Thursday, October 28, 2010

Mind and Matter by Sheena Hunter

I sat down to write this column about an amazing personal breakthrough, but in light of the recently disclosed addition of the Women's Physique Division (WPD), it seems that my recent breakthroughs require either reconsideration or abandonment. Those of you who have been following my column might recall one of my first posts, in which I discussed the incredibly frustrating mental challenges facing me as a female bodybuilder (and in which I professed my hatred for skinny jeans...ah yes, now you remember...). I wrote of the challenges facing us as female athletes pursuing a body ideal which is constantly under the judgment and scrutiny of others. We are constantly the subject of controversy within the industry, while those outside of the industry also feel entitled to impose their ideals upon us. We are “too pretty” for bodybuilding, “too hard” for figure, “too masculine” to be women. After several months of soul-searching, I have decided that I am completely comfortable with embracing the bodybuilding physique, and the all of the criticism that comes with it. Ironically, I came to terms with my choice just as it is becoming clear that the female bodybuilding physique, as we know it, may not exist by the time my daughter reaches adulthood. This angers me.

I submit that the bodybuilding industry has made itself the standard of measure that is imposed upon all women in general. From every angle of our personal and political lives, women are pressured to perform and conform to someone else's interpretation of how we should look. I used to make a joke about some distant Board of Men Who Meet at a Big Round Table to discuss the criteria that make a perfect woman's body. It's really not that funny, if you think about it. The IFBB introduces the ideal feminine physique in progressive degrees: Bikini, Fitness/Figure, Bodybuilding. If you look closely at the posters on which competitors represent their divisions to advertise NPC events, several progressions are implied: accompanying the progression of size and muscular development is also a progression of age, normative femininity, ability, and in many cases, race. It appears that a board of men really does sit at a big round table to decide what criteria make up the perfect female body. Luckily for women in America, the men couldn't come to a unanimous decision: after all, there are “ass guys,” “boob guys,” “leg guys,” and the infamous “couch-wrestling-fanatic guys” (just take my word for it), guys who prefer younger thinner girls, guys who prefer curvy the board gave us varying categories of measure.

The IFBB has caught onto the curiosity and contempt with which the general public regards female bodybuilders. In response, the bikini division was born, the figure category got softer and smaller, and as supplement companies found advertising gold in these two categories, the female bodybuilding category declined dramatically due to the loss in sponsorship opportunities. To solidify its position as judge and jury of the female body, the IFBB is now introducing the Physique category, which is clearly designed (and predicts, no less!) to make female bodybuilding obsolete within the space of just a few years. The Men Who Meet at the Big Round Table have finally drawn the line for femininity, and huge muscular development is on the wrong side. According to one male bodybuilder who will go unnamed, “nobody wants to look at manly women onstage.” It doesn't seem to matter that we don't stand on stage and ask to be viewed as objects of sexual desire. The bottom line: women who are not pleasing to the male gaze will no longer be invited to participate in physique-related sports.

Until now, I have participated in bodybuilding specifically with the intention of acting out another possibility for the feminine physique. I was done being one of those girls who felt “too big,” or “too unfeminine,” and I was done starving my mesomorph body in hopes of becoming an ectomorph. I thought I had found a world in which a woman could be as big or as muscular as she wanted to be, judgement free. After my second show, I realized that it would never be free of judgement, but I decided to keep going. And just when I learned to embrace the funny looks and rude comments, my category has been ripped away from me. Perhaps I should say instead, my ideal has been buried and erased. Truthfully, the Physique division makes a pro card so much more achievable by me, as I will probably never be even a light-heavy; but that part of me that has chosen Nicole Krane's size over Jamie Eason's femininity is pretty pissed.

I want to conclude by articulating my own mixed feelings over this new Physique category. People have been asking me what I think, especially because of the fact that I may benefit from this category. To answer the questions: I am angry. Clearly, I'm not huge and this won't have a negative effect on me. Technically it does nothing to dampen my own physique goals, and in fact works as an advantage to me. Under the parameters of Physique, I may actually stop getting beat by women twice my size. I may even have the opportunity to compete against more than four women at a time. But it's the basic point of the matter that I find so offensive. After the YEARS that Iris Kyle has put into crafting and building her physique, some Board of Men at a Big Round Table can just decide that she no longer has a place in the industry. I am angry that the female physique is still the subject of male critique, and that in 2011 women are still fighting to define our own femininities. I am angry that women are still so dependent on male privilege that they don't even see that their own attitudes have made them complicit in our confinement. I am angry, and I am still trying to decide what to do about it. I'll keep you posted.

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