Walking to the library, I passed this poster at the GNC:
Well, I thought, I could go either way on “athletic,” but sure, I’d like to be those other things. But as I rounded the corner, I spotted the version of the poster that was actually intended for me, a female-bodied person:
Oh, right. Women are only supposed to engage in physical activity in order to make themselves attractive to others.
There’s nothing wrong with striving for the qualities on either list, if that’s your thing. It is wrong, however, to assume that men want to work on their bodies so that they can go out in the world and do things, while women want to work on theirs so that they can look good. On their own, “athletic” and “leaner” are gender-neutral concepts that mean basically the same thing, except that “athletic” has an active connotation, and “leaner” a passive one. Same deal with “confident” versus “radiant.” I suppose “energetic” is an active quality, but not as active as GNC’s masculine equivalent, “bolder.” And “flexible,” following right on the heels of “sexier,” strikes me as perhaps striving to serve someone else’s interests more than one’s own.
This is the gender binary. Men are supposed to be big and tough, women small and pretty. There’s no reason the lists could not have been switched except that it seems strange, from the perspective of the binary, to think of a man as leaner, sexier, flexible, radiant, energetic and a woman as athletic, stronger, faster, confident, bolder. Not to mention everybody in between.