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The Balancing Act: Masculine Bodies and Affirming Femininity

In my panel Monday afternoon I was to represent female bodybuilders. Due to the direction in which the conversation was going I didn’t get much of a chance to talk. However, in doing my research and in looking at the panel on Wednesday I noticed something very interesting. These women presumably, empower others by breaking with conventional idea of that female bodies should look like.

However, after hearing how the different groups represented on Wednesday seemed to be in a balancing act in affirming their sexiness and taking on traditionally masculine images, it seemed to me that an inverse relationship was taking place. The more these women modified their bodies, the more they sought other forms of traditional representation of femininity to prove to society that they were still women. Moreover, the fact that is women are actually commodifyng their bodies, in more ways that one, to be successful creates a double edged sword.

Take for example, the women in the photos below.

Ms. Fitness Competitors

These are past contestants for the Ms. Physique competition. The rules in this competition very specifically state “high heel shoes are worn, hands remain “ALWAYS OPEN” not clenched during the posing, and jewelry and hair decorations are allowed competitors may twist their physique during the symmetry round.” Observe also the costumes these women are wearing. , the attire for competitors in these competitions includes very sexually appealing bikinis that are conventionally feminine.

It seemed to me that some of the groups on Wednesday’s panel were undergoing the same balancing act. Another example is the Roller Girls in the pictures below.

Roller Girls1

Roller Girls 2

Notice how their uniforms are highly sexualized, commodifyng their bodies like the female builders do in order to retain their femininity in these conventionally male arenas.

To me they do not seem that much different from the much criticized Playboy Playmates pictured below. In that they to have argued that their professions actually empower women by being active participants in male dominated area: sex. In actually, like the female bodybuilders and Roller Girls, the use of technology to alter their image to adhere to conventional ideas of femininity perpetuates the society’s narrow view of “proper” female representation, the very thing which these women struggle against.


One Response
  1. Anne Dalke permalink*
    March 25, 2009


    Several years ago, I helped teach a film course on “Women, Sport and Gender,”
    that was co-sponsored by Athletics and Physical Education at Bryn Mawr and the Exercise and Sports Studies Department at Smith College. I still remember the very striking documentary we saw about female bodybuilders—it was called Pumping Iron II—and the essay by C.A. Holmlund that we read to help us make sense of what we were seeing: “Visible Difference and Flex Appeal: The Body, Sex, Sexuality, and Race in the Pumping Iron Films” (Cinema Journal 28).

    That’s a film, and an essay, you might want to look @ if you want to go further in thinking about the interesting dynamic you identify here as an “inverse relationship”: the more these women “masculinize” their bodies, the more they seek out other, traditional representations of femininity. The same thing happens, as you show, in roller derbies (and I would add, in the first woman’s baseball league); their hyper-feminization (as you also suggest) is little different from that of Playboy Bunnies.

    And, so…what does all this tell us, about gender roles and the difficulty of changing them? About the interaction of gender and technology? Your paper describes the phenomenon; it hasn’t begun to analyze it, or to suggest any interventions….

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