Many people wonder about the cause for what seems to be a rapid degradation in the significance of female bodybuilding over the last two decades in both pop-culture and the fitness industry itself. While some cite the growing physiques of unattainable stature and enhanced supplement usage being pushed to new boundaries as the cause of this phenomena, I believe it is a gender identity issue that has developed in female bodybuilding as a result of both science and society’s rapid advancement into the 21st-century. As a consequence of these steps forward in medical sciences and developments in societal attitudes towards gender and gender identity, the federations that judge these contests and set the standards are left to try and catch up, so both female bodybuilders as well as the organizations that judge these contests face the strange dilemma of defining and meeting socially-constructed gender roles to a degree greater than that of most other divisions.
Sports are a social construction that many times indirectly reflects our society’s values and character at that moment in time, and bodybuilding is no exception. Often we look back and we think, oh boy what were we doing?! One such instance is before the civil rights movement almost every major sports federation had yet to be integrated, which did not allow blacks and whites to play in the same leagues. It wasn’t until Jackie Robinson’s undeniable performance led him to a MLB MVP title in his debut season that changed the standard and served as one of the forces behind the acceptance of Blacks / African-Americans during a pivotal period in the civil-rights movement. This social reflection in sports does not stop at issues of race though; other elements include, but are not limited to, performance and gender roles in our society as well.
Performance-enhancing supplements are used in all sports by athletes of both genders, yet the general population still subscribes to the fantasy that turns a blind eye to the subject. We love to see the big hits, high scores, round muscles, and fast runs, yet many in society choose to stick their heads in the sand as to how these feats are being accomplished due to an outdated mentality that over glorifies the past and in many cases only hinders future advancement. This willful ignorance has left the vast majority of people uneducated as to the facts and realities of the real world pertaining to performance enhancement.
Instead of educating themselves, the public is left to formulate their opinions with leftover Prime-Time media propaganda from the “steroid era” in baseball which some sports reporters have blindly claimed to be over, Yet the 2011 MVP in baseball has been popped once already for PEDs, only getting off on a technicality. Hence, an athlete such as Lance Armstrong who is willing and has gone to extraordinary lengths to fool a great majority of the population and Tour De France officials for over a decade can get away with it, simply because he does not meet the muscle-bound, roid-raging, backknee freak, stereotype developed after Mark McGwire and Sammy Sosa by an uneducated media. Bodybuilders still have a target on their back due to their physical appearance.
Bodybuilders in turn suffer the consequence because it is many times unavoidable to notice the exaggerated and enhanced physiques previously unattainable without modern science, and so bodybuilders are often the ones forced to publicly address these issues in ways other athletes are not required to simply because of the way they look. People in all sports must cover their own asses, and many, if not most, are willing to lie to the public in order to protect or advance their own position and status. Just look at the code of silence in the NFL which uses “Deer Antler” as a red herring to the real “supplements” being used to help players achieve something otherwise physically impossible. This is one of the many things about the bodybuilding culture that is unique compared to other sports in that there’s no real secret to the supplement usage going on. As bad as these societal consequences can be for male bodybuilders, they are even more exaggerated for females who face a whole new set of social challenges unique to them.
Where do we draw the line? Who has the right to decide what is defined as feminine and what is not? What makes it okay for a man to push the boundaries of his physique and it’s supported in our industry, but if a female chooses to do the same, she is shunned? This isn’t the 1950’s anymore when women weren’t even allowed membership to the gym, but instead now we are just trying to limit how hard they can train while there, just because it doesn’t meet our preconceived notions of femininity. Women aren’t Barbie dolls that come prepared in some box with make-up painted on and fake blonde hair, so why then do the judges demand that they meet these requirements? Does wearing earrings and makeup make you women? Because last I checked, all it physically required is two X chromosomes. If females want to push their limits to the furthest extremes in the same way men do, it is their body and they should have a right to do so.
The physiques on stage and sciences are moving forward at such a rapid rate that it is time both competitive organizations and society catch up and deal with these issues rather than trying to sweep the problem under a rug by slowly moving to eliminating female bodybuilding altogether. By addressing these issues, I believe we would (at least temporarily) solve the gender identity conflict that plagues female bodybuilding and is pushing so many away from the division due in part to this awkward standstill affecting both athlete and judges who aren’t entirely sure what they should be looking for.
Many argue that the creation of Women’s Physique Division is the first step in the elimination of bodybuilding, but I think WPD is what might be the saving grace for female bodybuilding by allowing a new working definition going into the rest of the 21st century to resolve this identity crisis once and for all. Both these divisions promote alternate avenues for female competitors and more options never hurt, especially as more and more competitors join the industry. While WPD allows females to put on a ton of muscle while maintaining aspects of the societal standards that define what is feminine, female bodybuilding standards should be the same as for men (though separate divisions) with just as high standards in Muscle / Conditioning, No Holds Barred. Why not? It is time to remove the double standard in bodybuilding. No one is forcing these female competitors to push to these extremes, but they shouldn’t be punished if they want to, especially since females who still want to go HAM at the gym without going to these same extremes now have the WPD which allows them to do so.
We as a smaller subculture of bodybuilders need to first embrace our own before we can ever expect the general public to accept us. Instead we are pushing away and ostracizing the already limited numbers of participants in the sport thinking that they are what is keeping the industry from being more mainstream, and that these issues will just go away if ignored. In reality, it is these unaddressed issues that have inhibited our progress, and it is up to us to start to change the mainstream mentality, but first we must begin to address the realities of our own situation and take a long look in the mirror. (If competitors don’t do this enough already!)
At the end of the day, it is important to remember that female bodybuilding was one of the pivotal divisions for over two decades in maintaining these organizations that now want to eliminate the division entirely. It is also important to remember that these organizations were the ones that were rewarding the ever advancing physiques and allowed the subtle changes to take place over time to begin with. These organizations owe it to these athletes they created, and who support them to keep the division around.
In the words of Tupac Shakur in response to the large domestic outcry upon the release of his multi-platinum album: “I’m America’s child. You can’t just turn me off like that. “