Notes on: Shilling, C. & Bunsell, T.  (2009) 'The female body builder as a gender outlaw'.  Qualitative Research in Sport and Exercise,1 (2): 141-59.

Dave Harris

Female body builders are outlaws because they break with 'what is aesthetically, kinaesthetically and phenomenologically acceptable within the gendered order of social interaction' (141).  A two year ethnographic study of British female bodybuilders was undertaken.

Lots of people express shock and horror at female body building, because they have broken so many conventions as above.  Their stigmatisation is made visible through dress, speech and bearing.  This undermines convention and therefore threatens institutional norms and the foundations of social interaction, gendered in this case, hence the 'hysterical media coverage'(142).  Such is their threat that all decent citizens feel entitled to judge them.

Goffman identified the interaction order as ritualistic and constraining face to face relations which help develop identities.  In some cases, there are presocial 'irreducible bodily components of copresence', but there are also interactional values.  The norm admits only two sexes and genders, and these are primary characteristics.  Conforming to them indicates you have an acceptable interacting self.  All sorts of social systems are based on this binary [citing Goffman, but Bourdieu would do as well].  There is no actual compulsion, but breaking the conventions can have serious consequences, since we require conventional responses from others to experience ourselves positively.  Other body types run the risk of stigmatisation, for example fat men, transgendered individuals, and females in other unusual occupations such as boxers and soldiers, who often seen as 'becoming "symbolic men"'. Male body builders can also be stigmatised for exceeding conventional bodies, but this still does not threaten identities as men in the same way that body building threatens women's identities.  Female body builders are 'multiple transgressors'(143).

An ethnographic study was pursued with 26 female body builders in the UK [and ethnography is defended as building trust and developing an adequate picture from the inside]. Ethnography is a growing technique in sport studies [Sparkes is one of those cited] other studies have explored the semiotics of the group, but not so much the practices and lifestyles on a daily basis.  One gym was chosen as the focus of the study, with six others also involved.  Bunsell is a gym insider, muscular enough to gain some respect without seeming to extraordinary.  She's also a woman, able to discuss intimate issues, including sex, and also able to immerse herself in the gym for long hours.  Interviews were also conducted, formal and informal, with bodybuilders,  friends and family.  A key informant proved useful.  A field diary and research log were also kept.  Observations were noted.  Ongoing content analysis kept a link between theory, the interviews and the other data gathering exercises.  Shilling provided some of the theoretical elements, as in theoretically informed ethnography. 

Seven women were competing.  All were dedicated body builders.  They were mostly working and middle classes, half had degrees, five had kids and only two were black.  As a result, none of these social variables seemed salient, and muscle building was a central feature. The research focused on 'body pedagogics' [a term invented by Shilling], relating to education and socialization and their corporeal dimensions.

Solidarity develops around the aim to build muscle, itself involving a challenge to conventional norms of gender, and providing some initial problems - questions from family and boyfriends, worries about health and so on.  The suspicion is that women body builders are either deviant or being deliberately offensive.  Being attractive to men was seen as more important rather than competing with them.  Obligations of work and family responsibilities was also a problem.  There seem to be an undue emphasis on the physical self.  Aesthetically, size and strength tend to be associated with manliness, and this helps the 'kinaesthetic expectation that men dominate social and cultural spaces' (144 - I think, no bleeding page numbers).  Male muscle armours their bodies, developing 'a nomadic individuality' [sic], linking with independence, self possession and inner strength.  Women's muscle is different and invites insult on the basis of looking wrong, wanting to look like a man and so on [based on quoted conversations].  Ideal visions of the female body still involve 'curves, voluptuousness and softness', indicating 'caring, interdependence and fluidity'.

Body building also involves physical manual work, reminiscent of 'traditional working class male industrial jobs'(145).  Effort like this also is seen as excessive, inappropriate to virtue and modesty [more comments are cited, including suspicions that the women are taking steroids or pursuing the wrong sort of exercise regime].  Women who want to 'transcend themselves' are suspected, since they seem to need no male gaze or other forms of authorization of femininity.  A special diet is seen as excessive: women are supposed to be concerned with slimming. 

This excess is also linked to the assumption that steroids and other drugs are also consumed, particularly stigmatizing with women because the affects are seen as even more unnatural.  This is based on a wrong understanding of biology, of course, because women do have testosterone in their bodies, but 'a fallacious biological dualism', helps justify 'social and cultural inequalities' (146).  The drug is supposed to produce bodily changes 'including receding hair line, facial hair, a growth in clitoris size, a lowering of voice tone and, often, increased sex drive and an increase in the frequency and intensity of orgasms'.  Taking testosterone is also vital for transsexuals.  Thus taking drugs [which is not denied, and which even seems routine, certainly only casually discussed] focuses many concerns and infringes many conventions and views of what is natural.

Overall, female passivity, culture and appearance is being challenged.  It is not surprising that a reaction ensues, based on a challenge to the collective conscience, for Durkheim.  All sorts of transgressions are involved, and disapproval is common.  Relationships sometimes broke down, for example [quotes from transcripts 146].  Dating normal men became difficult.  Families sometimes became hostile, so family occasions were avoided.  One reported being refused money in a bank because she was not seen as a woman.  Others attracted unwelcome  comments in public, and even in the gym, made with particular derision and aggression; one was challenged to arm wrestle by a stranger. Being mistaken for a man is common, as are accusations of being a lesbian.  It is more than just verbal, but a definite attempt to discredit.  It produced a divided sense of self among the women.  This reaction indicates 'deep seated anxieties' on the part of 'normal people' if not quite a moral panic. [What about the category of muscular women in pornography?]

Female bodybuilders respond in various ways.  They are aware of widespread negativity.  They do make some compromises with conventional notions, for example in 'make up, dress and posture' (147), sometimes working out 'in an ostentatiously feminine combination of hot pants and crop top'.  Some have dyed their hair and augmented their breasts, to balance femininity and muscularity.  Side effects of steroids were combated.  Presentational selves were sometimes modified in the form of particularly feminine demeanor and carriage.  Competitors are particularly encouraged to adopt 'a veneer of femininity', but this is still not a full recuperation.  None was prepared to compromise on the main aim of developing a muscular body.

Muscle building provides a pleasure that more than compensates for the costs, a positive answer to some gendered norms.  Alternative seemed intolerable.  Subcultural support was important to provide 'an alternative order of interaction based on muscular, rather than gendered foundations' (148).  Actual motivations were varied.  Some began with fitness training, others with particular events, such as seeing pictures of muscle-building women, but all had felt they needed to be 'different from dominant feminine norms'.  Enjoying visual display was a factor, combined with physical empowerment, and the domination of space and self.  They feel strong.  It is exciting to see bodies developing, even if narcissistic.

Male weightlifting has a long history, and developed in terms of some Greek ideal of symmetry.  The female body builders are taking on long established notions of femininity, but they can still enjoy the muscularity.  They see themselves as 'forging a new female look' (149).  They experienced new 'corporeal sensations and transformations' and this can induce changes of sensory experience of themselves and their environment.  There is an 'undivided focus on the body', meaning everyday worries can be forgotten, stress can be released, overwhelming thoughts and worries pushed aside.  Physical changes including release of endorphins.  The phenomenology of inhabiting a body also changes, and the women talk about muscles bursting out, growth, change, 'a heightened sense of being alive' (150), limits are pushed. Feelings have to be interpreted as pleasurable, though as with marijuana users: pain is exceeded, adrenalin is enjoyed, even 'aches and pains are enjoyed and embraced'.  Euphoria leads to 'erotic potency', enhanced by the 'sensuality and eroticism of the gym' [and the drugs?].  Women talk about being reborn, escaping passivity and subjection.  Pleasures are increased by the extra consumption of food or energy drinks, although the women can encounter obsessions parallel to 'the behaviour of anorexics'—but this is about breaking with female notions of frugality and slenderness.

A supportive milieu is required, in the form of sub cultural support and camaraderie.  The women often train with a partner in ' a dyadic intimate space'(151).  Others ask for advice or complement the women on their physique - this is the safety of being among 'their own' in Goffman to terms.  Sometimes a definite sense of collectivity emerges with the whole interaction order based on muscle rather than gender, the 'individual pursuit of sacred muscularity' and these can produce 'a new form of belonging'.  This is particularly welcome given the general social ostracism.

Female body builders are indeed 'gender outlaws' (152).  The conventional female body itself becomes foregrounded in consciousness and in culture, and this is one way out.  Body building does offer the chance for a different relationship, and the femininity involved is not easily recuperated - they stay as outlaws.  Satisfaction out ways costs, however, and involvement 'is a sensual and visceral affair', producing escalating involvement.  This may offer only symbolic or imaginary solutions to conventional norms', but female body building does produce shock as well as pleasure and self affirmation.

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