When I first started seeing women’s exposed upper arms on the runway, I rejoiced. Here was a part of the body so often associated with masculine strength, arm wrestling and the Jersey Shore.
And women were owning it.
Upper arms have long united women in collective shame. In the UK, flabby triceps are known as “bingo wings” after those arms that wave twice during a big Bingo win. Pashminas cover the “trouble zone” at weddings. Personal trainers advise chair dips. Madonna and Michelle Obama are of the few women who seem to have actually succeeded in taming the natural fat below the shoulder.
But recently, women starting lopping big holes out of the arms of their sweaters and exposing this much maligned zone. My friends weren’t just showing their biceps, they were actively flaunting them, serving them up as a museum piece by covering the rest of the body. No breasts, this trend smirks, no leg for you. Just straight, unadulterated…arm. The look is a modern rewriting of the old “We Can Do It!” poster, produced when women were encouraged to step into stereotypically-male roles, working on the land and in in factories to make up for the absence of young men during World War II.
When I saw this trend spring up on the runway at Proenza Schouler, Prabal Gurung, Céline, Wes Gordon and Erdem, I was tempted to imagine this unveiling of the upper arm as an act of unbridled anger, a loud roar that demanded women decide what skin should and shouldn’t be exposed. It seemed to be the perfect female response to the testosterone-fueled, “Do you even lift, bro?” Lift or not, our upper arms were invited to the gun show.
But before we flex our exposed triceps to pop open the champagne, I’d like to take a moment to pause. Celebrating a new part of the body as sexy is refreshing. It removes, at least momentarily, the pressure to get bigger breasts or a tighter tush. It’s a sneakily seductive way of exposing flesh without flashing the parts people most want to see. But what if the strategically-placed arm hole trend doesn’t actually mark a new dawn for the upper arm? After all, when the crop top woke up from its 90s hangover and crawled back into our wardrobes, it failed to usher in a self-acceptance movement. For every article that said anyone could wear a crop top, ten “rock that crop top!” workouts popped up on YouTube and in magazines promising toned abs for the sake of fashion credentials.
And so I fear for the upper arm. Because while we mere mortals might be exposing our upper arms in all their plump, skinny or slack glory, the A List body is morphing into something alarmingly sinewy. Slim upper arms that have submitted to gruelling gym routines are the new hallmark of female success: look at Victoria Beckham, Kerry Washington, Jennifer Aniston, Ciara. To have rock hard biceps is to reach the pinnacle of sculpted femininity.
The spring catwalks warned us of upper armageddon. I give it six months for the bicep workouts and tricep toning tips to dilute the power of this trend. Unless, of course, we refuse to let another style turn into a reason to hate our bodies or a new garment become the sole motivation for grueling gym workouts. It is possible to keep our upper arms ventilated without needing to sculpt them into some ideal shape? What would Rosie the Riveter say? Likely: To hell with it — bingo wings or not.
Runway images via Vogue Runway; collage by Elizabeth Tamkin.