The Language Of The Female Physique


The female physique continues to be a constant topic of
debate between those intent on controlling it and those who wish to be freed
from its constraints, as women strive to become separated from how the world
views their bodies. A woman’s gender role requires the strict adherence to the
ideal female form judged by standards of femininity that are culturally
specific and historically located designed to keep her in a perpetual state of
weakness. There are numerous examples from popular culture which outlines how
women’s power has become dictated by the media, their weakness embedded in a
language that glamorizes addiction and their continued participation reinforced
through the adoption of Western standards of beauty across the globe in a
deliberate intent to create and maintain control over their body and mind. The
combination of these efforts serve to keep women’s progress under wraps and
prevent them from attaining any real form of power or sense of control over
their lives.


Sexualization of Female Athletes

The prevailing attitude remains that in order for a woman
to be successful in any area that has been traditionally a male pursuit, she
must exhibit a level of sexual attractiveness that appeals to some socially
created standard of femininity. Through the direct influences of mass media,
female gender roles have been influenced by what sociologist Morag Macsween
calls the “irreconcilability of individuality and femininity, the way
individuality, despite its surface presentation as a gender-neutral category,
is culturally associated with the masculine.1 Terms such as femininity and
masculinity have become part of our everyday language designed to define
acceptable standards and limits on what members of each gender are able to
accomplish.

There is no greater example of this that exists than in
the portrayal of the female bodybuilder, as our culture continues to undermine
the efforts of female athletes by humiliating and exploiting their physiques as
a way to cater to male sexual desire. Female bodybuilders challenge the shared
assumption that men are, and will always be, more powerful than women. Society
has continued to over sexualize women’s bodies in a concerted effort to
diminish them from attaining any real power, as it is much easier to accept a
muscular woman if she is portrayed as overtly sexual. As a result, women have
learned to justify and/or apologize for their physical development in order to
be accepted by a population who fails to understand it.

While male identity relies on being able to give the
impression of being strong, in learning to become female, girls are taught to
project a physical presence that speaks of latent vulnerability.2 The message
relayed to young women is not to get too strong or too muscular and to stay
smaller, so as to seem weaker than the boys.3 The women themselves have held
back their progress for fear of being punished for their accomplishments by an
industry that has set them up to be in constant competition with one another for
their femininity, rather than their physiques.

The irony is that, as women, female bodybuilders have
acknowledged society’s view of the feminine ideal, chosen to reject it, yet
still allow themselves to be judged by it. Many of these women have a vested
interest in proclaiming their femininity and attempt to resolve the conflict by
over emphasing their feminine side with makeup, jewelry, provocative clothing
and constant references to their boyfriends.4 As more and more women buy into
this concept, it no longer becomes necessary to reinforce it as they begin to
perpetuate it among themselves.

In an attempt to redefine what constitutes an acceptable
level of muscularity on the female physique, female bodybuilders have had their
images replaced with toned down versions of themselves. It is not that the
public cannot accept muscular women, it’s that they can’t grasp the connection
between what most find represents a contradiction in terms. On the one hand
their image portrays a rejection to the ideal female form and, on the other, an
attempt to make up for it. Female bodybuilders have been taught to equate their
value as athletes from their level of sexual attractiveness, and allow others
to judge them solely on this basis.

Women with muscle are thought to be particularly offensive
to a number of mainstream publications as they contradict notions of gender
appropriateness. The fitness industry continues to attack female bodybuilders
who they neither feature in their magazine, support with their products or
value as their target market. This sexist attitude towards muscular women is
clearly a conscious effort on the part of the mainstream media to appeal to an
adolescent audience that is highly predictable.

As women have gotten physically stronger, homophobia has
gotten increasingly more powerful to keep up with the demand. Outside of the
world of female muscle, a fear of having their schools overrun with lesbians
has influenced many local athletic directors not to add girls’ sports, such as
basketball, to their schools varsity programs. In the US, College coaches began
using lesbianism as a negative recruiting tool.5 The WNBA also made an attempt
to represent the Association in a way that would counteract the public’s fears
about the players and the sport being homosexual.6

Enter the Myth of the “Mannish” woman and the
treatment and criticism of successful female athletes in recent years. In the
1960’s women in different international competitions were required to present
themselves to a panel of judges for visual examination of their genitalia and
later, the “Barr” sex test was implemented to ensure that each
athlete had two complete XX and no Y-chromosomes.7 Martina Navratilova was
criticized as she couldn’t possibly be a “real” woman, being
portrayed as some type of misfit, an Amazon, “a bleached blonde Czech
bisexual defector” as labeled by a writer for Sports Illustrated.8
Suggestions were also made that she was something other than a
“natural” female, as a writer for Time magazine revealed “in
order to play so well, Martina must have a chromosomic screw loose
somewhere.” Only those women who had successfully achieved femininity were
rewarded, however their athletic accomplishments went largely unrecognized.9

Female Muscle Meets Heroin Chic

Women’s weakness has become embedded in a culture that
glamorizes addiction through mindless commercialism, meant to target and
encourage women into adopting dangerous addictions, related to both food and
drugs to have them “fit” with the next fashion trend. Picture the
following scenario:

A plague is sweeping the nation, wiping out thousands of
young men. Not just ordinary men, but the best and the brightest as they adopt
dangerous rituals that prevent them from ever reaching their full potential.
Estimates are that 1 in 5 have been stricken with the disease and the numbers
are growing by leaps and bounds. Among those afflicted, a secret language has
developed that enables them to communicate easily to the others. The media,
being alerted to the disease, exasperates their condition by producing
advertisements meant to encourage and foster the further development of the
disease. These men are fading, the victims are pleading for help, but they are
stuck in a society that continues to ignore the problem because the intention
is to keep these men weak.

This disease is real, but it isn’t wiping out hoards of
young men, it is destroying the lives of women across the board, afflicting
women of all races, social class and cultural identities. No one is interested
in doing anything about it because of the gender of its victims; this would
never be allowed to happen to young men. Terms such as “anorexia” and
“heroin chic” have been developed in response to the growing numbers
of young women suffering from dangerous addictions to both food and drugs. They
have become embedded in a secret language that glamorizes weakness and markets
addiction to a highly receptive audience. From an early age, young girls become
preoccupied with size, with looking too big and begin dieting frantically
setting themselves up for uncontrollable eating disorders. 5 to 7% of America’s
12 million undergraduates are afflicted with anorexia, bulimia or binge eating,
with a mortality rate of 20% among anorexics, the highest of any mental
disorder.10

Girls are trained to halt the development of their bodies
at puberty because of the cultural proscription against females being strong.
As a result, girls weaken themselves unnaturally. This femininity training is
what makes women hide their sexuality, while enabling men to display it.11 It
didn’t take long for the look to go mainstream when fashion photography started
producing provocative images that glamorized heroin abuse and commercial
photographers began copying the style for high-profile advertising campaigns.12
This type of advertising functions in a way that portrays the “models who
grace the covers of Vogue” as “standards for the whole of
womankind.” It’s not necessary to articulate an explicit law, every woman
simply knows what is expected of her, what it means to be a beautiful woman.13

Fashion photography is clearly more persuasive, causes
greater danger and has the potential to negatively influence young girls as
they seek to define and develop into mature women. By focusing on models that
look sickly, rather than healthy and promoting weakness over strength,
advertisers continue to send a message of acceptability for the addictive
behaviors they inspire and influence generations of women to buy into their
twisted sense of liberation and false consciousness. Young women need only to
look at the pictures in order to internalize this continuous assault on their
bodies that has taught them to remain passive and weak.

The Globalization of Beauty

Notions of “ideal femininity” are reinforced
through the adoption of Western standards of beauty in a deliberate attempt to
create and maintain the ideal female form. Evident in the continued focus in
academia of certain civilizations over others, specific ideas about gender
relations between the sexes are perpetuated in the classroom and transported to
other cultures around the globe.

The dawn of Western Civilization represents the beginning
of the end for women’s history giving rise to our current patriarchial system
which our society continues to hold dear. As a result, female inferiority was
born through the book of Genesis as women became a mere derivative of man,
created from Adam’s rib. Young men in classrooms around the world also studied
the teachings of Aristotle, whose view of reproduction held that women were
mutilated males. Not to be outdone by Freud, who described women as castrated
males, envious of the prize awarded to men, but not women. This
“natural” theory got converted into “social” theory through
the emergence of Social Darwinism, which was used to justify men’s continual
dominance and rule over women.

Later, Talcott Parsons, an eminent sociologist, convinced
his followers that gender identities and behaviors are not “an arbitrary
imposition on an infinitely plastic biological base” but rather “an
adjustment to the real biological differences between the sexes.14 He used his
writings to argue that distinctions between masculine and feminine traits are
biological/natural rather than cultural/artificial, and that without rigid gender
dimorphism, society could not function as well as it does now, asserting once
again, that women’s subordination to men is natural.15

The fear of female physical power continues to transcend
cultures around the globe. Mass communication has made the world into a global
village and more than a few countries have begun to express interest in
adopting American cultural practices as their own.

Particularly in Nigeria, a social transformation has begun
to take hold across Africa’s most populous. In a region where “ample
backsides and bosoms were once considered ideals of female beauty”, their
new Miss World, has been described as a “white girl in black skin.”16
The Globalization of Beauty is in full force and Barbie, or better still,
Agbani has taken over the world and all she had to do was smile, North American
style.

The thin “It” girls are now called
“lepa”, using a Yoruba word that means thin, having never been
applied to people in their culture before.17 In the United States slimness may
be an ideal, but many ethnic groups in this region traditionally celebrate
larger women, some women even take livestock feed or vitamins to bulk up.
Before their weddings, brides are sent to fattening farms, where their
caretakers feed them huge amounts of food and massage them into rounder shapes.
After weeks inside the fattening farms, the big brides are finally let out and
paraded in the Village Square.18 Parents are now urging their daughters to take
part in beauty pageants, due to the success of the lepa girls, as people have
begun to understand that slim is beautiful.19

Gender as Identity

Key to any patriarchal society, is the use of certain
facts about the physiology of man and woman as the basis for constructing a set
of identities and behaviors that work to empower men and disempower women known
as gender.20 Society convinces itself that cultural constructions are somehow
“natural” and that one’s “normality” depends on their
ability to display the gender identities and behaviors society deems consistent
with one’s biological sex.21 We know that they are meaningless concepts, as the
rules are continuously changing, but a woman’s femininity continues to be
unfairly emphasized and girls are encouraged to remain passive and weak.22

Supposedly “natural” differences in strength
between men and women are used to validate the differences in the amount of
social power they hold. Because men have stronger bodies in contrast to women’s
inherently weaker ones, they serve to justify why men naturally have, and need,
more power.23 In the world of athletics, elite athletes look and act more alike
than they do different, exhibiting traits that are common to them as a group
and not assigned to one gender over another. The very notion that women feel
that they have to ascribe to some social standard of femininity in order to be
competitive is sexist at its very core. If a woman with muscle in more of a
man, then is a man without muscle more of a woman? For women, the dangerous
implications of these cultural norms include negative self-esteem, poor body
image, a predisposition to eating disorders, substance abuse and addictions
that prevent them from reaching their full potential. We talk about the
“secret language of eating disorders” and terms such as “heroin
chic” as part of our everyday vocabulary, as if they too will pass, when
in reality they have been internalized by a generation of young women in a
culture that continues to glamorize the weak female form.

As a result, identity for women relies solely on their
ability to shape their bodies, while the media attempts to shape their minds,
creating an incredible amount of anxiety and self-hatred. In a capitalist-run
society like ours where those in charge equate money with power, it becomes a
way to sell product and continue making profit off of an exploited segment of
the population. It serves to maintain control over their bodies. It further
exists to focus their minds on frivolous things, keeping any legitimate
concerns at surface level, thus preventing them from attaining any real power
and sense of control over their lives. It fuels multi-million dollar cosmetic,
fashion and diet industries designed to have constantly changing standards so
as to continue the pursuit of the next fashion trend, always making the women
want more. It’s not just the magazines, the movies or the models that are
portrayed; it’s the combination of it all, putting a tremendous amount of
pressure on women of all ages.

Society continues to be disturbed by a woman’s level of
physical development due to commonly held misconceptions of gender and body
morphology. Phrases such as feminine muscle and muscular femininity should no
longer sit well with the next generation of women and will have to respond to
it by questioning if, in fact, muscle really does have a gender. Gender, a term
that links our sexuality and biology into well-defined roles of what should and
shouldn’t be; of natural and biological, of physical, emotional and
intellectual. Women will remain in a perpetual state of weakness as long as
these rigid gender roles, requiring the strict adherence to the ideal female
form judged by standards of femininity, remain a priority in our culture. The
resulting language that is communicated and developed worldwide maintains the
status quo for those with a vested interest in keeping women in a second-class
position forever.

Femininity is a concept that cannot be defined objectively
and is open to a wide degree of interpretation and subjective criticism. It is
not inherent and, therefore, not something that any individual should have to
aspire to. For some, these terms continue to have meaning, but for the vast
majority of others, they cannot, as the cost of not being able to measure up is
much too high.


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