Images of Muscular Women

by Doug Aoki

Doug Aoki from Berkeley, California wrote on 21October1995 to the FEMUSCLE List:

One reason, among others, that some female bodybuilders are unjustly accused of using steroids or other growth drugs is that many people are so deeply invested in their common belief that a woman simply cannot get so muscular without artificial aid.

It's a psychological and social tactic by which someone can reject very muscular women as unnatural or freakish. Such a rejection, in turn, allows one to maintain her or his faith in essential images of what a woman should look like and what a woman should be: maybe Cindy Crawford, maybe Mom, maybe the girl-next-door, but definitely not Bev Francis or Paula Birkenshaw.

>From my cultural psychoanalytic perspective, such images maintain a certain normative cultural system of sexual difference. And most people's basic understandings of themselves--their egos, their sexual identities, their sexual orientations, their sense of themselves as attractive, desirable, or lovable, their status as functioning members of a social group or class--depend heavily upon that system.

In other words, because their very (social) psyches are at stake, many people are extremely reluctant, at conscious and unconscious levels, to accept very muscular female bodybuilders as "real" women. Bill Dobbins, in the introduction to his book, THE WOMEN, tells a revealing anecdote about the clerk at his local framing shot, who felt compelled to tell him that she was disgusted by the pictures of female bodybuilders he had given her to be mounted, even though she very much wanted to keep him as a customer. Such rejection bespeaks a deep and very forceful motivation to resist the bodybuilding body. Labelling bodybuilders as drug-users is a popular and convenient way to reject that body.

Of course, normative images of exemplary womanhood (Crawford, Mom, etc.) and the system of sexual difference are neither natural nor God-given. They are instead the historical accumulation of custom, prejudice, precedent, and power.

Female bodybuilders are therefore very important figures in a socio-political sense--even though few would likely articulate themselves as such. They provide images and exemplars of a powerful new image of possible womanhood, that can both unhinge and transform a culture's vision and understanding of what sex and gender and selfhood are all about.

Accusations of steroid abuse are just evidence of how this culture is dimly aware that fundamental aspects of itself are on the verge of critical change, and that female bodybuilders are crucial agents of that change.

This page designed by FRS Associates