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|
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.