The Primitive Subject of Female Bodybuilding: Transgression and Other Postmodern Myths
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differences: A Journal of Feminist Cultural Studies 12.3 (2001) 69-100



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The Primitive Subject of Female Bodybuilding: Transgression and Other Postmodern Myths

Marcia Ian


Metamorphosis has a few drawbacks.

(John Acorn, entomologist)

Introduction: All Pumped Up and Nowhere to Go

Since its first official competition in 1977, which featured contestants sporting high heels, female bodybuilding has been a hotbed of gender-related controversy. 1 Some, but by no means all, or even most, female bodybuilders have seen themselves as challenging feminine norms through achieving and displaying the conspicuous strength and muscularity conventionally equated with masculinity. Some sympathetic feminists, historians, and critics, sports sociologists and psychologists, share this view of bodybuilding as contestatory gender performance and use it to bolster their own critiques of normative gender constructs. 2 The title of Alan Klein's insightful book on male muscle culture as a form of petty fascism, Little Big Men, epitomizes what many see as wrong with the men who bodybuild, while the title of Maria R. Lowe's book, Women of Steel, sums up what's right with the women who do so. 3 That the men Klein describes comprise a coherent subculture he could study as a sociologist, while the women Lowe describes comprise, rather, a collection of marginalized individuals, is itself symptomatic of the double standard that the bodybuilding establishment has always applied. Despite [End Page 69] the persistence of this double standard, some feminist critics and theorists think, with Laurie Fierstein, that "females' big muscles have revolutionary implications, metaphorically and corporeally, for both gender and women's empowerment" (137), 4 as if "women of steel" not only represented, but actually achieved, the kinds of gender deconstruction academics perform discursively.

I should say "we women of steel"; I have been a bodybuilder since 1983. 5 In the summer of 1985, shortly before taking my Ph.D orals, I entered two bodybuilding competitions. In the first, I won the women's overall championship, for which I was awarded a medal, a huge trophy, the amusing title "Miss Neptune," and the chance to be photographed supine wearing a mermaid's tail made of aluminum foil. Mr. Neptune stood beside me, holding a trident. The second contest I lost because, I was told, the judges thought that, given my muscle size and definition, I must be on steroids. (They declined to test me.) I am familiar with the physical, intellectual, and psychological benefits and challenges bodybuilding offers women. I am all for gender transgression. Years spent practicing and writing about female bodybuilding, however, have convinced me that, whatever it may mean for any given individual, at the level of cultural discourse or social imaginary, gender transgression is not what bodybuilding is about. 6 ("Bodybuilding" here means not only the activities of an individual in training but more broadly the integrated and highly controlled institution of competitive bodybuilding, including the contests themselves and the combined health and fitness industries, together with the magazines, advertisements, other media, and the audiences and consumers upon which these all depend.)

What bodybuilding does is to yoke the individual's own psychological idealism--her desire to embody or at least resemble (even if takes desperate measures) her own "body image" (a psychological structure that arguably underpins gender in that one has to have a body to gender)--to that of the culture, with its normative gender ideals. Bodybuilding plays a trick: while seeming to encourage men and women to exceed the norm and achieve heroic, outrageous physiques of increasingly "monstrous" proportions, it actually uses these subjects to maintain, even more rigidly than does mainstream culture at large, reactionary norms, themselves "ideals," of masculinity and femininity. Credulous supporters of female bodybuilding who claim it as revolutionary gender transgression idealize their own fictions of transcendence, reinvesting the very fantasies of essence, presence, and autonomy that deconstruction set out to discredit. Exploring the [End Page 70] contradictory idealisms at work in female bodybuilding is the purpose of this essay. In each of the following three sections, the dialectical opposition of transcendence versus immanence--the...