Gendered Sources of Physical Power: Beauty vs Strength

February 15, 2009  |  essays

I don’t know exactly where I first heard it, but somewhere I read once: men want to feel powerful, and women want to feel beautiful.

Now: calm your “oh my god social construction of genderrrrr!” self and let’s start with some further clarification. Women feeling beautiful, in this expression, is also actually a source of power; and men feeling powerful, here, actually means “feeling physically strong.” At least mostly. Agreed?

So really, it’s saying that men want to feel strong, and women want to feel beautiful. These are two – of many – major sources of power based in the physical body.

I know this is a cliche. I probably read it in the context of gender deconstruction and the socialization process of gender. I know this goes along with conventional, normative, often damaging gender role assumptions that value men for their physical strength and women for their physical beauty.

And as much as I am aware that those concepts are socially constructed, I also have seen the ways that they are played out and real for many, many people. So maybe we’ve internalized the values of the culture. This is one of the problems with social constructionism in general – if something is created socially, then in theory it can be uncreated socially, right? But just because something is done socially – rather than biologically, say – doesn’t make it any less real or “authentic” or deeply ingrained in many of us.

And this gendered source of physical power is amplified, I think, in butch/femme culture, where we go inside these roles with purpose to explode them, exploring the socialization and de-essentializing traits said to be inherent in biology. Is it as easy as explaining that we are continuing to internalize the compulsory mutually exclusive gender paradigm? I don’t know, maybe. Certainly that probably accounts for (to pick a completely arbitrary number) 45% of it. But there is something else in there, something deep-seated underneath in me that swoons and grows and stretches its wings and feels so greatly alive when she whispers, “you are so strong, so strong” like she did last night.

And I remembered all the times I gazed in awe at her beauty (every time I see her) and remember the ways she swoons to be seen, femme and whole and holy, and I wondered if I should be saying more about strength and less about her physical attractiveness. Am I just buying into what the culture tells us we should be or say or value?

[ Yet – oh I do tell her I value her other qualities (don’t I? Yes). The depth of her calm understanding and respect feels like such a gift each time I encounter it. I fear it could so easily go the other way, yet she has the connection to the world at her core which means she values others’ experiences. And she’s strong enough in herself to know that my feelings are not about her, and to accept that with grace and clarity. And then there’s her wonderful good moods, her energy, her interest in keeping the spark lit behind her eyes. Her deep ability to feel, to observe, to respond. Her analytic skills, and how she can dissect things into pieces (while still respecting the whole!) and look at how it all fits together. There is much more to her than her beauty, heaven knows I know this. ]

And yet: in the deeply intimate moments, this is what comes out of my mouth: pretty girl, pretty girl. you are so gorgeous. I love the curves of you – here, and here. your skin glows so beautiful in the morning light.

And in that moment last night, when she commented on my strength, my heart swelled and burst like a wave cresting, and the inner cavern of my chest was smooth as a sandy beach, just for a minute, perfectly even, soft, made up of a thousand tiny grains, the breakdown of everywhere I’ve ever been.

I don’t know why it matters so much that I am seen as strong. But it does, it does.

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12 Comments


  1. that's really truly lovely, and i think you've said that very well, dear sir.

  2. It amazes me how often you write something that coincides with conversations I'm having with others. Must be in the air. I can totally relate to how good it feels to be told I'm handsome, strong, manly. And that's not all of me, and my lovers know that and they appreciate and praise my other aspects as well. But when they speak to me in terms of masculinity and strength, it does feel different and very very good.

  3. All so very true – and methinks Sir, that you are well and truly smitten! :-) fimg x

  4. "made up of a thousand tiny grains, the breakdown of everywhere I’ve ever been" – my favorite line.

    I'm so happy that you have someone in your life who seems to give you some much needed calm to match the hottness you crave-she sounds like a dream. :)

  5. Woderfully said.

    I for one know that I get off on amplifing the extremities of butch ond femme.

    I am a femme and I LOVE being told I am beautiful, sexy, and attractive in the many ways such handsome bois know how to convey. I know I am "strong" but the place I'm working from is all about beauty and using that beauty to create my life. There is so much power a femme can convey in something as slight as a smile. Or the way she can stop traffic in the middle of an intersection just by walking across with her heeled soles and solid curves.

    mm…I love being femme.

    Oh and I love talking up bois and butches in just the right way. Stroking the ego eagerly.

  6. dude. spot on.

    this post made me think of the best nickname a girl has ever given me. i was in college, and to be honest, we didn't really know each other. we had mutual friends, but we more or less knew each other through the camaraderie that comes with being scholarship athletes. everytime she saw me me she said, "hey stud" with the biggest of smiles. i don't think she was gay, and i'm really not sure what she thought of me, but oh man….i fuckin LOVED hearing that!

    it really is something special when your physical prowess is acknowleged by a beautiful femme…

  7. What a beautifully written perspective. Food for thought, and I have to agree that my favorite line was "made up of a thousand tiny grains, the breakdown of everywhere I’ve ever been."

    I take pride in my femme appearance in all its varying aspects of beauty, but to me, that's the physical manifestation of what makes me "strong." Willing to be different, to flaunt norms and conventions, that all takes a strength and intention that is just obvious (to me, at least).

  8. congrats on making it to the top 3 in the gender bender blog category of the Lezzy Awards! Good luck!

  9. Maybe it comes from society. Maybe it comes from our earliest memories of belonging to our families. But I know when someone tells me I'm beautiful, I feel powerful. By the same token, when I've told a lover she is strong or makes me feel protected…. I can see her swell with pride. I don't know why that is. It just is.

    God your writing makes me think and moves me in so many ways! Good luck with the Lezzy's!

  10. Last night, my friend S and I were at her new home. She asked if she could pick me up, swung me up into her arms, and carried me around the kitchen happily. While she was doing this, she remarked to one of our friends that I made her feel strong. She does this often and I enjoy it just as much as she does. There's something delightful about being scooped up and carried. It makes me laugh and I feel precious.

    These sources of physical power compliment each other so well. It's an exchange of giving and receiving. Beauty is supported by and inspires strength. Strength is nourished by and cherishes beauty. We enjoy the interplay of masculine and feminine energies no matter how it manifests, because it's symbiotic.

  11. when i read this, part of me identified with what you were saying, but another part of me was very sad that strength and beauty continue to be constructed as a dichotomy. why can't someone simultaneously love being appreciated for beauty AND for physical strength? my butch girlfriend is beautiful. and though i'm incredibly femme-y, rarely leave the house without lipstick and heels, and am generally submissive in bed, i am strong. i grew up as a girl who was encouraged to concentrate on my physical appearance. even when i participated in sports, it was often to "get myself in shape," rather than to enjoy my strength. it wasn't until my 20s, when i found that my stamina and strength in hiking and biking sometimes surpassed the boys', that i began to enjoy and cultivate my body's strength, rather than just its appearance.

    and through my gendered relationships with butch women, i've had to fight to keep a positive appreciation for my strength–almost more than in my relationships with boys. my partner is strong, too, but she knows that when i submit, it's because i want to, not because she can totally physically overwhelm me. i'm proud to be femme-y and sexy, and to have enough muscle to allow me to do multiple pull-ups.

    i realize how powerful it must be for butches to be recognized as physically strong, since they also grew up in this culture as girls. for butch women, embracing physical strength is transgressive. for femme women, being perceived as beautiful–when it is seen in opposition to being strong–is just another iteration of tired old cultural norms.

    don't get me wrong: i love it when my girlfriend tells me i'm beautiful. but we both know that being beautiful doesn't preclude being strong. i don't think we have to be one without the other; i don't think one of us has to be one, and one the other.

    anyway, i hope this comment wasn't too contrary. congrats on the lezzy awards!

  12. yes yes yes of course — there are still real problems and complications with femmes/women seen as strong and butches/men seen as beautiful. and that is a real thing that needs real attention and care and consciousness, for sure. there are pages and pages that I could write about that.

    but that's not what I was trying to explore here – I don't want to skip over it, that's all totally valid to me and what you said was articulated very well, you made some great points, pretty much totally agree. what I wanted to open up were the ways that this gendered physical power dynamic gets replayed in butch/femme relationships in ways that are validating and important, not just the ways that it is a problem.

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