Big female bodybuilders seem to transgress what is socially constructed as the „natural female beauty ideal“. In the long tradition of the modern scientific discourse they are thus constructed as unnatural, sick, ugly or as Freaks or Monsters that need to be constraint, controlled or tamed.
Female bodybuilding as a cultural phenomenon emerged according to Leslie Heywood alongside the 2nd wave feminist movement and can be regarded as a kind of feminist activism. A strategy for women to reclaim their bodies as their own. A female body that represents strength, not traditional female weakness, not defined by softness and openness but with boundaries and by hardness.
According to Heywood female bodybuilders:
“(…) take up space. Their bodies are armored. They say “I am here I do exist my outlines are fixed you can’t mess with me, mess any openness around ‘cause I’m already here and I’m saying it.” Female bodybuilders are disturbing because they stand against the abject openness associated with traditional femininity and give themselves some borders, a reality stark as stone.”(16)
What looking at pictures of big female bodybuilders show also, is that the clear-cut visual sexual difference of men as big and strong and women as small and weak is no longer possible. The myth of the oh-so natural and normal differences between men and women become apparent. What becomes clear is that women and men could and can look more alike than a lot of people are willing or wanting to see. This of course produces anxiety, especially since women are not supposed to be physically taller, stronger or bigger than men.
For a very short time in the 80s and 90s women in the bodybuilding subculture where allowed alongside men to try to master and transform their bodies freely and to try to become the best at it. They were allowed to buy into the American ideal of individualism: meaning the cultural belief in self-determinacy and self-transformation.
According to Heywood this all changed with the advent of the new right in the 1990s though and if we look at what has happened since then we see the insidiousness of a system of gender (women’s) oppression that adapts almost effortlessly to cultural change by reversing and appropriating the argument of the progressive left. It makes apparent how female (bodybuilding) monsters become once again tamed, constrained and controlled.
This is, according to Leslie Heywood, what happened: The fitness industry was promoted and with it the “fitness woman”, thus marginalizing female bodybuilders. Simultaneously Female bodybuilders were re-constructed as sexual objects to alleviate male anxiety and were no longer regarded as athletes and this was then legitimized as it is often done nowadays by claiming that this was their free choice.
The problem of how masculine a female bodybuilder can look without losing her femininity and how this should be judged in contest was there from the very beginning of the sport. In 1994 fitness competitions were added to the contests. This was done according to Weider to
“Involve those women who present a leaner, more streamlined look than the more muscular, more genetically gifted women. (…) [To] give the general public a truer guide to the full range of physiques that weight training can offer.”
This “inclusiveness” of course has a paradoxical effect since competing for something always means exclusion and it can be argued that this more “inclusive” direction is undermining the very principle of the sport.
Another effect of including, the until, then excluded “fitness woman” is according to Heywood:
“To include the very standard of femininity that has functioned to exclude large female bodies of any kind from its parameters. (…) to include what has always excluded, to reinstitute a center that has never been at the margins [and] (…) under the guise of providing a “wider range of physiques” he [Weider] reinscribes the small, lean, compact female body as the standard.”(44)
The new “fitness woman” because she adhered more to standards of traditionally femininity was more marketable to a large male audience and more and more soft-porn and swimsuit pictorials featuring no longer athletes but sexualized almost nude female bodies became the norm.
This produced the effect that traditional standards of women as sex-objects gained power once again and big female bodybuilders in order to financially succeed had to adapt to this by for example getting breast implants, having long hair, wearing fake nails, putting on make-up, or by making them leave the “big” business and becoming a fitness woman.
According to Heywood:
“In the late nineties, at least 80 percent of the top women bodybuilders in the U.S. have gotten breast implants. The most recent and visible example is Ericca Kern, who got implants in 1996 and was only then featured in shots that show her chest whereas before her chest was never visible. Women like Kern do so to replace the breasts that are naturally lost through the process of bodybuilding, since the attainment of a chiseled physique means that breasts, which are primarily composed of fat, become very small. All of the women who have appeared in the Flex pictorials have implants. “Natural feminine softness”- surgically constructed.” (35ff.)
This is of course, seen as the free choice of an individual and not as an effect of a system that tries to, once again control and normalize the female body and Susan Bordo rightfully states:
“Viewed historically, the discipline and normalization of the female body (…) has to be acknowledged as an amazingly durable and flexible strategy of social control” (166)
Female Bodybuilding as a feminist strategy of self-empowerment was thus re-constructed and female transgressive bodies that made the social construction of sexual difference obvious and upset the traditional stereotypes associated with femininity became commoditized and sexualized again. The female (bodybuilding) monsters were (sexually) tamed, the anxiety they produced was contained and their power constrained. Patriarchy’s mission was accomplished.
Bordo, Susan. Unbearable Weight. Berkeley: California Press, 1993.
Heywood, Leslie. Bodymakers- A cultural anatomy of women’s body building. New Brunswick (NJ): Rutgers UP, 1998.
“A Regular Joe,” Flex 12, no.7 (September 1994): 21-22.