Will there ever come a day where women become separated from how the world views their bodies or are they destined to forever be defined by them? The female physique is a constant topic of debate between those intent on controlling it and those who wish to be freed from its constraints. Female bodybuilders pose the ultimate threat to the male ego as they challenge the shared assumption that men are, and will always be, more powerful than women. Based on this notion, 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. For this reason, most 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.
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. 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. 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.
Femininity is a concept that cannot be defined objectively as there is no concrete definition for the term. Rather, it 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. A woman is no more defined by the size of her breasts than a man is by the size of his penis. The amount of muscle each carries is irrelevant, for that is just body composition, which varies widely across the board. For some, these definitions have value, but for the benefit of us all, they cannot, for the cost of not being able to measure up is just too high.
Women, in general, but more specifically female bodybuilders, have allowed this trend to continue. 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 keep women’s progress under wraps and maintains 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. It appears wherever you see women achieve any kind of real power, it’s a way to control it, curb it and prevent it from taking over.
In theory, the world of athletics is structured on concepts of equality between the sexes and is supposed to represent a level playing field for all those that choose to compete. Rules are applicable to all athletes equally and each is accountable for how they play the game. Sexuality should never factor into the competition nor be part of the desired outcome. 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 a fact that will prevent the gender gap from ever becoming fully closed.
The most obvious example of this is the decision of the majority of female bodybuilders to have their breasts enlarged. It stands to reason that in a sport that is judged on the sum of individual body parts, allowing competitors to add another one is ridiculous; primarily due to symmetry being such an important component. In no other sport in the world, do the governing organizations encourage and promote their female participants to artificially enhance themselves by adding breast implants to augment their femininity.
The way that bodybuilding is currently being run is contradictory to its desired goals. In order for the IFBB to eventually gain Olympic recognition, there are some changes that need to be put in place. The individuals in power must decide whether or not they wish to continue to capitalize on the current sexually explicit image the sport portrays or change that image, by adopting an organizational model that represents their federation on the way to becoming a legitimate sport. Joining the world of athletics would mean that they would be subject to the same expectations as in other sports. It may not be in their best interest if they cannot operate in an atmosphere where the road to gender equality remains a high priority.
In this regard, the IFBB has become it’s own worst enemy. It cannot continue to undermine and criticize one-half of the organization and expect to gain respect and support from the world of athletics. By consistently focusing on negative examples and airing it’s dirty laundry to the public, they demand that bodybuilding not be accepted, as even those in control cannot find reason enough to support it. They must put forth an effort, portraying to others that an attempt is being made to rectify and deal with any ongoing problems, problems that they intend to solve. It’s no longer enough to assess blame and identify these issues; they must develop a game plan on how to deal with them in a professional manner.
All those with a vested interest need to sit down and discuss real possibilities about how to evoke lasting change for the future of bodybuilding and the athletes that participate in it. This group should consist of representatives from the IFBB, former competitors, and the women themselves. Although the goals for each participant may vary, they should be able to come together as a group of individuals who share a passion for the very sport they represent. It should not be formed out of a negative reaction to unfair treatment and standards, but as an effort to see all progress in a positive and productive manner. Each one needs the other in order to exist; fitness competitors need female bodybuilders, for without them they would represent extreme standards of muscularity, just as today’s figure contestants resemble the fitness competitors of the past. It’s time to drop the divide and conquer mentality that pervades the sport and is set up for the women to be in constant competition with each other for their femininity. Each competitor has value both as a woman and as an athlete. They should be able to compete on both separate stages and equal ground.
There seems to be such a vested interest in seeing the women fail. This mentality benefits no one. Bodybuilding will never succeed outside of itself, without changing the prevailing notion that women exist in a sport that fails to recognize their contribution. They must be encouraged to be successful, supported equally and valued in the sport as much as the men are. The organization needs to identify the athletes in the sport, support them, bring them positive recognition and align them with outside influences that support a greater understanding of them as women and as athletes. This has got to be a concerted effort; planned, implemented and evaluated.
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 must first stop equating their value as athletes from their level of sexual attractiveness, and refuse to allow others to judge them solely on this basis. Then, and only then, will they find themselves on equal ground with their male counterparts.
Portraying a positive image to young women is such an important job these days. Just being a female athlete gives you such a tremendous opportunity to change the minds of young girls, giving them another option, something else to strive for. The existence of muscular women alone provides us all with another model to aspire to. They allow girls to train with weights and develop a stronger, more powerful physique because they had the courage to go there first.
Female bodybuilders should be looking to affiliate their image with organizations that support issues that affect all women and that they are able to identify with. Issues such as eating disorders and domestic violence are such great examples of how they can use their physiques to serve as a positive and motivating force to inspire women around the globe. What is desperately lacking is both unity and leadership among them as a group, as if they’re constantly in transition, waiting to be inspired. They must begin to demand respect for themselves as individuals on a consistent basis, acknowledging their power, retaining their self-confidence and refusing to apologize for their success.
It is entirely possible that they are just so used to being relegated to second place status, that they don’t even put forth the effort to make any type of real change. It’s like the dog that you initially tied down with a heavy chain and now requires only a piece of string, for at some point he just stopped trying. Female bodybuilders, for the most part, are just holding on too tight for fear of losing what they don’t have and may never achieve. They need to recognize that if the difference between placing first and last in a contest is negligible, then they had better focus their efforts into changing the current system, or removing themselves from it altogether.
Female bodybuilders represent a large group of unrealized potential that must no longer reflect how the world views them as women, but how they view the world as individuals with the potential to change it. If they continue to allow standards to be set higher for them, than they are willing to set for themselves, they are doomed to repeat the mistakes of the past and have already reached their full potential. There has never been a greater time or stronger need for all female athletes to stand up for what they believe in, without fear of repercussions, because you never know who they may inspire through their efforts; she may just be the one we’ve all been waiting for.