We’ve long admired her fabulously glossy hair, gleaming smile and elegant figure. But recent appearances in a selection of summery frocks prove the Duchess of Cambridge has another beauty missile up her, ahem, sleeve.
For the Duchess also boasts that special something millions of women have longed for ever since Michelle Obama stepped over the White House threshold: perfectly toned arms.
Wearing a sleeveless, white, Emilia Wickstead dress at the polo last week, her taut triceps and biceps gained as much admiration as the £1,350 gown.
For while developed arm muscles were for years the preserve of female athletes, seen as too ‘masculine’ for the likes of you and me, now an elegantly sculpted upper arm is a discreet sign of youth, confidence and feminine power — as likely to draw a sigh of envy from a watching woman as a perfect blowdry.
And unlike some other physical traits that come down to the lottery of genetics, a honed arm is aspirational, speaking of an investment of time and money in serious workouts.
Toned: The Duchess of Cambridge last week at the Out-Sourcing Inc charity polo match at Guards Polo Club, Smiths Lawn, Windsor
Power pose: Michelle Obama showing off her muscled arms
Actress Marilyn Monroe in contrast to Michelle Obama is seen with slim arms as she poses for a portrait in 1953
Yet while the Duchess’s sleeveless styles look fresh and modern, she is in fact invoking a venerable tradition. For like so many aspects of a woman’s appearance, the size of our arms is subject to a complex societal evolution which has seen them wax and wane over the centuries.
By Hollie Grant, founder of Pilates PT
These develop the triceps. You can start on your hands and knees, or from half-plank or full-plank pose (pictured).
Position your hands shoulder-width apart, with your palms and creases of your elbows turned forwards. Slowly bend your elbows, keeping them tight into your sides as you lower yourself towards the ground. Then extend your arms to return to start position. Repeat eight to 12 times.
PILATES PUSH-UPS: These develop the triceps
Works biceps and shoulders. Start with arms held out to the side at shoulder height, with your forearms raised toward your head and palms facing up.
Now, leading with your palms, move your forearms downwards so your palms face the ground. Then raise to vertical. Repeat 12 to 16 times. You can add dumbbells, but ensure you can complete at least 12 reps.
CACTUS: Works biceps and shoulders
This really works the shoulder alignment, which is key to Kate’s good posture.
Stand with your arms by your sides, bent at the elbow with forearms and palms flat in front of you as if you were resting a tray on them. Loop one end of a resistance band over each hand, then begin to move your hands out to the sides, without allowing the elbows to move away from the body. Release back to the start position, and repeat eight to 12 times.
DUMB WAITER: Works shoulder alignment
These can be performed using dumbbells or by standing on one end of a resistance band and holding the other end.
Start with your arms straight by your sides, palms facing forwards. Keeping the spine still and elbows tight to your sides, slowly raise the forearms until your hands are close to your shoulders, then release slowly.
Repeat eight to 12 times.
BICEP CURLS: Repeat eight to 12 times
You’ll need a pull-up bar for this tough exercise, which will work the biceps, shoulders and lats.
Start with your hands on the bar, slightly wider than shoulder-width apart. Inhale to engage the core and as you exhale begin to flex your elbows, bringing your chest up to the bar. Inhale to lower yourself back down at a controlled speed.
Beginners can do this move standing on a box so your feet never leave the floor.
PULL-UPS: Beginners can do this move standing on a box
In the classical world, a toned female physique was associated with intelligence and competence — the sculpted Spartan girls were viewed as the era’s erotic pin-ups.
Trained in athletics and javelin-throwing alongside their brothers, Spartan women proudly exercised in public wearing the skimpiest of tunics. Commentators were both titillated and shocked by what they saw as a shameless display of immodesty.
Yet in stark contrast with other Greek city-states, Spartan women were taught to read and to express themselves, which alongside fitness was seen as making them better mothers for super-warriors.
Admittedly, women’s arms then pretty much disappeared for the next few hundred years.
No woman with any pretensions to respectability would have dreamt of showing her arms in public until the introduction of classically modelled ‘Empire’-style dresses in the late 18th century. Even then, the merest hint of muscle was a no-no. Physical strength was associated with manual work, and therefore low status.
In his book Curvology: The Origins And Power Of Female Body Shape, David Bainbridge, of Cambridge University, argues that in contrast to full breasts and hips, which signalled that women possessed the necessary fat reserves for fertility, there was little biological advantage to strong arms, since traditionally men did the heavy lifting.
They were therefore considered to be irrelevant from an evolutionary point of view, meaning they did not pass into the set of female characteristics deemed to be conventionally sexually alluring.
Indeed, for Victorian women the ideal arm was slender and ‘boneless’, demonstrating its owner had never had to pick up anything heavier than a pearl-buttoned glove.
The more curvaceous physique favoured by the Edwardians was achieved by inserting padding into dress sleeves to give the impression of fuller arms, all the better to set off delicate wrists and hands.
Yet with the gradual progress of feminism, toned arms began to creep back into view.
After World War I, which saw women entering the workplace in unprecedented numbers and achieving the vote, fashion swayed towards the more androgynous, bare-armed, ‘flapper’ look.
Golf and tennis were now promoted as wholesome sports for women, and as the French Riviera became the holiday spot of choice for the chic and wealthy, women’s arms emerged from ballooning bathing dresses into the sunlight.
World War II brought another brief shift in the way society valued women’s physical strength, with the war effort back home dependant on women’s ability to take on manual work. The iconic figure of Rosie the Riveter, sleeve rolled up her impressive forearm, promised the world ‘We Can Do It!’
It was a powerful message. Yet once the war was won, women were encouraged back into the home and into more ‘feminine’ fashions, as embodied by the demure corsetry of Dior’s iconic ‘New Look’, launched in 1947.
As the years went by, pin-ups such as Marilyn Monroe had slender arms, but they were hardly toned by contemporary standards, while Brigitte Bardot’s bouffant was more impressive than her biceps.
In Jackie O we saw a silhouette that appeared more modern, with defined shoulders and collarbone, but like Farrah Fawcett the emphasis was on being lithe rather than strong.
So it was only in the 1980s, when Jane Fonda famously felt the burn, that triceps began to be ‘a thing’. When a tank top-wearing Linda Hamilton revealed her impressively chiselled deltoids in 1991’s Terminator 2, it still felt almost revolutionary.
Despite a further two decades of fitness videos, sportswear adverts and the gradual rejection of size 0 models, perhaps it wasn’t until Michelle Obama posed in a sleeveless dress for her official photo as First Lady in 2009 that sleekly sculpted upper arms became mainstream desirable.
Since then we’ve seen admirably toned upper arms on women such as Madonna, Jennifer Aniston, Queen Letizia of Spain and Wonder Woman actress Gal Gadot.
That said, it can take a lot of work to achieve the look. As women age, the skin on the upper arms naturally slackens and softens, causing the dreaded ‘bingo wings’. Mrs Obama has revealed her workout regime includes skipping, boxing and weight-training, while the Duchess of Cambridge is known to be proficient at tennis, hockey and skiing.
Realistically, though, most women don’t have the time to develop celebrity-level shoulder definition.
At 47, I’m not a huge fan of my own upper arms, which tend towards scraggy rather than Spartan, but I’m a devoted follower of the streaming workout site Ballet Beautiful. Pro ballerina Mary Helen Bowers has a series of short ‘Swan Arms’ programmes that require no equipment and really make a difference to upper arm muscle tone, so are worth a look if you’re planning to go sleeveless this summer.
However, if the evolution of women’s arms shows us anything, it’s that an upper arm of any size can be viewed as stylish and sexy.
So if you’re not yet boasting a bulging bicep then don’t panic; a slightly pillowy upper arm was good enough for Marilyn, after all.
Published by Associated Newspapers Ltd
Part of the Daily Mail, The Mail on Sunday & Metro Media Group
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