Athletic vs. Pornographic Eroticism


Athletic vs. Pornographic Eroticism

How Muscle Magazines Compromise Female Athletes and Delegitimize the Sport of Bodybuilding in the Public Eye

by Leslie Heywood, Ph.D.
State University of New York, Binghamton

"I was fast asleep," Ben Weider writes, "on the morning of the 30th of January, when sometime around 3 AM, I received a telephone call from Nagano, Japan, informing me that the IFBB had been granted official IOC recognition and that bodybuilding was now a sport to be respected the same as other sports."i Weider waxes lyrical about the years it has taken to reach this goal: his struggle to legitimize a sport that--though those of us within the bodybuilding community may hold it dear, giving it much of our free time as well as the literal sweat off our brows--still isn't seen by the mainstream as a sport. Nope. For the most part, out in the "real world," bodybuilding is still seen as a pathetic parade of narcissistic steroid freaks.

Weider's quest for legitimacy is one that conceivably the entire bodybuilding community would support, including the legitimization of the sport's female participants. Yet, as is Flex's custom, a little over a hundred pages after Weider's story, the magazine runs a pictorial of fitness competitor Minna Lessig so trivializing and prurient in its focus (Minna sprawled with her head upside down, corkscrew curls cascading down, open-mouthed, eyes closed, on her back across a stool with a base like a corkscrew to mirror her hair, wearing the requisite satin briefs and heels) that it indisputably contributes to the fact that female bodybuilders and fitness competitors are not respected the same as athletes in other sports. In the long struggle for legitimacy that has finally seen some progress, I would argue that as long as there is pornographic representation of female bodybuilders and fitness competitors within the bodybuilding magazines, the sport's main outlet for media exposure, Weider's dream of mainstream acceptance will remain compromised and bodybuilding will not be taken seriously as a sport. Until bodybuilding treats its female athletes with a modicum of the respect they surely deserve, it will remain the marginalized freak show that it stages in the mainstream cultural imagination today.

In the midst of a mad cultural dash in a forward direction, something went definitively retro in the mid-nineties, and it wasn't the return of platform shoes or the resurgence of the BeeGees, and certainly not the comeback of the Volkswagen Bug. Retro isn't always a bad thing--it's harmless, and is so openly nostalgic it can even be kind of fun, reminding us of our rough and ready carefree days when our lives seemed simpler. But when retro means turning back the clock on progressive ideas about women's strength, it isn't harmless, and when the bodybuilding magazines started to overtly sexualize the top female competitors in 1993 or '94, this kind of representation did much more harm than good. More is at stake here than regressive and progressive ideas about gender, which is a seemingly endless and unanswerable debate. As I have discussed at some length in my recent book Bodymakers: A Cultural Anatomy of Women's Bodybuilding, there are several approaches to the representation of female athletes, and the nude or erotic portrayals of Olympic athletes seen in the mixed-gender layouts in Life magazine in the summer of 1996 make the soft-porn photographic styles characteristic of the bodybuilding magazines seem laughably regressive. Given rapid and primarily progressive changes in cultural attitudes toward female athletes in the `90's, when Flex torqued up the let's-make-female-bodybuilders-sexy bandwagon in 1994 with its Power and Sizzle pictorials (making the incorrect assumption that they were not sexy without the props of porn), despite greater exposure and much positive response, it did so at the cost of the sport's public legitimacy.ii

In his recent book The Erotic in Sports, sports historian Allen Guttmann takes issue with criticisms of media representations of female athletes which make a rigid distinction between athleticism and eroticism. Many critics, he explains, question representations where an athlete is represented as a "`sexy female' rather than as a `serious, committed athlete with a discipline and desire for athletic excellence.'"iii In the period the critics analyze, previous to the mid-nineties, representations did tend to fall in an either /or categorization that either presented female athletes as serious, desexualized competitors, or as sexualized bodies whose athleticism existed only for the sake of enhancing sex appeal.

But representations that combine both athleticism and eroticism have appeared more and more frequently since the 1996 Olympics. Guttmann writes that "the media can be faulted whenever they focus mainly or exclusively on a female athlete's erotic appeal, which is what they often did in the past, but it is time to recognize that most of today's journalists are more than willing to acknowledge the strength, endurance, toughness, and skills of women . . . Neanderthals still roam the airwaves, but they are a dying species."iv If you compare any of the other sports magazines and their progressive, athletic and erotic representations of female athletes to those pruriently reductive, cliche-ridden, cheaply sexualized images found in bodybuilding industry publications like Flex, Ironman, Musclemag International, or All Natural Muscular Development, one might be led to believe that, true to stereotype, the bodybuilding industry is staffed by just such a dying species. Come on, guys, isn't it time to start rewriting the cliches about male bodybuilders as well, to refute the dominant cultural perception that bodybuilders are regressively sexist, brainless hunks of flesh--in a word, Neanderthals?

The disclaimer that used to run in front of the Power and Sizzle pictorials argued that female bodybuilders, who are rejected by the mainstream, would be more accepted by said mainstream if it realized how sexually attractive female bodybuilders really are, and promoting this realization was the ostensible reason for the monthly pictorial. That particular Flex strategy was not without precedent. Historically, the sexualization of female athletes has often been used to sell women's sports, as when the women's baseball leagues of the forties sported deliberately sexy uniforms, or when, in the late eighties, before the more recent explosion of interest, the women's basketball team at Louisiana's Northwestern State University were asked to pose in Playboy bunny costumes for their school's media guide. In a cultural climate that was hostile or indifferent to female athletic participation, overt sexualization may have been a necessary strategy, a way of building an audience that would lead to broader forms of acceptance and respect. But in a cultural climate that has recently shown itself to be enthusiastically embracing the female athlete, this strategy becomes regressive and dated, and may, in fact, contribute to the continued marginalization of the sport of bodybuilding at the very time when other women's sports--women's hockey, for instance, are enjoying widespread acceptance.
I. Female Athletes: Recent Cultural Developments

There is a powerful, affirmative movement growing in our culture, and the bodybuilding industry doesn't seem to be part of it. The bodybuilding world avoids joining this movement at its peril, for at least since the summer Olympics of 1996, female athletes have been hailed as the latest site for girls' and women's empowerment, and the widespread public acceptance of the female athlete--long, long overdue--has been resounding, and for good reasons.

Women in athletics has emerged as a national public health issue of great importance. The landmark study written under the auspices of The President's Council of Physical Fitness and Sports, the report "Physical Activity & Sport in the Lives of Young Girls" was the first to "look at `the complete girl' through an interdisciplinary approach to investigate the impact of physical activity and sport participation." The study concluded that

regular physical activity can reduce girls' risk of many of the chronic diseases of adulthood; female athletes do better academically and have lower school drop-out rates than their nonathletic counterparts; and regular physical activity can enhance girls' mental health, reducing symptoms of stress and depression and improving self esteem. But further vigilance and research are needed to ensure that all girls and boys can experience the same benefits (5).v

Given the importance of these findings, the study of women and girls in athletics is a major and exponentially growing area of research. According to the President's Council study, in the two-plus decades since Title IX, federal legislation passed in 1972 that prohibited sex discrimination in education, women's athletic participation nationally has grown from 300,000 to roughly 2.25 million participants today. In light of this rapid development, scholars and educators have begun to research the impact of athletic participation on the lives of girls and women and have found that there is significant correlation between sports participation, high grade point average, greater well-being and sense of self-esteem and significant achievement later in life.

Perhaps because of increased participation as well as these findings, female athletes now have a distinctive place in the mass media. In the spring of 1996, Nike ran its famous "If You Let Me Play" campaign, which focused the social debate and research on female athletes: "If you let me play/ I will like myself more / I will have more self-confidence / I will suffer less depression / I will be 60% less likely to get breast cancer / I will be more likely to leave a man who beats me / I will be less likely to get pregnant before I want to / I will learn what it means to be strong / If you let me play sports." In the October 1995 issue of Outside magazine, the cover story "The Ubergirl Cometh" proclaimed a new archetype for women: "The age of Gabrielle Reece is upon us. She's big, she's strong, and with thousands more like her out there, she's replicating fast . . . Reece leads a pack of women who are currently redefining our image of the female athlete, inspiring a generation of young girls to take control of their bodies and pride in their strength . . . Can you deal with that?"vi

This image of female athlete is new. Mass market appeal to the female athlete is new. Offering up athletics as a solution to social problems most often suffered by women is new. A large demographic of women who participate in organized sports is new. The assumption that enough women live in the athlete's world--defined by bravery, competence, and strength--to make up a viable market is new. Female athletes were once oddities, goddesses or monsters, exceptions to every social rule. Now the female athlete is an institution.

She's the product of late twentieth-century times: the growth of a consumer economy which meant more women in jobs for the first time, the expansion of the entertainment industry and thereby of sports, a culture marked by progressive movements for change--race rights, gay rights, women's rights, a culture taking notice of girls and the different women they become. Chief among these was the passage of Title IX, the Education Act of 1972, which mandated equal funding and facilities for women's sports in any institution receiving federal dollars. This one piece of legislation would make millions of women into athletes, changing the shape of the female body forever. The female athlete, set against old ideas of female incompetence and physical weakness, the woman's place is decorative and is in the home.

Reports that herald the coming of the Ubergirl and that play to the issue of girls' self-esteem are to some extent responses to the famous 1991 AAUW study, "Shortchanging Girls, Shortchanging America," the first extensive national survey on gender and self-esteem, which reconfirmed earlier work like that of Carol Gilligan. The AAUW study showed that adolescence, for girls, brought a loss of confidence in their abilities to succeed, bitterly critical feelings about their bodies, and a mushrooming sense that they aren't valued by the world around them with a resulting sense of personal inadequacy.

Since the AAUW study, there has been a growing understanding of issues relevant to girls and self-esteem, which has led to social initiatives like the "Bring Your Daughter to Work Day." Along with these initiatives, one of the most frequently advanced solutions for the esteem problem is sports, and recently the National Girls and Women in Sports Day (Feb. 5) has been coupled with a "Take a Girl to the Game" program, which is modeled on "Bring Your Daughter to Work." Such events show a growing consensus that a lifestyle for girls and women which includes sports or regular physical activity of some kind will "inspire a generation of young girls to take control of their bodies and pride in their strength."

There is a new ideal image that matches these social initiatives to value girls. As a recent article in New York Times Magazine pointed out, the athletic, muscular woman is an image that has no historical precedent, and that, while slow in catching on, has spread like wildfire in the late '90's. Around the time of the '96 Olympics, Holly Brubach celebrated the new "Athletic Esthetic," a "new ideal emerging whose sex appeal is based on strength." Looking at female athletes, at the rapid flowering of ads that show athletic women, Brubach writes, "These women exude competence; they can carry their own suitcases. Their muscles, like the fashion models' slenderness, are hard-earned, but here the means is not abstinence but exertion. Though their bodies have been meticulously cultivated, their bodies aren't the point: the point is their ability to perform. What is most striking, given that it's the other two ideals [anorexic and voluptuous; Kate Moss and Victoria's Secret] that are calculated to please--to win the admiration of women or the affection of men--is the fact that these athletes seem content in a way that the other women don't."

The kind of personal integrity Bruback eludes to in the athletic image is not a new idea. Advocates of women's sports, from educators to participants, have been articulating the benefits of athletic participation for most of the century, but it isn't until very recently that these ideas have gained widespread cultural currency. What happened to make arguments which once fell on deaf ears suddenly register so powerfully on the national radar? What made mainstream public perceptions of the female athlete shift so radically from the pejorative female athlete as "mannish lesbian" stereotype to the glorified "women we love who kick ass" of the present moment? What happened to facilitate--finally--the formation of women's professional leagues, most visibly in basketball?

Part of the cultural shift has a simple demographic explanation. At the time of Title IX, 1 in 9 women participated in organized sports, while now the statistics are 1 in 3. More bodies, more interest. Nike was the first to make the female athlete as athlete, not just a pretty girl, central to its advertising campaigns, and many other imitators were soon to follow in the `female-athlete-as-the-ideal-image-of-female-power' trend. At first it was just athletic apparel companies like Reebok and Lady Footlocker, Champs, but after the 1996 Olympics the athletic female body was paired with everything from Evian ("Within me lives a superhero") to Diet Mountain Dew to Movado watches. As a result, the athletic female body has finally made it on the cultural scene. For those of us who have been athletes for a long time, it's a bit like what feminist rocker/actress Courtney Love says of her recent spate of cover appearances: that after years of invisibility or vilification, "it's like being popular all of a sudden. You know?" We know. After years of being told we are too muscular or too big, too aggressive and domineering, our bodies and the attitudes that go with them have been accepted and even glorified, offered in the mass media as a models of strength, possibility, and personal integrity for young women, an example of our growing power in the world. How could the situation be any better? In short, the cultural stage is set in a way it has never been set before for the widespread cultural acceptance of female bodybuilders as real athletes.
II. Bodybuilding and Representation: Athletic Eroticism vs. Pornographic Eroticism

Given the decided shift in cultural attitudes toward female athleticism in general, within the bodybuilding world the question now becomes whether the industry wants women's bodybuilding and fitness to be understood as sports, or as kinky versions of the twinned traditions of beauty pageants and soft-core pornography. Because it is such an overt exhibition of the body, bodybuilding has courted the respectability problem since the beginning of its history, as is reflected in the fifty-two years it took Ben Weider to win Olympic recognition.

Because of cultural ambivalence about female sexuality, the problem for women's bodybuilding is that much greater. 'Good girls don't,' but of course, at least since the '60's, good girls do. As Elizabeth Wurtzel writes in *****: In Praise of Difficult Women, "bad is where it's at. . . in the pageantry of public life, in the places where women invent personae, the one statement a girl can make to declare her strength, her surefootedness, her autonomy-- her self as a self--is to somehow be bad."vii Good girls do, but they don't advertise it. Will she or won't she is the mystery, and the seemingly unobtainable kick-ass chick like Xena Warrior Princess, or the it's-just-one-part-of-me sexuality of Buffy the Vampire Slayer has a much more powerful draw than the babe who, like Aphrodite on Xena, says '**** me.'

The establishment bodybuilding photographers, however, have all their subjects say '**** me,' and act as if this is a new and novel thing. "Sex sells," is often the excuse that is offered, "that's just the way things are." But it's not just the way things are (women's basketball sells, too). If we simply accept things 'the way they are,' we disavow human will, creativity, initiative, the same will bodybuilders use to get us through the rigors of our sport every day. The same will of those brave, brave women and men who spent their life's blood to get us Title IX and ensured girls would be able to compete in sports in the first place. Let me stress it again: sports are not only about sex, at least not directly. If you want to be taken seriously as an athlete at this particular cultural moment, much better to sell your sport to the public through subtlety, through indirection, through putting emphasis on the multi-faceted nature of athleticism, of which sexuality is just one component. As all there and out there in terms of exposed flesh as bodybuilding is already, anything it does in terms of sexualizing the representational field cannot be overt or, like so much contemporary bodybuilding photography, it will be reducible to a bad cliche.

The swimsuit layout in this year's Flex (February 1998) to name just one of innumerable issues that are mind-numbing in their unremitting sameness, was, if possible, more prurient and blatant that the Maxim Men's Magazine 1998 calendar shots, which have nothing whatsoever to do with athleticism: "On the following pages," the Maxim calendar says, "you will find no Nobel prize winners, no groundbreaking inventors, no inspiring teachers, no worth politicians . . . in choosing our Women of the Year, we . . . bypassed intelligence, sidesteped achievement, and did a quick two-step around character and integrity. We combed the earth for the finest specimens of female flesh the planet has to offer, seeking out beauty not in its many wondrous forms but in a single, myopically narrow form . . . breathtaking brunettes, ravishing redheads, blow-you away blondes." The pages that follow include Kate Moss, hair upswept in a messy '50's do, clad only in a pair of black panties, thigh highs and black platform stilettos, clutching a teddy bear, Tyra Banks, head down, rear in the air, Salma Hayek in black vinyl rising out of a pool. Yet these images, which are images of models whose sole purpose is sexual attractiveness, are pretty asexual, actually, compared to the February Flex, which features not fashion models but female bodybuilding and fitness competitors: Carol Semple-Marzetta, 1997 Fitness International Champion, in black-and-white bikini that is a parody of tux and tails, raising a top hat, balancing precariously on 6-inch heels on the sidewalk in front of a hotel. Milamar Flores, fitness competitor, in a bikini of tiny hot pink pieces of cloth and strings, posed with mouth open invitingly. Cory Everson, 6-time Ms. Olympia, in a bikini of red macramé net. Madonna Grimes and Milamar Flores doing a version of spoons: Flores' chest straining into Grimes' back, her crotch to Grimes' hip.

So are photographers of any other women's sport doing this kind of thing with Venus Williams? Sheryl Swoopes? Rebecca Lobo? Gwen Torrance? Picabo Street? Janet Evans? So far it hasn't happened. So why use this kind of representation when it comes to bodybuilding and fitness champs like Lenda Murray, Cory Everson, Madonna Grimes? What is it about bodybuilding and fitness that seem to so readily lend themselves to this kind of unsophisticated sexualization? Isn't it possible to render these athletes in a different way?

In his debate with some feminist interpretations of the representation of female athletes, Allen Guttmann argues against what he sees as feminist "hostility to the erotic element in sports," stating that it is the body itself, not the photographs of it, that are erotic--that the athletic body is erotic regardless of how it is shot. It is no more possible, in his view, to eliminate the erotic dimension in representation than it is to eliminate muscles from a worked-out body.viii I grant him that premise, but what Guttmann fails to emphasize is that there are different forms of the erotic, and the kind that the bodybuilding magazines sell is not athletic eroticism but rather pornographic eroticism. The work of Bill Dobbins is one example that makes use of both these modalities. As I argued in chapter four of Bodymakers, his 1994 book The Women contains examples of both kinds of eroticism I am discussing here, and while the former does important cultural work in terms of how it promotes the sport, the latter is undermines that very work.

Following Guttmann, but differing from his emphasis, I define pornographic eroticism as characteristic of any representation that operates synechdochically--that is, any representation that takes sexuality, which is one part of humanity and human experience, and makes it stand for the whole of that human being and experience, any representation that makes sexuality the primary characteristic of the person represented. I define athletic eroticism as a representation that includes sexuality as one dimension of human experience, as a quality that emerges from the self-possession, autonomy, and strength so evident in the body of a female athlete. Athletic eroticism includes sexuality as one quality among many, not a trait that is present to the exclusion of all else. As long as the bodybuilding industry chooses pornographic over athletic eroticism in their representation of female bodybuilders and fitness competitors, a representation that reduces these athletes to their sexuality, these sports will never be taken seriously as sports, and Ben Weider's dream will never be fully achieved.

An article in the June 1998 edition of Ironman focuses inadvertently on this difference between athletic and pornographic forms of eroticism in a way that joins the debate about the representation of female athletes to the more specific debate about female bodybuilders. The "Point Counterpoint" column was devoted this month to the question of female muscle, and the pro-muscle side of the debate contained the following point of view, written by Butch Lebowitz: "I used to think women's bodybuilding was heading in the wrong direction . . . year after year I'd see the physiques getting bigger and more ripped, see the women flexing on stage and think, `Man, I wouldn't want to wake up next to that.' Then one day it hit me. That's not the point, you friggin' sexist moron. They're not building their bodies to give me a woody; it's a competition, for crissakes, and they have an obsessive drive to be the best at something. It's an athlete's mind-set."ix Thank you, Butch. If Butch can come around to this point of view--they're not building their bodies to give me a woody . . . it's an athlete's mind-set --surely whoever is responsible for the conceptualizations of the magazine pictorials can come around to this realization as well. It's the athleticism, stupid.

Indeed, there is some evidence of just such thinking in the most recent issue of Flex (June 1998, there may be hope yet), which for the first time since the early nineties includes a pictorial of two women training in the gym together rather than engaged in some kind of teasing sex play with each other (as in the centerfold of Amy Fadhli and Madonna Grimes in the February 1998 Flex, clad literally only in strings, sprawled on their stomachs, girls-just-wanna-have-fun smiles on their faces, buttocks elevated, Fadhli behind Grimes with Grimes' pink strings playfully lodged between her white, white teeth). "Girl Power!", featuring former Ms. Olympia Lenda Murray and current Ms. O Kim Chizevsky, is in direct contrast to the same month's centerfold pictorial of Dale Tomita in stock-porn modality, decked out in plastic-and-steel stilettos and with sections of fishnet draped over her. In "Girl Power!" we get nine amazing pages of Lenda and Kim in full cut-and-pumped-up glory, straining through a real workout , wearing real lifters' clothes, not bikinis and heels. They are concentrating, serious, doing their thing. They are athletes, and they are beautiful, bis and tris and lats to die for. The "Hot Tomita!" spread is a clear example of what I am calling pornographic eroticism, while the "Girl Power!" spread is an example of what I am calling athletic eroticism.

Now I'm sure that there are some "morons" out there, who still think that the main purpose of women's bodybuilding and its representation in the bodybuilding magazines is to "give them a woody," and these "morons" will write in to Flex complaining about how supposedly monstrous and unfeminine Kim and Lenda looked all flexed and striated, quads half a house thick, sweating and straining through heavy concentration curls. But to me "Girl Power!" was the most encouraging thing I have seen in a bodybuilding magazine since the early `90's, a sign that maybe the general cultural acceptance of female athletes was finally rubbing off on the magazine's editorial board. Progress at last--my spirits soared. But then, about a hundred pages later, I got the report in "Flex 'n Femme that the February 1998 Penthouse ran a six-page spread of Dobbins photos from The Women, and ten pages after that I ran smack into "Hot Tomita!" So which is it? Are we going to give female bodybuilders and fitness women a little respect, presenting them as athletes who have a sexual dimension, or are we going to reduce them to a synecdoche for cliched sexual fantasy? Make up your minds, Flex.

So who do you love? And what is at stake in these schizophrenic representational spreads? Do we truly want widespread, mainstream recognition of bodybuilding as a sport? Do we, in a cultural context becoming increasingly supportive of female athletes and their achievements, want that recognition only for men? Do we want women's bodybuilding and fitness to be accepted--as Olympic recognition would seem to merit--as serious sports, or do we want to relegate them to the realm of an alternative beauty pageant, the site for the production of reader's woodies? Aren't woodies--or attraction and appreciation, anyway, also possible in response to athletic eroticism, to representations that focus on women's athletic achievements, not cliched sex?

In the arguments I am making here, I am not advocating censorship. I am not suggesting a boycott of pornography. What I am advocating is a corollary to what Ben Weider has worked his whole life to achieve--that bodybuilding become "a sport to be respected the same as other sports." I am advocating that female bodybuilding and fitness athletes be respected the same as other athletes. And this is never going to happen--nor is the mainstream acceptance of bodybuilding for which Weider has worked so hard--if these athletes are denigrated within their own industry by representations that frame them in the context of pornographic rather than athletic eroticism. Along with cultural critic Sidney Eve Matrix, who finds her positive experiences as a bodybuilder in the gym compromised by the pornographic eroticism that is used to represent the top female competitors in the muscle mags, I also "look forward toward the future . . . [when] women will continue to gain power and influence in the muscle industry, and then the major magazines will not be able to get away with the+ir outdated and inequitable attitudes. Beauty ideals for women are changing, and the demand for positive images of women with muscle mass is growing."x But the question of images and the cultural work they do is much broader than how individual women feel, for as long as the bodybuilding industry is so blatantly willing to exploit rather than respect its own, it will never gain the kind of mainstream cultural respect it has been seeking since its inception. Female athletes are here to stay. Female bodybuilders are here to stay. Disrespect us at your own peril.