Originally published in CAP November/December 2012.
“Most people don’t take me as having four children and being a grandma. They are shocked that I have that kind of life,” Leah confided.
“Oh, well, I don’t find that shocking,” I replied hesitantly, even though I actually did not feel shocked.
Leah erupted in laughter, “Well, I’m sorry I didn’t shock you!” She sat back in her chair, arms crossed, bikini-clad with a prize medal around her neck. As embarrassed as I felt about coming across as bored or unimpressed, I was still completely interested in Leah and her sport of choice. She doesn’t look like my grandmother, and, chances are, she probably doesn’t look like yours, either. Leah is a professional bodybuilder.
This summer, I spoke with a handful of female bodybuilders who were competing in the 2012 Naturally Fit Super Show in Cedar Park, Texas. The women I spoke with were professional and amateur, younger and older, mothers and, like Leah, grandmothers.
Bodybuilding is rather unique when compared to other competitive sports. Football, basketball, swimming, and tennis, to name a few, all require substantial conditioning in order for the athlete to endure the physical impact they present. Bodybuilding, however, is athleticism without the heavy impact, only the extreme discipline. Like dance and other performance art media, bodybuilders see the body as a canvas where, unlike a painting or sculpture, the artist and materials are merged. The sculptor and the sculpted are one and the same.
“The body can be molded into so many different shapes,” said Cheri, a thirty year-old mother of four. “I do [see bodybuilding] as an art form. “ Many of the women I interviewed likened their bodies to marble, reinforcing the connection between art and bodybuilding.
Like many artists who use their media subversively, female bodybuilders can also do so by transgressing socially constructed gender boundaries through advanced muscular development. The rules of bodybuilding competitions offset the progress of a muscular woman, however. She must also subdue her (manly) muscularity with “beauty,” which can result in better scores for women with breast implants, or other “feminine” indicators. According to the guidelines of certain bodybuilding organizations, muscles can be either male or female.
The National Physique Committee (NPC) defines femininity without regarding it as such. On their website, the guidelines do little to identify what is feminine, instead bluntly stating what is not. “These words can be helpful to assess what should not be descriptive to the physiques being judged in women’s physique: Ripped, shredded, peeled, striated, dry, diced, hard, vascular, grainy, massive, thick, dense, etc.” What the NPC is suggesting is these adjectives are only suitable for describing men. Women must fall within certain categories left undefined by the NPC, save for the gracious guidelines of the “bikini” category, which only require a “model walk” in high heels and avoid aggressively calling into question the femininity of their contestants in this category. Large muscles, for reasons obvious to the NPC, immediately negate femininity.
Leah’s experience with the shock of others when she reveals her four kids and grandchild demonstrates how the developed musculature of a woman can disrupt conventional gender norms. Leah’s life extends beyond “men have muscles/women don’t,” and while she is able to perform in the professional bodybuilding circuit, she also lives her life as a mother and grandmother. A muscular grandmother is an image that invokes both masculine and feminine connotations, but how exactly does this subvert social constructions of gender?
Despite the guidelines of the NPC, female participation in bodybuilding can still reject oppressive standards of femininity. By presenting their muscles to a mass audience, female bodybuilders celebrate the fluidity of femininity and masculinity.
“I had always been a cardio-queen,” said one enthusiastic bodybuilder who simply went by B. “I was a cheerleader, gymnast, tumbler, and found a new passion in lifting… Being able to all of a sudden curl thirty-five pounds or bench-press a hundred forty-five I thought, ‘Oh my God, this is amazing!’ I just felt strong and [empowered].” B, who runs a tattoo shop when she’s not competing, understands the stigma attached to muscular female bodies. B’s experience and her perception of the female body, however, allows her to view muscularity as beneficial to her feminine performance. “I think [bodybuilding] can be…so beautiful…All of a sudden you’re developing a graceful [flow].”
Tiffany, a former ballerina, lamented her body’s natural inclination to build muscle quickly. Muscularity is a quality, she said, that is frowned upon by the ballet community. Similar to B, Tiffany also finds grace and beauty in her performance. “There’s a way that you can [build muscle] where it looks masculine…[but] I feel like you can bring a grace to it, and it really becomes a beautiful thing when you really know how to control yourself and add that graceful flair to [bodybuilding].”
Their comments bring up an interesting rift between muscularity and femininity that suggests the two are mutually exclusive. While B and Tiffany connect their muscularity with popular notions of beauty assigned to the female body — grace and beauty — they also address how they can use common masculine traits — “bulk” or size — as tools to enhance their femininity, not negate it.
Female bodybuilding is subversive performance art that defies the prevailing definitions of gender. These artists are able to sculpt a nuanced image of the female body, defying beliefs that view muscular women as unnatural, unfeminine. Indeed, women can be ripped, shredded, massive, and in complete control of their bodies.
“The performance aspect [of bodybuilding],” Leah expressed, “can be very inspirational and meaningful when you can present yourself to the rest of the world in this way.” Leah looked at me with a confident smile and polished her medal. ◥