Female Bodybuilding: Empowering or Restrictive?

Research Question:
Does bodybuilding empower women to break the constructs of femininity or constrain them? And how does the sexualized male gaze, counter-culture sport, and hegemonic masculinity affect the answer?

“Chapter Six: A Woman’s Place is in the…Cardiovascular Room?” from Athletic Intruders: Ethnographic Research on Women, Culture, and Exercise
This article discusses a lot of the gender dynamics that can be observed in the gym. On nearly any given day, the “proportion of men to women in the weight room … is approximately eighty/twenty or ninety/ten” (Dworkin). Additionally, aerobics classes are usually entirely female and cardiovascular rooms are mostly all women (Dworkin). Dworkin’s observations are consistent with my own in that no matter the day of the week or time of day, women stick to the cardio sections, and men dominate the weight areas. The gym is a place where “the meaning of gender has been negotiated and contested, and where many women have been empowered by the self-definition of their own bodies” (Dworkin). However, although many fitness activities make women feel strong, their experiences are limited by fit, slender, toned bodily ideals that do not come naturally or easily. So there is both empowerment and undermining.

“Sex and Muscle: The Female Body Meets Lacan”

This article discussed more of how the image of female bodybuilders is not helpful in displaying them as role models. The bodies of bodybuilders who are women actually evoke “something much more powerful than a mere aesthetic preference or choice of one kind of look over another…something with a violent cant emerges” (Aoki). What emerges is a rhetoric of discomfort, disgust, threat, and even anger. Flex Magazine, a popular fitness magazine, photographs female bodybuilders when they are “softer” to “dispel the myth of the female bodybuilder masculinity” (Aoki). In order to avoid the negative feelings provoked by photographs of female bodybuilders who appear too “massive,” some magazines choose to display them in softer states. Female bodybuilders, who are extremely muscular must over-compensate for their seemingly masculine bodies; they wear glittery g-strings and sparkly high heels to appeal to the sexualized male gaze. I find this instance similar to how female athletes competing in  primarily male sports must over-sexualize their bodies in order to “re-establish” their femininity and sex appeal.

“On the Muscle”

Here Laurie Schulze’s work, we are again dealing with  men’s reaction to the muscular female body as a “kind of self-imposed freak of nature” (Schulze). However, Schulze brings up how female bodybuilders almost always mention the delightful increased sexual attention they receive from men attracted to their physicality. This set of meanings “constructed around the female bodybuilder guarantees that weight training makes women more sensual” (Schulze). Since its now more commonly known that weight training increases sexual endurance, “it is common sense in this discourse that her body work will function to heighten his sexual pleasure” (Schulze). Here we can see female bodybuilders’ athleticism empowering them to give full range to their sex drives. Schulze also explains that “biology–a system of meaning allegedly beyond work, beyond sociality, beyond ideology–is invoked to defuse the threat female bodybuilding poses to sexual difference and gender differentiation.”

Female Bodybuilders: Women With Penises

Female Bodybuilders: Women With Penises

Works Cited:

Aoki, Doug. “Sex and Muscle: The Female Bodybuilder Meets Lacan.” Body and Society. 2.59. (1996). Sage Publications, 1996. Web. 27 Feb. 2014.                                  <http://bod.sagepub.com/content/2/4/59.short&gt;

Dworkin, Shari. “A Woman’s Place Is In the…Cardiovascular Room? Gender Relations, the Body, and the Gym.” Athletic Intruders: Ethnographic Research on Women, Culture, and Exercise. Suny Press, 2003. Web. 27 Feb. 2014. <http://books.google.com/books?hl=en&lr=&id=iaFxJK9pPigC&oi=fnd&pg=PA131&dq=gender+dynamics+at+the+gym&ots=87mMseza_1&sig=aMr-8y0eRts0rdtGaj1Xj4EjF70#v=onepage&q&f=false&gt;

Schulze, Laurie. “On the Muscle.” Building Bodies. Rutgers University Press, 1997. Web. 27 Feb. 2014. <http://books.google.com/books?hl=en&lr=&id=k1uD3rGvUbEC&oi=fnd&pg=PA74&dq=female+bodybuilding&ots=EdpmTmUfAx&sig=56rH5GTRoKJusIc7_9kSRywRlJ8#v=onepage&q=female%20bodybuilding&f=false&gt;


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1 Response to Female Bodybuilding: Empowering or Restrictive?

  1. Sarah McCullough says:

    Female bodybuilding has been a site of fascination for sport studies scholars, a phenomenon in itself that I find interesting. I speculate that the ways these athletes form their body to occupy such a liminal position between masculinity and femininity fascinates scholars, particularly those concerned with the social construction of gender. How do you see female bodybuilding relating to the athletic femininity discussed by scholars such as Heywood in the course reading? There is other literature by Heywood on bodybuilding that you might enjoy. I have a book with a chapter that may be interesting. If you are interested, let me know.

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