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Compromising Positions: The Portrayal of Women in Bodybuilding Magazines

Sidney Eve

I had two workouts today. The first I did at the gym, where I sweated, strained, pushed and coaxed myself to push more. There I visualized strong sexy curves and rippling muscle. Counting off reps, I imagined the vision I want to see when I look in the mirror. Resting between sets my mind reeled backwards, recalling the training tips from Lenda Murray, Sharon Bruneau, Kim Chizevsky: focus, concentrate, breathe, flex it, stretch it, hold it! Through the burn and the pain my mind recaptured visions of these powerfully beautiful women's bodies. Inspired but tired, when I finished my workout I congratulated myself on my dedication and my self-investment as I left the gym. This first workout has lasting effects and it is transformative: I hold my head higher, feel more confident, carry groceries easier, feel more sexual, breathe deeper, and I walk taller on the street because I feel safer there.

My second workout was perhaps more demanding. This one I completed at home, alone with my stack of magazines on bodybuilding. Not physical but mental, for this workout I needed to prepare myself for a different kind of pain. This is another, difficult kind of test of my stamina for bodybuilding. Facing magazines like _Muscle & Fitness_, _Flex_, and _Muscular Development_, the only mass culture representations of women's bodybuilding (widely) available to me, I had to strain against the weight of psychological alienation, and push past the forces of sexism and misogyny which are part of the foundation of these publications. This workout is also transformative and has lasting effects, though they do not contribute to a positive self- portrait.

For this second workout today, I had special (and invisible) gear to don: protection in the form of blinders to block out the negative stereotypes, the blatant sexual objectifications and the trivialization of women that I try to ignore in letters to the editor, articles and opinion-editorials, in interviews and advertisements and in photography spreads from cover to cover, from publication to publication, month to month. Even with this "gear" my psychological training is never thorough enough. To read about the great women in this sport, I have to pay a high price: my magazine subscription cheque buys me not only an education about training and a images of built women, but also the opportunity to be severely compromised, offended, shocked and saddened as I leaf through the glossy pages each month. As a female reader of dominant perspectives and representations in the masculinist culture of bodybuilding, I must overtrain myself to withstand the treatment of women I find there. Unlike my gym sessions, which leave me sore but satisfied, tired but triumphant and with a sense of accomplishment, as I finish this mental workout I feel subtly weakened. The desire that motivates my efforts to construct and sculpt my body is often temporarily sapped after reading.

Like thousands of other women I'm sure, I ritualistically search for representations of my heroines in muscle magazines. I celebrate their triumphs and mourn their setbacks, both personal and professional. I follow their careers as an admirer, a dedicated fan. These women of steel become my new ideals, replacing the images of anorexic looking women who decorate the pages of the women's fashion magazines I grew up reading. Not so long ago I was one of the thousands of subscribers who look to _Mademoiselle_ and _Elle_ to communicate an ideal of feminine beauty. Then I idolized and modelled myself after skeletal female physiques which seemed to require my adoption of an eating disorder. In a never-ending circulation of representations of frail and childlike supermodels, publications of the fashion- beauty industry taught me that to succeed in the game of heterosexualized femininity my body must appear small, weak and submissive. I learned that the risk of gaining muscle mass was the loss of my feminine identity. If my hip bones and clavicle did not protrude, or if my thighs were much larger than my calves, I knew that I should be considering cosmetic remedies such as liposuction. Covering those bones with muscular curves was not presented as a viable option.

Instead, in "fitness" columns of _Vogue_ and _Cosmopolitan_, I read about diets and spot reduction exercises, and often about designer sportswear with built-in girdles, and about makeup for the gym that wouldn't slide if I was to (gasp!) sweat. My pursuit of fragility as femininity was never successful though, it being an unattainable ideal, a fantasy that even surgical intervention couldn't effect. I looked for alternative representations of women and beauty which could promise me health, happiness, and self-confidence. I began reading _Self_, _Shape_, _Fit_ and _Fitness_, and there I found the first glimmerings of what strong feminine bodies could be. I then progressed to reading muscle magazines, and was rewarded with images of women who were defining a new age of beauty.

The women of bodybuilding are living proof that women can be beautiful, feminine, sensual and strong, simultaneously. The success of their work within what was not so long ago considered to be a male-only subculture is testimony to the fact that social limitations on women are exactly that: social and not natural, predetermined, inevitable and unalterable. As women make gains in the sport of bodybuilding all over the world, many more of us, women who will never pose and compete or see our photo in _Flex_, celebrate their achievements through the most inexpensive (and sometimes only) means of access available: consumer magazines. Identifying with the strength and beauty of female bodybuilders, women are joining gym culture in increasing numbers, potentially expanding the community of readers who religiously pick up a copy of _Muscle & Fitness_ or _Flex_.

But what we find in these magazines is a dangerous layer of negative covert and overt messages about what it means to be a woman with a muscular physique. Some of these messages are not new. They tell us that no matter how much dedication a woman pours into developing a strong and powerful body, no matter how many competition medals she receives and prize money she earns, no matter that the sport overtly views her as a *professional athlete*, she is, like all women, first and foremost a sexual object, an erotic commodity for men. Since these woman cannot be easily portrayed as submissive for male reader's sexual fantasies, musclemags take the opposite track: in photographic spreads it is revealed that powerfully strong women are really dominatrixes, evident in their "choice" of leather and latex fetishwear, and accessories of S/M gear such as whips and chains. (And maybe in their private lives they are dominatrixes or into S/M--who cares?--but is that the image that we want to see regularly? Who is it for?)

Issue after issue shows women in training articles wearing, not proper posing competition suits or even regular workout wear (as the men do) but lingerie and stiletto heels. Routinely these professional female athletes are wearing nothing at all, appearing nude and sprawling on the floor, or draped over a chair. Have you ever noticed how often these women's legs are spread, or how many shots there are of them crawling on the floor or on the beach? Why are women on their knees, with their rear- ends in the air? As a reader, there is no doubt in my mind that the publishers present these women's bodies for male consumption, and that my gaze is necessarily outside the expected group of spectators. Editorial decisions for representing these women in increasingly pornographic positions make it clear that these are men's magazines, not so far removed from _Playboy_ and _Hustler_.

The messages in major muscle magazines echo the fashion-beauty industry's view that bodily strength and femininity don't mix. They tell readers that a woman's feminine identity is always at risk when she chooses to dedicate her time to bodybuilding. It is always a valid question, what is her "feminine quotient" (how she "rates" on a feminine scale of 1 to 10) when she selects freeweights over crash diets, when she dons a weightlifting belt instead of designer pencil-slim jeans. In _Flex_, I find the monthly "Power & Sizzle" photo spread, with a curious disclaimer:

     Women bodybuilders are many things, among them
     symmetrical, strong, sensuous and stunning. When
     photographed in competition shape, repping and
     grimacing or squeezing out shots, they appear shredded,
     vascular and hard, and they can be perceived as
     threatening. Offseason, they carry more bodyfat,
     presenting themselves in a much more naturally
     attractive condition. To exhibit this real, natural
     side of women bodybuilders, _Flex_ has been presenting
     pictorials of female competitors in softer condition.
     We hope this approach dispels the myth of female-
     bodybuilder masculinity and proves what role models
     they really are.

The content of this disclaimer makes clear that images of women bodybuilders who have "hard"-bodies are a threat to male reader's conceptions of the "real natural" difference between the genders. Are men really that insecure? I doubt it. Covertly, the disclaimer says: for men to be masculine, dominant and strong, women must correspond as feminine, weak, and submissive. Even in a professional magazine that represents a sport where the winners (of both genders) are hardbodies, women must be presented as naturally "soft" in order to preserve (not dispel) the myth that powerful strong femininity is an oxymoron. Is it more natural for women to appear with their soft curves draped with lingerie or naked, when in fact the only reason their photographs are included is because they have previously proven they are strong, hard, and shredded? What kind of reader's role models can women bodybuilders be if editors consciously erase the repping and grimacing that are necessary steps in the process of building a sculpted body?

Are all men naturally "hard" and strong, and do those qualities belong to the male gender alone? These sexist attitudes are dangerously out of date. These magazine messages exhibit the same hysteria about female bodybuilder's loss of conventionally defined femininity as is evident in the events captured in Charles Gains's _Pumping Iron II_, where at the 1983 Caesar's Palace World Cup, judges scrambled to police the femininity of first-time competitor Bev Francis. How can we continue to take major musclemags seriously with such antiquated prescriptions for women? When I read the disclaimer from _Flex_ I do some grimacing of my own!

Hysteria about femininity is linked to a paranoia about heterosexuality in these magazines. Do women bodybuilders act in conventionally heterosexual ways? Do we fit into the straight paradigm that demands heterosexual feminine women be properly submissive to men? Should we counteract the "extreme" muscularity of these women by putting them in a leather g-string and having them crawl on the floor? Or should we capitalize on their threatening presence and have them appear as dominatrixes? These are the questions that publishers seem to be worried about. Reading _Muscle & Fitness_ I am often reminded of the voice of parental authority cautioning me to act feminine (be quiet, small, timid) or else I'll never get a man! It is an infantilising message that seeks to play on a fear that an unattached woman is an unsuccessful one. What is this doing in a bodybuilding magazine?

Although contemporary heterosexuality is far less restrictive and more flexible about power roles between genders, major muscle magazines continue to sell us outdated messages. Today, opinions about sexuality are more informed and realistic, there is acceptance of diversity in our culture, and sexual preference and gender imperatives are often considered as separate issues. I think the revealing photo spreads that greet me in the pages of _Muscular Development_ say little about these women's sexual selves and a lot more about the fact that publishers know these photograph-commodities are not designed to honestly represent female athletes in dignified ways, but to sell magazines to men who are entertained and turned on by them. This is evident in a letter to the editors by a _Flex_ reader:

     AAAAHHHH!!! I can't take it anymore! All those
     beautiful Power & Sizzle profiles are such double-edged
     swords that I'm going cuckoo! You have a way of showing
     it all without showing it all, and I am freaking out
     (cuckoo! cuckoo! cuckoo!). See what I mean? Not being
     able to see Dinah Anderson and Marjo Krishi in *all*
     their glory is like not really seeing their beauty at
     its fullest. It's missing something; it's not really
     whole. When I see nude photography, I prefer full
     frontal and back pictures, with nothing left to the
     imagination. (September 1996)

Male readers like the one who authored the above letter want more flesh, full frontal nudity of the top women bodybuilders, so that he can see the "whole" picture, the "real" source of their beauty. This is insulting, but not surprising when I consider that in some bodybuilding magazines there are more pictures of women in the advertisements for erotic playmates, live sex phone- lines and pornographic videos than in the articles themselves.

I'd imagine that editors present us with increasingly pornographic photos of women so that we may study them as role models with tips on how to succeed as heterosexually seductive, despite our "masculinized" (muscled) bodies. This does not disrupt the stereotype that heterosexual femininity and muscle mass don't mix, it reinforces it. Editorials continue this message, especially in the following excerpt from a piece I read in _Musclemag_ by guest writer Ron Harris:

     As for weight training making women more attractive to
     men, consider this: Why do you think fitness
     competitions are growing while women's bodybuilding is
     dying? It's because men like a lightly muscled, "toned"
     woman, but are repelled by a drug-using, heavily
     muscled, androgynous creature with a deep voice and a
     jaw like Lurch from _The Addams Family_.  (May 1997)

A heavy-muscled woman is synonymous with an androgynous creature, a monster? A well-developed woman will be a failure at heterosexuality? Repellent to men? Portraits of female bodybuilders such as Harris' come straight from a misogynous imagination. This is part of a construction of a fantasy women bodybuilder that doesn't match the reality of the sport's participants. So often I read that women who lift have deep "masculine" voices, that the first time I heard Kim Chizevsky and Lenda Murray speak I was absolutely shocked. Where were those deep grovelling voices? I was taken aback that these women sounded like women (whatever that means, their voices were not low), I had been so mislead by male representations of them. It is these kinds of attitudes and misrepresentations that make reading popular magazines about the sport of bodybuilding very difficult for female readers. Some of us lose the faith and decide not to purchase these magazines at all, as is clear in another letter to the editors at _Flex_:

     Each month I hope to see professional photographs of
     female bodybuilders so that I can buy the publication.
     When I flip through and see the few women portrayed
     wearing less than they would in a competition, I put
     the magazine back on the rack. (September 1996)

Contradictions abound between the covers, as women who have achieved superior muscle development that challenges and expands conventional ideals of beauty appear beside misogynous editorials, degrading and exploitative advertising and condescending disclaimers about what their physiques and their efforts represent. In spite of the editorial decisions about how to represent top women bodybuilders, like many readers (I assume), I try to read between the lines to find my inspiration and education about this sport. I attempt to develop strategies to face the psychological alienation that I experience when I see women posed as playboy playmates. I try to keep focused on what is real when I am reminded that the goal of my bodybuilding should be to preserve and enhance my naturally soft femininity, which I am told is at odds with strengthening my physique and gaining confidence. I try to stay positive when I am told that my idols are horrendous, deformed and monstrous creatures.

And are they horrendous? Of course not. The women in _Muscle & Fitness_, _Muscular Development_ and _Flex_ are beautiful and strong in outstanding form. But are they victims? Again, I would say of course not, not in any simple and straightforward way. Even while posed in the skimpiest of lingerie or the most outrageous of latex fetishwear, these women often appear to relish the opportunity to model this untraditional version of the female body. They often appear to be having fun, and from the interviews that accompany these photos, I learn valuable advice and perspectives on the reasons why these women have chosen the route they have in life. Like other women (and men) I appreciate being able to see these women's accomplishments, and my walls have many of these photos as decorations and inspirations! I don't want to overemphasize that the women represented in muscle magazines are mere victims of a "patriarchal" muscle industry. And I haven't lost my sense of humor or my passion for the sport. It is the larger context of the issue that matters here. Major muscle magazines trivialize women's participation in this sport and are often overly hostile to female presence there. And with each sexist page in a muscle magazine, my tolerance for these hostilities goes down, and I feel increasingly compromised by the whole experience of reading.

However, I keep reading. Call it desperation! I strive to take my inspiration from these publications, and leave the rest, but it is difficult sometimes. I feel an ethical dilemma when I spend money that supports the continuation of publicizing these negative messages about women. Rather than issuing a welcome invitation for me to support the professionalization of bodybuilding, through these publications I am challenged to defend on several levels, myself and all women who chose to identify with this subculture. And if I was not personally determined enough, I might decide to leave the gym altogether, and then the condescending treatment of women would be shown to have real material effects as fans (male and female) and participants (take our money and) decide that its not worth the struggle to be a part of this sport.

But I look toward the future and I know that women will continue to gain power and influence in the muscle industry, and then the major magazines will be not be able to get away with their outdated and inequitable attitudes. Beauty ideals for women are changing, and the demand for positive images of women with muscle mass is growing. But until there exists more woman-positive and accessible bodybuilding publications I'll have no choice but to pursue my double workout strategy, and build a stamina to face the stress and pain that accompany reading muscle monthlies, while preserving enough energy to face the difficult but rewarding work I do in the gym.
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