The ‘respectability’ of female bodybuilders? Not so fast

The other day, Jezebel posted an essay that hit on a specific obsession of mine, one you are already aware of if you’ve read my zine, or will be as I will most certainly write about it over and over and over again.

I’m talking about women and muscles. I’m talking about the way muscles are seen as “masculine” and “manly,” and women who pursue the kind of training necessary to develop them are considered “freaks” and gender traitors. I’m talking about the way physical strength is feared in women, while physical weakness is sexualized.

I’ve highlighted the part that was of particular interest to me.

Two women, dressed in bikinis, stand on a stage. One woman’s muscles bulge from every part of her body. The other is voluptuous with a perfect hourglass figure and a fat gluteus maximus. The first woman is a bodybuilder, flexing, flaunting, and celebrating her body for an audience. The second woman is a video vixen, also parading and celebrating her body. Similar in wardrobe and performance, these women’s bodies are the center of their careers. Yet, the commoditization of black female bodies remains a controversial topic. While the video vixen would receive the cast of shame for promoting her figure for profit, the bodybuilder gets a clean pass for doing the same, simply because she’s in the fitness industry. It’s the same for high fashion models using their figures for profit. Why do certain women receive callous judgment for pursuing careers centered on their bodies?

From “The Respectability of Video Vixens vs. Bodybuilders” by Arielle Loren (via Jezebel)

I understand what Loren was getting at, which is that certain kinds of physical displays are encouraged with women while others are denigrated, but I puzzled at her use of lady bodybuilders as an example of women using their bodies in socially acceptable ways. I can only assume she’s never heard the way women with muscles – particularly a cut, developed upper body – are maligned for looking like men.

Fear of looking “manly” is something I hear way too often from women when they talk about why they avoid weight training. I still remember opening the Letters to the Editor in a recent Oxygen magazine – which is not a magazine about the women’s TV channel but instead a publication focused on women who like to lift weights – and feeling dismayed that a woman had written in to complain about all of the features focused on biceps. “Not all of us want to look like men,” she wrote. This is a woman who not only reads women’s lifting magazines, but cares enough to actually write a letter about it! And yet even she finds something distasteful about women with cut biceps.

In fact, you can get a pretty good glimpse into the competing tensions faced by muscular women by looking at these magazines, which dedicate a considerable amount of coverage to the world of fitness and figure competitions. Competitors are regularly dinged by judges and analysts alike for having shoulders that are “too square,” limbs that are “not lean enough,” an overall shape that isn’t hour-glass-y enough. The competitors themselves often compensate for their muscular bodies by kicking the feminine aspects of their appearance into overdrive, with long, flowing hair, heavy make-up, sparkling two-piece swimsuits and quite often, breast implants.

But despite the attempts to bring female bodybuilding more in line with gender stereotypes, the sport is in decline and has been for at least a decade. In its place has arisen the “figure” competition, where women show off muscular bodies that are still compact enough to be considered feminine. And now we are seeing the rise of the “bikini” competition, where women look more like centerfold models than athletes.

So I have to wonder where exactly Loren is getting her idea that female bodybuilding is somehow respectable, because from where I stand, we have a long way to go before we as a society accept heavily muscled women as “women.”

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2 responses to “The ‘respectability’ of female bodybuilders? Not so fast

  1. Hey, in my defense, I don’t think male body builders are attractive either. I constantly tell Matt not to get “too” bulky. Not because I don’t want him to be strong, but because I don’t think it’s attractive. (Besides, men often focus on one or two ares and forget the rest. I think that looks silly!)

    As for the general development of muscles? I miss my arms muscles. I was a BAMF that could knee board the first time I got on and climb trees without blinking. At 175, when I tried to knee board and didn’t have the arm strength to pull myself up, I was hysterical. Nothing could shake my shame and misery. 23 years old and balling on the boat like a small child, kicking the soda cans. Yes, that really happened! I will NEVER, EVER let that happen to me again. Also, I don’t like when I’m not comfortable lifting my own furniture. For years, I always moved my own stuff. Helplessness is NOT an option for me.

    • Yeah, my thing wasn’t so much about the un/attractiveness of body builders as much as it was saying, female bodybuilders are seen as respectable? Really?

      I personally admire their dedication but I also think they have to do some seriously unhealthy things to get their bodies in that shape, and I’m not just talking steroids, either. But I’m not going to concerntroll them about that.

      And yeah, I find it supremely entertaining when guys spend an hour working on their forearms or their traps, while completely neglecting their hamstrings or their calves. I used to run with this kid in high school who would spend hours bench-pressing until he had these really developed pectoral muscles, but they were atop the spindliest little legs you’ve ever seen in your life! We always tried to tell him not to just do his chest but he didn’t listen.

      I would have cried, too, except for the fact that I have NEVER had good arm strength in my life! At least, not until now. So now I’m just delighted when I can lift heavy things because I could never do it before!

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