My Love-Hate Relationship with My Aerialist Shoulders

Anyone who knows me—particularly those who know me through the aerial community—might be surprised to hear that I am not the biggest fan of my shoulders. Sure, if I remind them of my scars and my persistent shoulder injury, they may understand. But neither of those traits are what cause my discontent. I hate my shoulders for the same reason I love them: They are big.

With social media and the ever-popular hashtag “#aerialistproblems,” it is no secret that the stereotypical broad, bulky shoulders of female aerialists come with a few inconveniences. I could write an entire article just on the topic of different sleeve styles and why they are problematic to us aerialists. (Ever wonder what it’s like for me to put on a shirt with lace long sleeves? It’s like a finger trap but for my arm.) You might think the reason so many aerial women wear tank tops all the time is so they can show off their muscles. That may be the case for some people, but I know the reason my dresser is full of so many sleeveless tops is because my shoulders don’t fit in anything else.


These bare, broad shoulders are a permanent accessory to every ensemble. It is difficult to look soft and delicate in a cute, flowy dress when there are two flesh-colored softballs hulking out of my collarbone. I have heard more than one aerialist say, “I look like a linebacker in a dress.” I feel more like it’s the equivalent of showing up to a fancy event wearing a tuxedo and flip-flops. Can a body part be considered casual wear?


The big, muscular shoulders and biceps I developed strictly through circus arts are unflattering, unfeminine, and unattractive to me. I am vain enough to have had more than a few thoughts about quitting aerial—particularly basing duo trapeze—in order to reduce my shoulders to a state of personal aesthetic happiness. But then I realize how ridiculous that idea sounds.


I love what I do. I love that I can spin on my ladder with one arm or catch release moves on trapeze or lift someone twenty pounds heavier than me. I love feeling strong on a daily basis. And I recognize I wouldn’t have any of those things if I didn’t have my shoulders. Bulky, masculine shoulders are the price I pay for a career that makes me insanely happy.

I am glad to see so many of my students and other community members take pride in their own physical transformations. They wear their aerialist shoulders as a badge of honor, as they should. Those shoulders are a symbol of hard work and dedication to their art. Those shoulders tell the world that they are capable of overcoming physical and mental limitations. So when I tell someone, “Your shoulders are looking strong,” I mean it as a compliment because I know the journey they had to take to get there.


When I look at my own shoulders, I see the source of my aesthetic disappointment. But I also see the enabler of my confidence and happiness. It is a complicated relationship. I will probably never be fully accepting of my broad shoulders and their insistence of making every blouse look like I am wearing shoulder pads, but I can appreciate them and the role they play in my life. I hate the way my shoulders look, but I love that they allow me to do twelve skin-the-cats in a row. 🙂