Muscle Sport Magazine

The Sex Factor: Exposing the Feminine ‘Ideal’ That’s Anything But

By Heather Leff – Sex. Let’s talk about it for a minute. Because it’s a hard topic to ignore when it comes to the world of female bodybuilding.


It’s everywhere. Screaming from the pretty little pages of glossy fitness mags. Seeping from the tricked out booths at the shows. And ruling the stage for the female contestants who are controlled by its jurisdiction, as it smugly wags its pointed finger in their faces.


It’s a little something called the ‘femininity rule’ that’s as vague as it is vital, and will make or break a woman in this business. It’s a blurred benchmark by which women must measure themselves in order to be accepted by the masses and the judges. Toned, tight, smooth, defined…but not too toned, tight, smooth, defined. Oh, and let’s not forget the rest of the overall fem-de-la-fem package that entails flawless hair, makeup, tan and pushed-up boobs. It’s this equation that remains an overpowering, underlying constant in the FBB community. And it just continues to pulse through it, slowly gyrating at the center of society’s stiff standard, which keeps getting shoved down our throats.

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So riddle me this: with a subject as subjective as femininity, how can that be the governing force? How can living up to what’s defined by people’s opinions be justified? This only leads to inconsistency, especially in results. And it’s tough to conceive of change with organizations like the WPC and IFBB calling the shots, especially when they’re led by deep-rooted beliefs that money is only tied to women who meet their criteria.

And it’s not that I don’t get it. Sex sells. But what I don’t get is why it has to be at the forefront of how women are being judged or defined. Female bodybuilders aren’t really there to be sexy. Or live up to some media-hyped perception. They’re there to be the best. To achieve the near impossible with their super-human bodies that they’ve spent days, weeks, months, years, a lifetime pushing to the limit. And that’s what should make them stand proud and reign supreme…as valued athletes, not suppressed females.


I can honestly say that I’d take being the strongest chick in the gym over the sexiest any day. Because when it comes to doing work the way these competitors or I do, the two mesh into one. Stripping away the stereotype, being an individual and plain doing you is what this sport should be about. And I’d love to see female bodybuilders break those sex-laden chains draped over them for so long and gain the respect they deserve.


I wonder if that time will come when sex and relegated femininity don’t play such a defining role. But with the slow and silent power struggle we’ve seen for decades, it’s anyone’s guess.

Take the 1970s. In an era booming with feminism, women began finding their voice and manifesting their inner strength into physical prowess. They were freer to play by their own rules. But even though they were ready, it was evident society wasn’t. The masses couldn’t accept that females could keep pace with men…or possibly lap them. It was still about showing femininity in their form, no matter what their division. So, if they were competing in bodybuilding, they were basically SOL, as that kind of muscle mass was seen as a ‘manly’ disadvantage.


Then the ‘80s happened, and perhaps brought with it the crux of the feminine fallacy. Along came the first Ms. (at the time, Miss) Olympia, and its winner, Rachel McLish. Some argue she single-handedly pushed the FBB envelope forward with a new standard. Eyes and minds began to open to the idea that women could have more muscle and be sexy…but femininity still played its unwavering part, as evidenced by the judges’ rule.


McLish, in my opinion, toed the line, instead of redefining it. She possessed an amazing body, but an attainable one, resting her laurels on her good looks and striking symmetry, rather than the unparalleled size it takes to don the Ms. O crown. She was a watered-down powerhouse. Unlike Carla Dunlap and Bev Francis, who were the types of badasses the FBB world needed to blow the doors off. No conforming. Just legit showing up with a physique more muscular than the stage had ever seen. Proving it was okay to develop the strength, power and muscularity it takes to rival the big boys, despite if the masses were ready. They nailed the true essence of female empowerment. It was about size, not sex. They defined by defying.


But that isn’t to say, once women started to take power, controversy didn’t continue to challenge them. Take the 1992 Ms. International, when the IFBB tried to feminize the sport in writing, going so far as to create…yup, “femininity rules.” Like, competitors shouldn’t be “too big.” So when a 130-pound German blonde took the win, much to the chagrin of a booing audience and Schwarzenegger himself, it was obvious that the governing bodies’ perception of marketability was still the driving force.

Looking at things from that end, it’s evident that women’s hands will continue to be tied. They won’t rise above until, once and for all, they shut that little voice up that’s telling them to equate their value as athletes to their level of femininity. It’s not until they demand respect as individuals that they’ll find themselves on equal ground with their male counterparts. Otherwise, they’ll just be glorified enablers.


My hope is that there’s only so long you can hold a good (and hella-strong) woman down by these ideals. And that the organizations and sponsors finally ‘get it.’ This femininity death grip holds much more power over these athletes than just who wins the titles and trophies. They’re positive, motivating forces. And allowing them to unleash their untapped potential is way more useful than having them continue fighting this uphill battle of the sexes.


So I have to trust that, while the feminine ideal may be the proverbial double standard on women’s backs today, the weight of words like mine will start to lift it off in days to come. The time is now to judge on what really powers them…their driving determination to change the game, not be defined by it.


Now that’s a topic worth talking about.


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