November 23, 2012 7:22 pm

Arms and the woman

Well-toned muscles represent strength and our own conflicted relationship to gender politics

Note to any woman considering her dressing plans as we approach the party season: the single most suggestive body part to flash these days is not cleavage (despite what those Victoria’s Secret angels say), not legs and not even the slices of side that certain fashion designers are pushing with their weird cut-out dresses. No, it’s a well-muscled arm. Stockings have nothing on biceps when it comes to shocking.

Or so has been made clear by l’Affaire Petraeus, wherein the single most-mentioned identifying characteristic of the female protagonist Paula Broadwell is not her Harvard degree or her time in the Army Reserve or even her book about her ex-boyfriend with the unfortunate title All In, but her “toned” arms.

The Charlotte Observer observed: “She favoured sleeveless outfits that showed off toned, muscular arms.” Her “bare, toned arms” have been “the subject of considerable comment”, quoth the New York Times. She is “an attractive doctoral student with sculpted arms”, said Hollywood blog The Wrap.

Commenting on his own Daily Show interview with Broadwell at the time her biography of David Petraeus was published (an interview that featured much author gushing that seems, in retrospect, a little ... suspect) host Jon Stewart said: “The whole time I was just thinking how defined her arms were.” In other words: I was too dazzled by those guns (ooooh, the double entendres that can be made of that slang in this situation!) to engage in proper analytic thinking.

Now I would normally see this as an anomaly, but it’s not the first time a woman’s arms have been subject to intense public scrutiny. Throughout her current MDNA tour, for example, Madonna has been attacked for her overly muscled pair; in their review of the opening night in Tel Aviv, all Radar, the online magazine, could talk about was “her masculine-looking bulging biceps”. And Michelle Obama’s arms have been a perennial topic of conversation ever since she stepped on to the public stage in 2008, first as a negative (they were too potentially aggressive and scary) and then as a positive (they represented fitness, both mental and physical).

The New Yorker even ran an ode to the Obama arms in 2009 by Robin Givhan, who suggested that they “represent personal time” (ie workouts), as well as healthy self-regard. In short order the gym My Sports Club named a workout after them (see the “Michelle Obama Arms” push-up).

To be fair, of course, this hoo-ha is not actually about arms. It’s not even really about sex – though it is about provocation. It’s about muscles – how hard it can be to get them, and the time and sweat and strength they represent – and our own conflicted relationship to gender politics.

After all, no matter how much we natter on about glass ceiling breaking and the quantifiable benefits of women on boards, the power woman is still a scary topic for many; a threat to tradition and to society’s balance and so on. Especially now, in an era that journalist and author Hanna Rosin has dubbed The End of Men. In this context, women aren’t just taking men’s jobs and men’s positions as primary wage-earners, they are assuming their muscles too.

Turns out that the power suit of the 1980s, with its football player shoulder-pads, wasn’t the true power symbol at all. It’s what the power suit hid underneath that is really scary. And even scarier is the willingness of Broadwell and co to reveal it – and to be proud of it.

I have to say, I get this. After years spent in the gym at aerobics classes with no discernible muscle benefit, I took up flying trapeze – with the result that now, in the depths of middle age, I have more noticeable arm muscles than I have ever had in my life (granted, they are nothing compared to Broadwell’s but everything is relative). And I can’t help but think: oh, goody. And want to wear sleeveless tops. You know: if you’ve got ’em, flaunt ’em.

Which is, of course, just what Broadwell has been doing, and part of what everyone finds so upsetting. She wasn’t just having an affair with a married man tasked with keeping national secrets; she was in our face with her own physical potency.

We fashion types (me included) have made much of the feminisation of the executive dress code and its evolution from wannabe menswear to something more womanly, in part because of the willingness of eminent women to wear dresses. See, for example, that other power player, Anna Wintour, likewise possessed of a powerful pair of arms thanks to a serious tennis commitment. But perhaps we’ve been looking at this the wrong way.

The old uniform, in fact, covered up the truth; it softened reality. The sleeveless dress, which exposes it, is actually the power garment. And what it shows, besides arm muscles, is our own discomfort with that fact. On the other hand, what’s the alternative?

A cover-up.

vanessa.friedman@ft.com

More columns at www.ft.com/friedman

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