Illustration by Jennifer Kalis

The Arms Race

Sculpted arms shape the "in" image of the 21st-century woman. by Kristen Acimovic

There's an arm look I've been looking into. You've seen these arms. They're the wiry, cut kind, the graceful ballerina ones with the different segments and defined lumps here and there. I'm fascinated by these arms. Transfixed.

They look great with spaghetti straps and cap sleeves and ribbed cotton tank tops, and they often connect, right at the top of the shoulders, with a dainty handlebar of a collarbone. Since the dawn of the new millennium, this is the new "It" region of the female body. Forget boobs and butts. It's all about the arms and the handlebar.

People with these arms look great in photos. Even when they're turned to the side and tightly hugging a friend and the photographer has a long, zoomy lens. When I pose this way, my arms rival the size of my head, like those big child-eating pythons they find under suburban decks every now and then.

I fancy I'd like a pair of these sinewy appendages hanging out of the old upper-body ball-and-sockets. I've tried to get them, even asked my personal trainer about them at my free-consultation-with-membership session. She didn't know how to get the kind of arms I was talking about. "More reps, less weight?" she suggested, unconvincingly.

Lots of celebrities have these spindly little arms. Nicole Kidman has a fabulous pair. You can't open Vogue or InStyle without seeing another dewy starlet popping up with a spanking new pair of sculpted limbs, adorned perhaps with bejeweled Egyptian upper-arm cuffs. Tiaras for the debutante arms.

How, I wonder, do such glorious arms come to be? When did they become fashionable? What do they mean, and why do I want them so?

Are they Atkins arms? Zone arms? Macrobiotic, raw food, vegan arms? Pilates arms? Ashtanga Power Yoga arms? Excruciatingly slow powerlifting arms? Notice a pattern here? I do.

These are discipline arms. Willpower arms. I've-worked-hard-for-these-arms arms. Which is why they're desirable. They're power arms. Rich arms. More-time-than-you've-got arms. These arms are signifiers.

They're manifestations of a feminist movement stalled at a curious impasse of mixed meanings and social symbolism. Because the female form mirrors feminine culture and feminist values; it always has. You want insight into women these days? Don't look in their eyes. Look at their arms.

Arms aren't supposed to say, "squeeze me if it hurts," or "come in for a hug," or "I cook family style" anymore. Instead they're meant to say, "I'm strong and studied," "I'm independently wealthy," or "I'm Madonna." They're power suits without shoulder pads. The new women-in-charge don't need boxy shapes and extra material to show clout anymore. They've squeezed it all in above their elbows, beneath their skin. Pity the weak women without arm definition.

Soft, buoyant Botticelli types are fatties by these new arm standards; they wouldn't be caught dead in anything sleeveless. They drink chalky chocolate Slim-Fast shakes and chide themselves for sneaking a cheese Danish pastry from the office break room. Cheese-Danish arms do not show up in InStyle. Because they're not.

High-fashion arms mean a high-fashion life. Way back when, plump, pasty, powdered arms were the chic arm look du jour. If you had these arms, it meant you were rolling in so much dough you could afford to eat a lot of it. The irony is that those were the days when the tanned and the toned were proletariat laborers and penniless peasants.

Now the untanned and the untoned seem to lack a certain vitality, a certain status and a certain savoir faire. If you've got a petite pair of chiseled arms, chances are you've got a few other choice qualities as well. Like maybe Brad Pitt is your husband. Or you have multiple Hermès scarves and a cell phone that takes really high quality digital photos. Perhaps you're a Hilton or you have a Kellogg MBA or front seats at fashion week. As you see, spindly little arms go with a territory.

As I write, I've got me a pair of girl push-up, Gap sale rack, 1985 Volvo arms. It's a rather unremarkable arm bracket. An aspiring-to-something-better arm bracket.

I might not have the time or the money or the potential for these slender, sylphlike limbs, but I'd still like to know how to get a pair for myself. Maybe I'll defy the odds. Maybe, one day, I'll sit atop the corporate ladder with my arms or slink up the red carpet with my arms or drop five thousand bucks at Prada with my arms. Ahhhhh, dear sisters, isn't it grand to dream?

Kristen Acimovic (WCAS02) is a freelance writer in New York City, where she says there are more skinny arms than anywhere — even Los Angeles.

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