Sunday 6 October 2013

Female Bodybuilding

I was going to include this topic in my post on Androgyny, but the more I read about it, the more I thought it was worthy of a post by itself.

I am supportive of women's equality with men in every arena. Female police officers, firefighters and soldiers wouldn't provoke the least reaction in me. Likewise, I am supportive of women's equality in the intellectual fields: science, academia and politics. But, I must admit, I find female bodybuilding to be a puzzle.
Something inside so strong?

Let's take men's bodybuilding first, and in a Darwinian sense. If we take mammals as a whole, males demonstrate (and in some cases prove) their reproductive suitability to females by physical prowess: by jousting with other males. Nature tends to have equipped males with more powerful musculature; a stronger frame; bigger teeth, tusks or horns; and with a tendency to aggression which includes a willingness to fight. From a female's point of view, it makes sense to mate with the alpha: his genes will tend to make the offspring stronger and more robust; more able to fight off predators, more able to withstand harsh conditions, and in their turn, more likely to pass on their genes to their own offspring.

Humans are exempted from none of this. Until the last couple of centuries or so, human reproductive success still favoured physical robustness, and our leaders tended to be great big lads who were handy with a sword. Speaking as a physical weakling, I like to think that we are getting to the point where we can recognise other measures of reproductive success, such as intelligence ("Brainy is the new sexy").

So I can understand why men want to compete at trials of physical strength. Rugby, for example, is a ritualised form of warfare, where the sides are deliberately matched, and the blades and cudgels left out, but the aggression, the grappling, and the testosterone persist. Other football variants permit different quantities of physicality, though the basic premise remains. In part, men are driven to compete by their genes; people who cheer from the sidelines are competing vicariously, and their emotional involvement can be dramatic and intense.

 Bodybuilder Debi Laszewski in 2011

We call it "brute strength" because we tend to associate great human physical strength with coarseness, animal behaviour, and a lack of finesse or intelligence (as in the phrase "brute force and ignorance"). None of this is necessarily true, of course.

Bodybuilding is not entirely about strength, but about display; the tanned, waxed, oiled skin; the deliberate poses and choreography; and the delineation of every last fascicle and fibre of the musculature (and what is it with those veins?). There is a clear difference between the physique of the bodybuilder and that of the weight lifter. But for me, bodybuilding is all about masculinity, and the display of physical strength is a very masculine trait. And they are not judged on their strength or athletic prowess, but merely their appearance.

Enter the women. According to the Wikipedia article, female competitive bodybuilding only really got going in the last 30 years, and is on the rise. Female bodybuilding competitions are now routinely staged alongside male bodybuilding competitions, although the prize money is approximately 1/10 as much.
Women: muscling in?

Female bodybuilders may claim that they are attempting to achieve a balance of athleticism, fitness, flexibility and strength, rather than simply to bulk up with beef. Bodybuilder Debi Laszewski comments: I believe I have an incredible amount of mature muscle on my frame and, that said, a balanced physique. I also try to maintain my feminine lines.

Has she managed this?

Afghanistan and Malaysia have banned female bodybuilding outright. And some female bodybuilders use anabolic or androgenic steroids as a way of increasing their muscle mass. Steroids bulk you up all right, but also threaten fertility and can produce masculinising side-effects, including deepening of the voice and male-pattern baldness.

That rigid diet and punishing exercise regime, designed to cut out body fat and replace it all with lean muscle, inevitably causes breasts to shrink and all but disappear. Female bodybuilders either need to accept that, or get breast implants.

In 1992, concerned that female bodybuilders were too muscular, the International Federation of Body Builders attempted to feminise the sport by introducing rules which penalised excessively muscular contestants. Later, in 2005, the IFBB introduced the controversial "20% rule", which was "that female athletes in Bodybuilding, Fitness and Figure decrease the amount of muscularity by a factor of 20%". The memo stated that the request "applies to those female athletes whose physiques require the decrease". It seemed that even bodybuilders thought the women were getting too big.
A picture of vulnerability?

So what do I think about all this? First, back to the men. I can understand the idea of a man wanting to be big and strong, and to look big and strong. On the other hand, for me, it isn't aesthetically pleasing in the least: I think those inflated physiques look unattractive and off-putting. Though I learned today, with a certain weariness, that there is a sexual fetish associated with touching or rubbing the bodies of highly-muscled people, and that some impecunious bodybuilders submit to this as a means of supplementing their income.

For a woman, then, it's hard to think of anything conventionally feminine about bodybuilding at all. I totally understand the pursuit of health, tone, flexibility and fitness, but to me, this path leads to the physique of a rower, rather than a bodybuilder. Women who bodybuild have the distorted physiques of the men, but in addition, they have the lipstick, the heels, and the long hair (and sometimes the obvious breast implants). This juxtaposition of masculine and feminine features sometimes makes these women very strange to look at indeed. It's worth taking a look at this article, in which celebrity photographer Martin Schoeller takes portraits of female bodybuilders (I have borrowed two for this post). Schoeller writes: I am trying to show the vulnerability that I see and feel in the subjects when I am with them, to get to the complex emotions behind a mask of extreme physical expression.

What are those complex emotions? What form does that vulnerability take? What are those women searching for? How do they feel about themselves? I don't have those answers; you will need to find your own.

Strong Arms of the Ma
My final point is this. If women want to compete in bodybuilding, and they want to bulk up their bodies in this way, they should be allowed to do so unfettered. In the statement above from the IFBB, what they were really saying was "some of you are too big and too muscular; you need to cut back by 20%. Who does this apply to? Well, it's obvious, isn't it? You know who you are". I couldn't find the full statement to read, so there may have been explanations, but perhaps their own sport's governing body was telling bodybuilding women not to get too muscular. Not, perhaps, for health and safety reasons, or other understandable, if wearisome, competition regulations. No, just perhaps because even the sport's own governing body thinks female bodybuilding is unladylike.

For a different but related subject, I refer you to my article about Women with Beards.

Addendum: 30th December 2014

Over the last couple of months or so, this post has become one of the most popular on this blog. On the other hand, nobody has left a comment for ages. If this subject interests you, or upsets you, or arouses you, please leave a comment for discussion.

I came across an episode of The Simpsons entitled Strong Arms of the Ma, in which Marge gets mugged. As a result of feeling vulnerable, she takes up bodybuilding to feel stronger and safer. Though she builds a lot of muscle, unfortunately the steroids cause her to become aggressive and mean. The critics' response to the episode was largely negative. When done well, The Simpsons is a powerful and insightful parody, but it doesn't look like they hit the sweet spot with this episode.


  1. I have never understood the appeal. Back in the day when he was still doing it, I thought Ahhhnold looked like a circus freak, and the ladies in these pictures are just as hideous to me. Even more disturbing is the change of skin color... it almost looks like their faces have been photoshopped onto more tanned bodies.

    Don't get me wrong, I admire and appreciate physical fitness. The excess weight my wife and I both carry around is discouraging (and put an early end to our sex life as arthritis set in) and I do try to keep exercising to burn off some of that flab and keep my muscles usable. A healthy weight (neither under- nor overweight) gal who is physically active and shows it in her endurance and self-sufficiency is a big turn-on for me. But there's a huge chasm between keeping your body physically fit and growing muscles that take over your life.

    I do agree, though, that there should not be a double standard. If the women want to look as disfigured as the men in the same sport, the same standards should apply.

    1. Hi Ralph,

      I agree about the skin colour. I thought perhaps some of the faces had indeed been digitally grafted onto the bodies!


    2. With all due respect -and accepting that there are surely many things to be critical about the bodybuilding field-, I think that you missed the depth of this issue because you are using only your own aesthetic and sociobiological criteria, not those of the people who practice and actually enjoy what you are finding “very strange to look at”. As probably most people, who may also feel “disturbed” before these “constructed” bodies… or before other kind of “body-modifications”.

      Yes, the sports’ governing institutions may think that “too much” mucle” (or anabolics) as unladylike. But would you, who enjoy expressing yourself out of the box on gender matters, concede these institutions the right to norm what must be feminine or masculine to you?

      What is disgusting to someone may be beautiful to other people. If you ask bodybuilders you may find a myriad of values into their inner experience, such as finding emotional strength on conquering hard goals, not only inflating their Egos by showing off their hardly made bodies. Also, most bodybuilders do not get nor they want to reach that international competitive level you use as example.

      There is also the sexual fetish aspect you mention, that goes well beyond of “impecunious” bodybuilders in need of money for their expensive food supplements and meds.

      There are thousands of straight males in this world who like to be dominated by overweighted, “ugly” ladies who undeniably can surpass and switch off their controlling “masculine” minds, opening up their capacity to FEEL. There are the ones whose sexual preference are gorgeous Amazons who work out very hard and offer them specialties such as “muscle worship” or “lift and carry”… and there are others who enjoy “role reversal “ and beg to be strap-on pegged by beautiful ”ladylike” ladies as myself!

      So what?

      Congrats on your blog, and please point me to the link to add it to my reading list on blogger. I rather not to need to log in at other “social media” to be able to follow, thank you.

    3. Hi Domme Jaguar,

      Many thanks for posting your perspective. I am always pleased to have input from other people.

      This blog discusses a wide spectrum of human activity, without intending to offend or insult anyone. On the other hand, it is reasonable for me to indicate my own feelings on any topic. By my own aesthetic, female bodybuilders (and the guys too) look strange to me. I attempted to explore the motivations of people who deliberately alter their bodies to look like they do. The fact that they do, and enjoy it (or, presumably, they wouldn't do it) is given: I have no criticisms to offer. (And I accept that pictures of me as Vivienne would doubtless look "very strange indeed" to someone else; in fact, I would be a bit surprised if they didn't).

      I do wonder if bodybuilders have something in common with men who alter their bodies to look more feminine (or vice versa), or people who have extreme tattoos or piercings or other modifications.

      Although I admitted that bodybuilders look "strange", I didn't use the word "ugly" or suggest these people are disgusting. Your post implies that I did.

      As for the role of men and women. I have no desire to dominate women in any form, nor to be dominated by them. I do not consider my masculine mind to be controlling, and I do not have any difficulty exploring and expressing my feelings on a wide range of subjects. For men who enjoy being tied up and spanked by a woman, good luck to them; but I do wonder what it says about their inner feelings about the relationship between the sexes.

      I am delighted that you enjoy this blog, and I hope you will feel welcome to post your thoughts on any of the other topics in my archive. If you want to add the URL to your Blogger reading list, you should be able to do so by pasting into the Blogger reading list. It should then offer you the opportunity to follow the blog publicly or privately. There should be no need to log into any other social media.

      Kind regards,


  2. Thank you Vivienne, I did not think that "strange" or so means directly "ugly" but somehow "hard to understand".

    I did not feel insulted nor I mean to undervalue your own opinions as that, either (I am not bodybuilder nor I am "unpecunious" no offense taken ;) I only thought that your view was incomplete because it did not include the view of those who enjoy and appreciate what you found "strange".

    I did appreciate that you were being critical on the gender facet of the issue and regard you as a serious thinker, that is why I took the trouble of writing and the reason I am putting your blog in my list, already.

    I think that there are many other sides of the "role reversal", "gender transformation" and "mirroring" within the BDSM/Fetish realm that would be worthy of analysis. I would say that this is a whole field of "gender games" that would need a widely open mind to view how liberally identity, role, fetish, play, and other categories interact. Though, at the end, I think that these games -as all kind of human "play"- are to be... enjoyed.

    Of course I do not think that anybody owns "The" truth. Moreover, I do not think anybody could claim to have a "complete" understanding of anything.

    Nice to start my day with this, best wishes!

    1. Hi Domme Jaguar,

      I must say, you are much more polite than I would expect from a dominatrix to a transvestite! On the other hand, please let's maintain this tone, which I find very helpful.

      I am bursting with questions to ask you about what you do. I am certain that you have a very different perspective to offer than mine. I am very interested in your point about "gender games". I suppose there are some people who are basically comfortable in their normal gender roles, but who like to explore facets of gender identity in play, or even in a BDSM context.

      But my question to you is this: when you meet your bank manager, do you have respect for him? Or do you secretly imagine he wants to be handcuffed to a table and whipped with cold spaghetti? Or perhaps you even have the idea, that if he is a bit rude or offhand, that such an activity might do him some good?


  3. While serving in the Navy many years ago I knew a young man that was grossly overweight and out of shape. One day he went to the gym and started lifting weight. He began eating right and after a time people at the gym began to take him seriously and assisted him in lifting weights correctly. He continued on his path and eventually transformed his body into an incredible mass of beautifully cut muscles. He began competing in the Mr. Hawaii competitions and won honors for his appearance. I met him after his transformation but attended a couple of his competitions and met some of the men & women he lifted with. I found them all passionate about their health and physique's. I began to learn about different muscle types and how they worked and their functions in the body. Mostly I gained respect for these individuals. I now look at body building differently than before. I see the beauty of the individual muscle being challenged and cut to precision. I am not a muscle bound man or woman, but I would suggest you try looking at the individual muscles rather than lumping these muscle builders into a lump by of "muscle bound hulks."

    Luvs .... Janice