For many women, bodybuilding (i.e., sculpting one’s body through rigorous diet and training to develop muscle size) is an empowering activity. Heavy weightlifting increases muscular strength and size, and enhances one’s physical capacity. For women, bodybuilding can be empowering because a muscular female body defies our traditional understanding of a feminine body as a one that is small, weak, fragile, and limited. A female bodybuilder – someone who has, through years of strength training, gained a considerable amount of visible muscularity – challenges these stereotypes of femininity, forcing us to critically examine and reconsider our taken-for-granted knowledge of the female physique and its capabilities. Bodybuilding allows women to push against and break free from these societal boundaries, providing a space for empowerment.
Muscularity is typically viewed as a masculine trait. Our culture often discourages women from developing “too much” muscle and becoming “too” strong. Fitness magazines are filled with pictures of female athletes and fitness models who display “just the right amount” of muscularity, to remind us that muscle on women can be an enhancement to some extent, as long as it doesn’t become too visible or defiant (of gender norms). The photos of fitness models or bodybuilders in these magazines are often Photoshopped to conceal the amount or visibility of their muscles. Fitness magazines tell us, implicitly or explicitly, that visible muscularity diminishes a woman’s (hetero)sexual appeal, and that the ultimate goal of bodybuilding for women is to achieve heterosexual desirability (femininity and heterosexuality are perceived as inextricable, and our social constructions of the two often go hand-in-hand). Such magazine images produce the message that it is unbecoming of women to engage in the type of heavy weightlifting that diminishes their femininity and heterosexual desirability, both of which are contradicted by “excessive” muscularity. In collective, these messages reinforce the idea that strength and power, and ultimately ability, are a male domain in which a woman has little to no business or place.
Fitness magazines are just one example of an outlet through which messages and norms around femininity and muscularity are produced and naturalized. There are many other ways in which we socially learn that muscularity and femininity are contradictory and that visible muscularity is culturally frowned upon for women. Forms of femininity that fall outside of what is conventionally considered “normal” produce a sort of social unease and anxiety which manifest themselves in negative reactions. Female muscularity is an example of “abnormal” femininity, and the negative social reactions to it include hostility, ridicule, disgust, and confusion. These reactions can be thought of as forms of punishment for those who stray away from the norm, a way in which gender expression is policed and controlled in society, and the gender order maintained.
So while the empowering aspect of bodybuilding may be attractive to some women, the cultural repulsion of visible muscle on the female body might be an inhibiting factor for many women, discouraging them from getting involved in strength training and bodybuilding. Many of us know or have female friends who refuse to lift heavy weights in the fear of becoming “too muscular”. On the other hand, there are still women who love bodybuilding, seek muscle, and set out to acquire the type of visible muscularity that is traditionally shunned by society. I studied this group of women in my master’s degree research, and I noticed that the most common form of gender expression among female bodybuilders is filled with paradoxes. The most glaring paradox is the bodybuilders’ efforts to be simultaneously (super) muscular and (super) feminine. In fact, to display hyper-femininity is a requirement at women’s bodybuilding competitions. Competitors are required to look/be feminine in order to be viewed favorably by judges. This means having a feminine posing style on stage and visually creating a look that is judged as feminine (this includes the hair, makeup, nails, jewellery, competition suit and shoes).
In my master’s research, I analyzed the social forces that cause this paradox in female bodybuilding, specifically in fitness competitions, by interviewing several female fitness competitors and attending fitness competitions and events. Visible muscularity is a form of gender expression that defies sexist stereotypes of womanhood as being physically weak, incapable, fragile and dependant. Yet, presenting oneself in a hyper-feminine form seems to contradict this and counteract the empowerment derived from bodybuilding. But perhaps this is exactly the point: deviating from the norm, as I argued earlier, creates a type of social anxiety for both the constructor of deviance and the observer, and after deliberately constructing a body that is not mainstream, some female bodybuilders attempt to reconcile their “unconventional” bodies with the standard ideals by (over)conforming to conventional femininity.
It is also important to remember that female bodybuilders, just like all of us, live in a cultural environment that constantly bombards us with messages about what is feminine and what is attractive. While the bodybuilding subculture might perceive muscularity as an enhancement to femininity (i.e., an alternative ideal of femininity), the broader culture considers a different set of characteristics to be feminine. Female bodybuilders are exposed to both of these sets of values and are therefore constantly negotiating the contradictions and tensions between these two cultures. The desire to gain strength and muscle, and yet to follow what society tells you constitutes femininity, may lead to paradoxical behaviors and to an image of a female bodybuilder that, from a conventional lens, is overridden with contradictions.
So…is bodybuilding an act of accepting or resisting dominant ideals of femininity? I think it is both, particularly within bodybuilding competitions where the norms are policed and regulated by the federation. But it must be emphasized that building “deviant” bodies is inherently an act of resistance to the norm, regardless of the efforts to police, tame or revert the body. Bodybuilding for women, as an intentional effort to construct a body that challenges sexist stereotypes of femininity, is an act of empowerment, and a muscled female body is an empowered body, even if it is at just the symbolic level.
Bahar Tajrobehkar is a PhD candidate in the Faculty of Kinesiology and Physical Education at the University of Toronto. She can be reached email (firstname.lastname@example.org).