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Women of Steel: Female Bodybuilders and the Struggle for Self-Definition

Maria R. Lowe
Copyright Date: 1998
Published by: NYU Press
Pages: 216
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  • Book Info
    Women of Steel
    Book Description:

    "A lot of people in the general public think female bodybuilding is gross and freaky . . . that that's not what a woman is supposed to look like." So says Michelle, a national bodybuilding judge. In fact, athletic women, especially those in sports where strength, muscle, and sweat feature prominently, are typically viewed by the public as being outside the boundaries of appropriate femininity. And perhaps no group of women athletes embodies this gender outlaw status more than female bodybuilders, who by their bulk and sheer strength challenge our very notions of what it means to be a woman. Why would women choose to look like that? And what does it take to get and stay so muscular? Maria R. Lowe has interviewed more than one hundred people connected with women's bodybuilding, from the bodybuilders themselves, to trainers, family members, spouses, judges, and sponsors. In Women of Steel, Lowe introduces us to a world where size and strength must be balanced with a nod toward grace and femininity. Lowe, who actually worked out with a couple of the bodybuilders she interviewed, gets at the heart of what it is to be a woman bodybuilder. We learn about "paying the price"--doing the necessary exercise, and sometimes drugs--that allows women to rise to the top of their profession. We follow their successes and failures, and discover the benefits-- including increased self-esteem and physical strength--as well as the sometimes unhealthy effects of their training regimen, from dehydration to baldness to rampant acne to high blood pressure. We travel with the women from competition to competition and find that judges' standards seem to vary alarmingly depending on momentary notions of what constitutes "the overall package"--that elusive perfect body that catches judges' eyes and wins competitions. Above all, Women of Steel is a keenly observant diary of life in women's bodybuilding, a must-read for people interested in sports, competition, physical culture, and gender.

    eISBN: 978-0-8147-6545-6
    Subjects: Sociology

Table of Contents

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  1. Front Matter
    (pp. i-vi)
  2. Table of Contents
    (pp. vii-viii)
    (pp. ix-x)
  4. Introduction: Growing Pains
    (pp. 1-19)

    The time is early afternoon on Saturday, October 17, 1992, in cold, sunny, blustery Chicago during the midst of its first winter storm. The site of the event for which I have come is the Arie Crown Theater, located on the bottom floor of the McCormick Center. This enormous facility is right off windy Lake Michigan and within walking distance of Soldier Field, where the Chicago Bears play. The McCormick Center, only about 100 yards from the hotel where the judges, competitors, and a sizable number of fans are staying, is an immense multilevel structure with concrete floors and enough...

  5. ONE Muscle Bound
    (pp. 20-54)

    Diane and Ellen’s words echo the formative athletic experiences of many women in my study. All were active in competitive sports at an early age, and many continued in their athletic endeavors throughout high school and even into college. All but one of these women had competed in multiple sports, including track and field, soccer, softball, and basketball. Whatever their sports backgrounds, these women eventually found themselves in the gym lifting weights and ultimately competing in their first sanctioned bodybuilding competitions. How did they go from participating in organized sports such as basketball and track as children and young adults...

  6. TWO The Few, the Powerful, the Social Gatekeepers
    (pp. 55-73)

    Bodybuilding is a multimillion dollar industry. The groups that effectively package and sell the sport not only make tremendous monetary profits, but also play a prominent role in determining the ideal images of its bodybuilders on stage and in magazines. Therefore, to comprehend better the various political, economic, and ideological factors that influence which images of female bodybuilders are presented in both of these arenas, one must first understand the historical development of the sport’s political and organizational structures. I will therefore begin by examining the formation of various bodybuilding federations, concentrating on the top two: the International Federation of...

  7. THREE The Dialectic of Female Bodybuilding: Steroids, Femininity, and Muscularity
    (pp. 74-98)

    Today, athletes and coaches of organized sports are under enormous pressure to win. Over the past three decades, a growing number of athletes have resorted to using anabolic steroids and other performance-enhancing drugs to increase their competitive edge. Some sports, like football and weightlifting, test their athletes for such drugs. Steroid use is thought to be particularly widespread among athletes in bodybuilding because their main goal is to build a large and massive musculature. Helping to build muscles is one of the main reasons for taking steroids:

    The dynamics of anabolic steroids have been pretty well understood for years. Synthetic...

  8. FOUR Contested Terrain: Corporal Judgment
    (pp. 99-120)

    As we have seen, female bodybuilding has been rife with controversy surrounding the “appropriate” relationship between muscularity and femininity since its earliest contests.¹ Should female bodybuilders be judged like male bodybuilders, with the most muscular and symmetrical bodybuilder prevailing, or should issues of femininity and attractiveness be included in judging criteria? This controversy continues to play out in the evaluation of female bodybuilders. Harry Crews’s 1990 novel,Body,accurately depicts the vascillations surrounding judging standards for female bodybuilders:

    Nobody knew or could agree on what women wanted or needed to be. Not even women themselves. With men it was easy....

  9. All illustrations
    (pp. None)
  10. FIVE Profitable Physiques, Precarious Hegemonies: The Maintenance of the Feminine Apologetic
    (pp. 121-140)

    In the previous chapter, I discussed Jan Felshin’s feminine apologetic, wherein female athletes may compensate for their participation in the traditionally masculine domain of sports by emphasizing their femininity.¹ As we have seen, this phenomenon is irrefutably operative in the sport of female bodybuilding. Judges and officials serve as gatekeepers to ensure that female bodybuilders actualize the feminine apologetic. In the minds of some gatekeepers, however, female bodybuilders do not fully understand the importance of embodying the feminine apologetic and the extent to which they are expected to comply. Angered by what he considers incorrigible female bodybuilders, with overly developed...

  11. SIX Countering the Hegemony, Coopting the Resistance, and the Future of Female Bodybuilding
    (pp. 141-162)

    In the prologue, I included an ethnographic account of the 1992 Ms. Olympia contest in Chicago. I would like to revisit the evening show of that contest for a moment. During the ninety-second musical presentation round, in which bodybuilders present their musculature to the music of their choice, bodybuilder after bodybuilder opened her posing routines to the first part of the song “In Control” by Janet Jackson. This song begins with Janet Jackson determinedly stating: “This is a song about control. Control of what I say. Control of what I do. This is a song about control. And I have...

  12. APPENDIX A Profiles of the Competitors, Judges, and Officials
    (pp. 163-166)
  13. APPENDIX B Data, Methodologies, Theory
    (pp. 167-174)
  14. APPENDIX C Interview Schedules: Female Bodybuilders and Judges
    (pp. 175-178)
  15. APPENDIX D Glossary of Terms
    (pp. 179-181)
  16. APPENDIX E A Muscularity Continuum
    (pp. 182-182)
  17. NOTES
    (pp. 183-193)
    (pp. 194-200)
  19. INDEX
    (pp. 201-205)
  20. About the Author
    (pp. 206-206)
  21. Back Matter
    (pp. 207-207)