Pumping iron with the female bodybuilders

Tanya Bunsell’s immersion in the world of weightlifting yielded insights into steroid use and ‘muscle worship’

August 21, 2014

Source: Bill Dobbins

Juliette Bergmann – a Dutch female bodybuilding champion

Bodybuilding provided female bodybuilders with structure, identity and life meaning - their regime serves to organise and evaluate their life

Rising at 5am every day to lift weights and eating protein once every two hours, Tanya Bunsell had committed herself to a gruelling training regime.

Her goal, however, was not an Olympic medal, a chiselled physique or a personal best, but a more lofty ambition: a PhD.

For her doctoral thesis, the -year-old former gym instructor wanted to explore the hitherto-unknown lives of female bodybuilders in the UK. She soon realised that the only way to gain their trust, hear their intimate stories and obtain their full cooperation was to immerse herself in their world.

That decision led to some dramatic physical changes as Bunsell, now a lecturer in sport sociology at St Mary’s University, Twickenham, London, joined female bodybuilders in their intensive training over the course of two years.

“At my peak I put on almost two stone of muscle and water, with an increase in three inches on my thighs and two inches on my arms,” says Bunsell. “My family were concerned as to what I was doing and putting my body through – I recall my sister telling me that my muscly back was disgusting.”

Bunsell soon found it difficult to find clothing that would fit and resorted to cutting open the underarms of T-shirts in order to accommodate her swelling muscles. When she was out and about, comments such as “look at that chick’s biceps” were commonplace, she says. “I’ve seen girls laughing and pointing at me on a train and female students trying to tense their biceps when answering questions in class.”

But Bunsell, who took her PhD at the University of Kent, thinks that these experiences were vital in helping her to step into the mindset of these so-called “gender outlaws”. “Only through habitual immersion into the lives of female bodybuilders could I begin to understand, for example, how these women managed to keep a positive sense of identity against negative societal reaction,” she says.

She knew that this was a risk: ethnographers who adopt this immersive technique are often accused of “going native” and being unable to stand back and judge the culture objectively or effectively.

“Ethnographic research has been criticised for being unprofessional, unreliable, biased or self-indulgent,” she says. Yet, she thinks, “no research can remain pure, untouched or unpolluted as it is always constructed by ‘subjective’ human beings”. The “supposedly detached and clinical method” of external observation does not lend itself as readily to an in-depth understanding as ethnography’s “sensuous way of knowing”, she argues.

She admits, however, that there were times when she became too immersed in the world of her subjects, whose lives form the basis of her book, Strong and Hard Women: an Ethnography of Female Bodybuilders, published last year and shortlisted for the inaugural British Sociological Association and BBC Thinking Allowed Ethnography Award.

In one training situation, for example, a male gym user insisted that she reduce the weight that she was lifting, saying that she might become too masculine and unattractive, like a female bodybuilder. When she shared this exchange with her more muscly female training partner, it led to an unpleasant confrontation with the man, her outraged friend arguing that he should not be allowed to get away with such comments.

But, crucially, her early morning training and gym friendships allowed Bunsell to win the respect and confidence of female bodybuilders, as well as their families, who confided in her about why they got involved in that world.

Some did so after discovering that they “enjoyed it and were good at it”. Others had more epiphanic moments such as wanting to take control of their bodies after having a child, while some argued that the lifestyle “saved” them from alcoholism and eating disorders, so they saw training as a form of therapeutic healing. Bunsell’s research participants “all articulated a sense of confidence, control, autonomy, bodily expression and strength from their training, as well as claiming to enjoy the cathartic pleasures of the actual bodily processes”, she reports. And, she points out, “none of the women worked out either to lose weight or to become more attractive to men”.

Lisa Lyon, by Mike Hollist

In her study, Bunsell explored how these women created their own concept of femininity, defying the traditional view that women should be slender and weaker than men. “Bodybuilding provided female bodybuilders with structure, identity and life meaning – they have chosen a body regime which involves all of their effort, which serves to organise and evaluate their life, including their relationships and other goals, on the basis of coherent and singular criteria,” she observes.

The closeness to her subjects also allowed her an insight into the dark side of bodybuilding, including steroid use.

“I was sometimes present when drugs were taken or injected, and regularly engaged in discussions around their use,” says Bunsell. “In one instance, a female bodybuilder came to visit me and straight away put hundreds of pounds’ worth of growth hormone in my fridge.”

In these cases, she needed to negotiate risks – possession with intent to supply steroids is illegal, although personal use is not – and tread a tricky ethical line, neither condoning the practice nor alienating her subjects by criticising their drug use.

“If I had removed myself from the situation or voiced disapproval, it would have impacted negatively on my research, damaging the rapport that had taken so long to build up,” she says. “To ‘label’ the drug-taker as ‘bad’, or deviant, or to stigmatise and exclude the issue of drug-taking without trying to understand it, would be to ignore the multiple interpretations, motivations and identities of users.”

In fact, she found herself becoming less judgemental about steroid use, despite the health risks. Many long-term steroid users have died at a young age from heart failure, while mood swings and aggression – known as “roid rage” – are side-effects associated with their use.

“Of course, this is where critics of ethnography would be quick to point out that I may have gone ‘native’ and become desensitised to ‘deviant’ issues as they became normalised to me within the culture,” says Bunsell. But her experience of these drug-takers gave her valuable insights into the effects of stimulants, which increase muscle size but also lead to more masculine physical traits.

“Women will usually have to contend with acne, increased appetite, increased body and facial hair and the lowering or ‘breaking’ of the voice,” says Bunsell, who notes that the effects of oestrogen blockers can be likened to those experienced by adolescent men during puberty. “The women dealt with these issues in various ways, such as by having breast implants, using hair extensions or wigs, extreme hair depilation and softening their voices in order to maintain their feminine identity.”

However, those using anabolic steroids also reported feelings of well-being and increased energy, decreased recovery time from workouts, heightened sex drive and increased orgasm intensity and self-confidence, which may explain why some continue to take steroids despite the health risks, she says.

Other taboo subjects that were opened up by Bunsell’s study included women’s involvement in “muscle worship” fetishism, in which men pay about £300 an hour to touch or kiss female bodybuilders’ rippling physiques.

“Stereotypical muscle worshippers have been portrayed in documentaries such as Louis Theroux’s Weird Weekends as weedy, nerdy, pathetic, ‘living with their mothers at 40 and saving every penny for sessions’ or being repressed homosexuals,” says Bunsell.

In fact, the majority of muscle worshippers were heterosexual, middle-class, university-educated gym-goers aged between their late twenties and late forties, she found.

Exploring the world of such so-called “deviant subcultures” through lengthy ethnography might, however, be more difficult in future, she thinks – a view shared by the sociologist and broadcaster Laurie Taylor, who wrote about the risks to ethnographic research in an article for Times Higher Education earlier this year.

“There isn’t the financial support, the time or the recognition, and the pressure to publish regularly, due to the research excellence framework, is omnipresent,” says Bunsell. “I was extremely lucky to get a scholarship and the academic support to do this PhD research, but it is sadly unlikely that I will have a similar opportunity again.”

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