The Right to Bare Arms


I’ll fess right up: I’m not terribly fond of my arms. I lift weights every week based on a regimen created for me by a personal trainer, and there’s loads of muscle in there. Seriously, just ask me to flex. But there’s also loads of jiggle. And although I don’t want to be, I’m self-conscious about it. And I generally dress to keep them covered.

But it’s summer in Minnesota and that means it can get hot. Also nastily humid. Ya know, that sticky, icky, clingy environmental moisture that makes you feel like a giant dog tongue has just licked your whole body, clothing included? And under these circumstances, 3/4 sleeves become implements of torture.

And the fact of the matter is that my arm-related self-consciousness is centered on a recently developed, socially generated expectation that – in addition to slender legs, a flat belly, and lush breasts – all women should have toned arms. Absolutely jiggle-free, rock-solid, sculpted and toned arms. Similar to the ones seen on Jennifer Aniston, Jessica Biel, and other celebs who have live-in personal trainers and whose job it is to look a very specific way. Like all body-related mandates, this is unreasonable, shaming, and downright awful. I know this inside my brain. And it angers me endlessly and I want to fight back. Unfortunately my emotional self still kicks and screams when I pull on a tank top, wailing at the size, the jiggle, the uneven skin tone of my exposed arms. It then becomes an internal battle of wills: Shirk the imposed body mandates and feel exposed and self-conscious, or give in, cover up, and attempt to relax?

I try to bear in mind that sleeveless garments can be more flattering than short-sleeved ones, and go that route when it’s sweltering. And if it’s cool enough, I do 3/4 or cuff my long sleeves. But other days, days when my outrage manages to squelch my insecurity, I just force myself to remember this important mantra: All women have the right to bare arms, regardless of size, shape, or tone. The vast majority of us HAVE arms, many of us are forced to deal with heat and humidity at some point in the calendar year, and we should not allow restrictive social norms about how our bodies “should” look to shame us into dressing in clothing that makes us feel hot and miserable. Arms come in all shapes and sizes. Flattering them can certainly be a priority, but covering them up on a miserably hot day and risking heat rash in the name of hiding a little jiggle? No way. Not OK, not reasonable, not necessary.

I used to be incredibly self-conscious about my belly, and I still dress to downplay it. But friends, I have come to have a real and deep affection for it as a natural, biological, lovely, and defining part of my physical self. It took years of work, but I got there. So I have faith that my arm-battle will end because I want it to end. And I know what my ultimate conclusion should be: I have the right to bare arms. And so do we all.

Image courtesy sean dreilinger

This is a refreshed and revived post from the archive.

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5 Responses to “The Right to Bare Arms”

  1. Maegan McHugh

    Thank you for posting this! My arms have lots of jiggle four years after a pretty substantial weight loss. I know there’s muscle in there, and I love my collarbone and my back is looking pretty strong, but the wiggle and the jiggle makes me uncomfortable. Sometimes I wish I could have a plastic surgeon just make some snips in my shoulders and just tug all my skin upward to fix my tummy too. I always say if I was a superhero, I’d be The Flying Squirrel! Or maybe Sugar Glider!

  2. Natalie

    This cultural obsession with jiggle-free everything bothers me. It has nothing to do with how in shape, healthy, toned, or whatever you are. Even if you are all muscle, you will still jiggle. Muscle jiggles when it’s not being actively flexed. I spend time with serious athletes, and their strongest muscle groups (quads on cyclists, biceps & forearms on rock climbers, calves on runners, etc.) are also the parts of their body that jiggle the most when they’re not engaging them. Those actresses and models whose arms always look perfectly toned and never jiggle? They’re flexing those muscles while the camera is on them.

    I’m not trying to say that you should not feel the way you feel, just that it angers me that society has got us to the point where we feel like our muscular arms aren’t attractive when they’re not actively being flexed. I sometimes feel this way about my own rock-climbing arms, wishing they were more slender and wiggled less when I wear a strappy sundress, and I then I get mad at myself for falling into this negative body image cycle.

  3. Gisele

    A few quick thoughts!

    1) It took me a long time to get over my sense that I owed it to the world to look a certain way, and that if I didn’t, I was obligated to cover up the offending bit (even if it’s uncomfortable). But actually, nobody owes the world nothin’, looks-wise.

    2) Padma Lakshmi!!

    3) Spend some time reviewing photos of old people in swimsuits on beaches in Europe. If they can bare themselves, so can you.

    4) Every time we reveal that we are unashamed of our bodies, we send a message to others who struggle. For me it’s rocking my flat-chestedness; by bravely not padding myself, I send a message to other small-boozomed women that it’s okay. Think of it as a fist-bump to others.

  4. Erika

    …so the real reason the Venus de Milo doesn’t have arms is because they jiggled? Sometimes I wonder if a good grounding in art history would help self-esteem – all those lovely, luscious women of so many different forms.

    My personal bugbear with clothing and my arms? They’re not twig thin, rather they’re solid and muscled with some of the jiggle that comes from being 50ish and being ill, so finding sleeves that aren’t too tight is getting increasingly difficult. My bet bets remain knit fabrics, menswear and vintage, plus the odd label that continues to cut for a more traditional arm size.

  5. crtfly

    Now “they” threw another one in there, “back fat”. It never lets up, does it? Infuriating!