My general argument in this paper is that, contrary to the popular view of it as merely a simpleminded pursuit for large, oddly shaped, animated pieces of meat, bodybuilding is a scientific and technological practice. The bodybuilder not only conceives of her body as a site to be disciplined through various chemical and mechanical technologies, but as a collection of discrete parts distinguished from the whole, which can be individually manipulated. Thus I suggest that the bodybuilder is a cyborg. In her article, “A Cyborg Manifesto”, Donna Haraway attempts to create what she calls “an ironic political myth” which combines postmodernism with socialist feminism. Central to her myth is the image of the cyborg, which is “a cybernetic organism, a hybrid of machine and organism, a creature of social reality as well as a creature of fiction.” The cyborg for Haraway is both a metaphor for the postmodernist and political play of identity and a lived reality of new technology.
In this paper I show that within the world of bodybuilding this construction of cyborgs is heavily gendered and does not exist in isolation from the multiple and contradictory discourses already present in social and political spheres. I examine some of the concrete practices in which female bodybuilders engage, such as hormonal alteration, surgical intervention, image construction, and dietary regimentation, and point out the conflicts between bodybuilding as healthy athletics and bodily destruction. I link these to more abstract discourses around female bodybuilders, particularly the debate over what is “natural” for the female body.
Much attention has been given to bodybuilding from the point of view of social science and cultural studies, focusing on female bodybuilders as they are represented both within the sport and within cultural discourse. However, since the gym can be considered a subculture, it is difficult for those who do not participate in the practice of weight training to fully appreciate the actual technological processes and scientific theory behind it. Furthermore it is easy to simplify the contradictions and tensions inherent in the experience of becoming a female lifter by merely passing it off as a quest for bodily perfection of one kind or another.
In this paper I discuss women’s bodybuilding from a dialectical “inside-outside” position which brings some unique perspectives. My “inside” position is the point of view of a noncompetitive bodybuilder who engages in many of the technological practices of the sport, and who maintains an interest in the latest scientific developments in the field. I combine this with an “outside” position as a feminist theorist who is equipped with the tools of academic critique, with particular attention given to the historicization and sociopolitical contextualization of technological processes.
In the iron game the body becomes the cyborg which blurs the boundaries between natural and unnatural as it engages in active transformation of itself. For female lifters the contradictions are particularly acute. Noncompetitive lifters manipulate their body through training, diet, and a variety of nutritional supplements including vitamins, stimulants, amino acid complexes, neurotransmitters, creatine, and testosterone precursors. Competitive lifters add more substantial hormonal and dietary manipulation, breast implants, diuretics, tanning pills or UV treatments, and meticulous attention to feminine accoutrements such as hair and fingernails. While ostensibly women’s bodybuilding championships support “good health habits and planned physical exercise… clean living, [and] good sportsmanship”  and ban drug use, no mention is made in official literature of the use of breast implants, tanners, and other external hyperfeminine modifications which involve a significant degree of “artificial” bodily intervention.
In keeping with the cyborg self, bodybuilders conceive of themselves as a collection of discrete parts. The body is separated into its muscle groups, which can be individually manipulated. Muscle magazines devote a substantial amount of their content to articles about training individual body parts, with titles such as “Wide World of Delts” and “The Biceps Edge”. In competitions bodybuilders are assessed on “symmetry”, which is a quasi-mathematical expression of the relationship between body parts.
Despite the discourse of “good health” and “natural bodybuilding”, I propose that the bodybuilder, and particularly the female bodybuilder, challenges ideas about what is natural, and through technological mechanisms constructs a cyborg self. This cyborg is not a neutral entity (to be fair, “natural” is not neutral either); it is marked by gender, race, class, sexuality, and ability. I have selected three topics for discussion: dieting/fat loss, breast implants, and anabolic-androgenic steroids. In each section I describe the actual technological practice, situate it within a social and/or historical context, and ask how these technological practices of the female bodybuilder both illustrate and constitute contradictory cyborg selves which then challenge or perpetuate social configurations.
on this article.
“Cyborgs in the Gym: The Technopolitics of Female Muscle” was presented October 4, 1998, at a conference at Duke University entitled “Discipline and Deviance: Genders, Technologies, Machines”. © Krista Scott-Dixon 1998
I am grateful for the assistance of: Bill Roberts in the Medicinal Chemistry department of the University of Florida; Robin Coleman, Certified Trainer and Nutritionist, and NPC amateur bodybuilder; and Sandeep De, personal trainer.
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