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  • From Abject to Object: Women’s Bodybuilding
  • Marcia Ian

Do muscles have gender, or are they, on the contrary, ungendered human meat? Other than the few muscles associated with their sexual organs, men and women have the same muscles. Does this make muscles neuter, or perhaps neutral? Is there some “difference” between the biceps of a male and those of a female other than, possibly, that of size? If a woman’s biceps, or quadriceps, are bigger than a man’s, are hers more masculine than his? In the eyes of most beholders, the more muscle a woman has, the more “masculine” she is. The same, of course, is true for men: the more muscle a man has, the more masculine he is too. Bodybuilding in a sense is a sport dedicated to wiping out “femininity,” insofar as femininity has for centuries connoted softness, passivity, non-aggressivity, and physical weakness. Eradicating femininity just may be the purpose of both male and female bodybuilders. Even so, for men to wage war on femininity, whether their own or somebody else’s, is nothing new. For women, however, it is. Insofar as women have for centuries obliged cultural expectations by em-bodying femininity as immanent, bodybuilding affords women the opportunity to embody instead a refusal of this embodiment, to cease somewhat to represent man’s complementary (and complimentary) other.

At least this is how it seems to this author, who is: a forty-year old, divorced, atheistic Jewish mother of two teenaged girls; an assistant professor of British and American Literature at a the state univerity of New Jersey; a specialist in modernism, psychoanalysis and gender; and a dedicated “gym rat” who has trained hard and heavy without cease (knock on wood) for about eight years now and during graduate school even entered bodybuilding competitions. As such, I confess, I obviously have various axes to grind (pun intended) which intersect “around” the body as uniquely over-determined site of ambivalent psychosocial signification. From this point of view women’s bodybuilding appears to be roughly equal parts gender vanguardism and exhibitionistic masochism; men’s bodybuilding could in theory be the same, but I have seen no evidence that this is so. Male bodybuilders, on the contrary, seem mainly out to prove that they are conventionally masculine— hyperbolically, FEROCIOUSLY so.

Furthermore, the sport of bodybuilding, as marketed and represented by those enterprises founded by Joe and Ben Weider, including magazines like Flex and Muscle and Fitness (published by “I, Brute Enterprises, Inc.”) and contests like the Mr. and Ms. Olympia, as well as various less powerful rival organizations, reproduces ad nauseam all the cliches of masculinism from the barbarous to the sublime. This remains true despite the fact that in recent years the top female competitors have displayed increasing amounts of hard striated muscle. I had hoped to find in the gym a communal laboratory for experimental gender-bending, perhaps a haven for the gender-bent, or at the least a democratic republic biologically based on the universality of human musculature. This laboratory, this haven, this republic, however, remains a utopic and private space, a delusion in effect, because what goes on in the gym, as in bodybuilding competition, remains the violent re-inscription of gender binarism, of difference even where there is none. As Jane Gallop pointed out, in Western culture gender is no “true” binary or antithesis but rather an algorithm of one and zero. Bodybuilding expands the equivalence “male is to female as one is to zero” to include the specious antithesis of muscle and femininity.

Spurious gender difference is maintained and rewarded in bodybuilding through the discriminatory valorization of certain aesthetic categories. Indeed bodybuilding tries to limit the achievements of female physique athletes by adding “femininity” to the list of aesthetic categories they are expected to fulfill. The film Pumping Iron II: The Women (1985) dramatically documents this sexism by recording a conflict which erupts in a sequestered conference room among those judging the 1983 “Miss Olympia” (now the “Ms. Olympia”), America’s most prestigious bodybuilding competition for women. A man apparently serving his first stint as judge is puzzled and angry to find that he is supposed to judge the...

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