The Language of the Female Physique


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The Language of the Female Physique
By Lisa Bavington
IFBB Pro bodybuilder


The female physique continues to be a constant topic of debate between those intent on controlling it and those who wish to be freed from its constraints, as women strive to become separated from how the world views their bodies. A woman’s gender role requires the strict adherence to the ideal female form judged by standards of femininity that are culturally specific and historically located designed to keep her in a perpetual state of weakness. There are numerous examples from popular culture which outlines how women’s power has become dictated by the media, their weakness embedded in a language that glamorizes addiction and their continued participation reinforced through the adoption of Western standards of beauty across the globe in a deliberate intent to create and maintain control over their body and mind. The combination of these efforts serve to keep women’s progress under wraps and prevent them from attaining any real form of power or sense of control over their lives.

Sexualization of Female Athletes

The prevailing attitude remains that in order for a woman to be successful in any area that has been traditionally a male pursuit, she must exhibit a level of sexual attractiveness that appeals to some socially created standard of femininity. Through the direct influences of mass media, female gender roles have been influenced by what sociologist Morag Macsween calls the "irreconcilability of individuality and femininity, the way individuality, despite its surface presentation as a gender-neutral category, is culturally associated with the masculine.1 Terms such as femininity and masculinity have become part of our everyday language designed to define acceptable standards and limits on what members of each gender are able to accomplish.

There is no greater example of this that exists than in the portrayal of the female bodybuilder, as our culture continues to undermine the efforts of female athletes by humiliating and exploiting their physiques as a way to cater to male sexual desire. Female bodybuilders challenge the shared assumption that men are, and will always be, more powerful than women. Society has continued to over sexualize women’s bodies in a concerted effort to diminish them from attaining any real power, as it is much easier to accept a muscular woman if she is portrayed as overtly sexual. As a result, women have learned to justify and/or apologize for their physical development in order to be accepted by a population who fails to understand it.

While male identity relies on being able to give the impression of being strong, in learning to become female, girls are taught to project a physical presence that speaks of latent vulnerability.2 The message relayed to young women is not to get too strong or too muscular and to stay smaller, so as to seem weaker than the boys.3 The women themselves have held back their progress for fear of being punished for their accomplishments by an industry that has set them up to be in constant competition with one another for their femininity, rather than their physiques.

The irony is that, as women, female bodybuilders have acknowledged society’s view of the feminine ideal, chosen to reject it, yet still allow themselves to be judged by it. Many of these women have a vested interest in proclaiming their femininity and attempt to resolve the conflict by over emphasing their feminine side with makeup, jewelry, provocative clothing and constant references to their boyfriends.4 As more and more women buy into this concept, it no longer becomes necessary to reinforce it as they begin to perpetuate it among themselves.

In an attempt to redefine what constitutes an acceptable level of muscularity on the female physique, female bodybuilders have had their images replaced with toned down versions of themselves. It is not that the public cannot accept muscular women, it’s that they can’t grasp the connection between what most find represents a contradiction in terms. On the one hand their image portrays a rejection to the ideal female form and, on the other, an attempt to make up for it. Female bodybuilders have been taught to equate their value as athletes from their level of sexual attractiveness, and allow others to judge them solely on this basis.

Women with muscle are thought to be particularly offensive to a number of mainstream publications as they contradict notions of gender appropriateness. The fitness industry continues to attack female bodybuilders who they neither feature in their magazine, support with their products or value as their target market. This sexist attitude towards muscular women is clearly a conscious effort on the part of the mainstream media to appeal to an adolescent audience that is highly predictable.

As women have gotten physically stronger, homophobia has gotten increasingly more powerful to keep up with the demand. Outside of the world of female muscle, a fear of having their schools overrun with lesbians has influenced many local athletic directors not to add girls’ sports, such as basketball, to their schools varsity programs. In the US, College coaches began using lesbianism as a negative recruiting tool.5 The WNBA also made an attempt to represent the Association in a way that would counteract the public’s fears about the players and the sport being homosexual.

Enter the Myth of the "Mannish" woman and the treatment and criticism of successful female athletes in recent years. In the 1960’s women in different international competitions were required to present themselves to a panel of judges for visual examination of their genitalia and later, the "Barr" sex test was implemented to ensure that each athlete had two complete XX and no Y-chromosomes.7 Martina Navratilova was criticized as she couldn’t possibly be a "real" woman, being portrayed as some type of misfit, an Amazon, "a bleached blonde Czech bisexual defector" as labeled by a writer for Sports Illustrated.8 Suggestions were also made that she was something other than a "natural" female, as a writer for Time magazine revealed "in order to play so well, Martina must have a chromosomic screw loose somewhere." Only those women who had successfully achieved femininity were rewarded, however their athletic accomplishments went largely unrecognized.9

Female Muscle Meets Heroin Chic

Women’s weakness has become embedded in a culture that glamorizes addiction through mindless commercialism, meant to target and encourage women into adopting dangerous addictions, related to both food and drugs to have them "fit" with the next fashion trend. Picture the following scenario:

A plague is sweeping the nation, wiping out thousands of young men. Not just ordinary men, but the best and the brightest as they adopt dangerous rituals that prevent them from ever reaching their full potential. Estimates are that 1 in 5 have been stricken with the disease and the numbers are growing by leaps and bounds. Among those afflicted, a secret language has developed that enables them to communicate easily to the others. The media, being alerted to the disease, exasperates their condition by producing advertisements meant to encourage and foster the further development of the disease. These men are fading, the victims are pleading for help, but they are stuck in a society that continues to ignore the problem because the intention is to keep these men weak.

This disease is real, but it isn’t wiping out hoards of young men, it is destroying the lives of women across the board, afflicting women of all races, social class and cultural identities. No one is interested in doing anything about it because of the gender of its victims; this would never be allowed to happen to young men. Terms such as "anorexia" and "heroin chic" have been developed in response to the growing numbers of young women suffering from dangerous addictions to both food and drugs. They have become embedded in a secret language that glamorizes weakness and markets addiction to a highly receptive audience. From an early age, young girls become preoccupied with size, with looking too big and begin dieting frantically setting themselves up for uncontrollable eating disorders. 5 to 7% of America’s 12 million undergraduates are afflicted with anorexia, bulimia or binge eating, with a mortality rate of 20% among anorexics, the highest of any mental disorder.10

Girls are trained to halt the development of their bodies at puberty because of the cultural proscription against females being strong. As a result, girls weaken themselves unnaturally. This femininity training is what makes women hide their sexuality, while enabling men to display it.11 It didn’t take long for the look to go mainstream when fashion photography started producing provocative images that glamorized heroin abuse and commercial photographers began copying the style for high-profile advertising campaigns.12 This type of advertising functions in a way that portrays the "models who grace the covers of Vogue" as "standards for the whole of womankind." It’s not necessary to articulate an explicit law, every woman simply knows what is expected of her, what it means to be a beautiful woman.13

Fashion photography is clearly more persuasive, causes greater danger and has the potential to negatively influence young girls as they seek to define and develop into mature women. By focusing on models that look sickly, rather than healthy and promoting weakness over strength, advertisers continue to send a message of acceptability for the addictive behaviors they inspire and influence generations of women to buy into their twisted sense of liberation and false consciousness. Young women need only to look at the pictures in order to internalize this continuous assault on their bodies that has taught them to remain passive and weak.

The Globalization of Beauty

Notions of "ideal femininity" are reinforced through the adoption of Western standards of beauty in a deliberate attempt to create and maintain the ideal female form. Evident in the continued focus in academia of certain civilizations over others, specific ideas about gender relations between the sexes are perpetuated in the classroom and transported to other cultures around the globe.

The dawn of Western Civilization represents the beginning of the end for women’s history giving rise to our current patriarchial system which our society continues to hold dear. As a result, female inferiority was born through the book of Genesis as women became a mere derivative of man, created from Adam’s rib. Young men in classrooms around the world also studied the teachings of Aristotle, whose view of reproduction held that women were mutilated males. Not to be outdone by Freud, who described women as castrated males, envious of the prize awarded to men, but not women. This "natural" theory got converted into "social" theory through the emergence of Social Darwinism, which was used to justify men’s continual dominance and rule over women.

Later, Talcott Parsons, an eminent sociologist, convinced his followers that gender identities and behaviors are not "an arbitrary imposition on an infinitely plastic biological base" but rather "an adjustment to the real biological differences between the sexes.14 He used his writings to argue that distinctions between masculine and feminine traits are biological/natural rather than cultural/artificial, and that without rigid gender dimorphism, society could not function as well as it does now, asserting once again, that women’s subordination to men is natural.15

The fear of female physical power continues to transcend cultures around the globe. Mass communication has made the world into a global village and more than a few countries have begun to express interest in adopting American cultural practices as their own.

Particularly in Nigeria, a social transformation has begun to take hold across Africa's most populous. In a region where "ample backsides and bosoms were once considered ideals of female beauty", their new Miss World, has been described as a "white girl in black skin."16 The Globalization of Beauty is in full force and Barbie, or better still, Agbani has taken over the world and all she had to do was smile, North American style.

The thin "It" girls are now called "lepa", using a Yoruba word that means thin, having never been applied to people in their culture before.17 In the United States slimness may be an ideal, but many ethnic groups in this region traditionally celebrate larger women, some women even take livestock feed or vitamins to bulk up. Before their weddings, brides are sent to fattening farms, where their caretakers feed them huge amounts of food and massage them into rounder shapes. After weeks inside the fattening farms, the big brides are finally let out and paraded in the Village Square.18 Parents are now urging their daughters to take part in beauty pageants, due to the success of the lepa girls, as people have begun to understand that slim is beautiful.19

Gender as Identity

Key to any patriarchal society, is the use of certain facts about the physiology of man and woman as the basis for constructing a set of identities and behaviors that work to empower men and disempower women known as gender.20 Society convinces itself that cultural constructions are somehow "natural" and that one’s "normality" depends on their ability to display the gender identities and behaviors society deems consistent with one’s biological sex.21 We know that they are meaningless concepts, as the rules are continuously changing, but a woman’s femininity continues to be unfairly emphasized and girls are encouraged to remain passive and weak.22

Supposedly "natural" differences in strength between men and women are used to validate the differences in the amount of social power they hold. Because men have stronger bodies in contrast to women’s inherently weaker ones, they serve to justify why men naturally have, and need, more power.23 In the world of athletics, elite athletes look and act more alike than they do different, exhibiting traits that are common to them as a group and not assigned to one gender over another. The very notion that women feel that they have to ascribe to some social standard of femininity in order to be competitive is sexist at its very core. If a woman with muscle in more of a man, then is a man without muscle more of a woman? For women, the dangerous implications of these cultural norms include negative self-esteem, poor body image, a predisposition to eating disorders, substance abuse and addictions that prevent them from reaching their full potential. We talk about the "secret language of eating disorders" and terms such as "heroin chic" as part of our everyday vocabulary, as if they too will pass, when in reality they have been internalized by a generation of young women in a culture that continues to glamorize the weak female form.

As a result, identity for women relies solely on their ability to shape their bodies, while the media attempts to shape their minds, creating an incredible amount of anxiety and self-hatred. In a capitalist-run society like ours where those in charge equate money with power, it becomes a way to sell product and continue making profit off of an exploited segment of the population. It serves to maintain control over their bodies. It further exists to focus their minds on frivolous things, keeping any legitimate concerns at surface level, thus preventing them from attaining any real power and sense of control over their lives. It fuels multi-million dollar cosmetic, fashion and diet industries designed to have constantly changing standards so as to continue the pursuit of the next fashion trend, always making the women want more. It’s not just the magazines, the movies or the models that are portrayed; it’s the combination of it all, putting a tremendous amount of pressure on women of all ages.

Society continues to be disturbed by a woman’s level of physical development due to commonly held misconceptions of gender and body morphology. Phrases such as feminine muscle and muscular femininity should no longer sit well with the next generation of women and will have to respond to it by questioning if, in fact, muscle really does have a gender. Gender, a term that links our sexuality and biology into well-defined roles of what should and shouldn’t be; of natural and biological, of physical, emotional and intellectual. Women will remain in a perpetual state of weakness as long as these rigid gender roles, requiring the strict adherence to the ideal female form judged by standards of femininity, remain a priority in our culture. The resulting language that is communicated and developed worldwide maintains the status quo for those with a vested interest in keeping women in a second-class position forever.

Femininity is a concept that cannot be defined objectively and is open to a wide degree of interpretation and subjective criticism. It is not inherent and, therefore, not something that any individual should have to aspire to. For some, these terms continue to have meaning, but for the vast majority of others, they cannot, as the cost of not being able to measure up is much too high.

Reference List

Dowling, Colette. The Frailty Myth: Women Approaching Physical Equality. Random House Inc., New York, 2000.

Frueh, Joanna et. Al. Picturing the Modern Amazon. New Museum Books, 1999.

Lorimer, Roland. Mass Communication in Canada, 2nd Edition. McClelland & Stewart, 1991.

Onishi, Norimitsu. The Globalization of Beauty Makes Slimness Trendy. (New York Times, International, October 3, 2002)

Quinion, Michael. (1996). Turns of Phrase: Heroin Chic. World Wide Words. Retrieved 10/21/02 from

Smith, Lissa. Nike is a Goddess: The History of Women in Sports. Atlantic Monthly Press, New York, 1998.

Tong, Rosemarie Putnam. Feminist Thought, 2nd edition. Westview Press, 1998.