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Female bodybuilding and the politics of muscle : how female bodybuilders negotiate race, gender, and (hetro)sexuality in bodybuilding competition Boyle, Ellexis

Abstract

Since the launch of women's bodybuilding as a spectator sport in the United States in 1979, the relationship between femininity and muscularity has been fraught with contradictions. Current developments in women's bodybuilding have seen the institutionalization of 'femininity' as an official judging criterion as well as the overrepresentation of less than muscular fitness and physique athletes in mainstream bodybuilding magazines. Based upon interviews with six competitive female bodybuilders, my research seeks to understand female bodybuilders' subjective understandings of their practice. How do they negotiate attempts by bodybuilding gatekeepers to police the boundaries of female muscle and how do they reproduce and/or resist social norms of race, gender and (hetero)sexuality in their understandings and practice? My theoretical framework draws on a range of feminist perspectives (Laurie Schultz 1990; St Martin and Gavey 1996; Jacqueline Brady 2001; Jennifer Wesley 2001) that theorize women's engagements with bodybuilding as a negotiation of gender norms. My contribution to this literature is to explore, in more depth, how heterosexuality and race, as central tenets of normative femininity, structure the sport and how women negotiate pressures to reproduce them. I explore four main themes that arose from the six interview transcripts: 1) Why women build, 2) How they perceive the relationship of muscularity to femininity, 3) How normative femininity shapes their competitive performances and 4) How they make sense of sexualized portrayals of female bodybuilders in bodybuilding magazines. I draw on anti-racist feminist methodologies which attempt to render power visible to help me work towards minimizing unequal relations of power between myself and my research participants. Though most of my analysis is based upon the interview transcripts, with the permission the participants, I also analyze some of her photographs published in a bodybuilding magazine. My research reveals that gender structures the participants' engagements with bodybuilding in complex and multiple ways. Their attitudes towards bodybuilding suggest that their practice is not an escape from gender norms nor as a means to better fulfill them, but as an alternative strategy used by women to negotiate classed, racialized and heterosexist expectations of normative femininity.

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