maintain and enhance our femininity, how is our femininity expressed through our bodies?

When we answer these questions, we will have a more solid, more accurate definition for “toning.” Banishing the word from our lexicon, treating it as a “bad” word, does exactly the opposite of what we intend.  Shaming the use of the word “toning” does not help women see their place in the weight room and the validity of building muscle.  Instead, replacing the word with the more standard terminology of “building muscle while losing fat” implies that what women seek for their bodies is inherently the same as what men seek; we can acknowledge that hormones will make the end-result of this process different for either sex, but we still deny the emotional and social underpinnings of shaping one’s body.  The word “toning” allows us to acknowledge that there are specific standards of beauty that govern how women look at and judge ourselves, how others view and judge us.  “Toning” allows us to acknowledge that while we may seek gender-neutral goals, we may also seek ones that express our respond to our identities as women.  Right now, no one may know precisely what “toning” means, but the more we discuss it, the better idea we’ll have of what it is, and how it represents feminine identity in the modern era.


2 thoughts on “Toning, defined

  1. “Women have been taught to fear what their bodies can become rather than embrace the unique way our particular bodies function or change under different circumstances.”

    Great sentence.

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