Women of muscular substance

April 18, 1997

The female form, gambling, prostitutionand body piercing were among the themes explored at the British Sociological Association at York last week

WHY do women weight-train to change their bodies from their traditional shape to a more muscular form? And how are muscles feminised and eroticised? Shirley Tate, senior lecturer in sociology at Leeds Metropolitan University, examined these issues in a paper presented at the BSA conference this week.

For her paper, "Making your body your signature: weight-training and transgressive femininities", she interviewed a group of black and white women who chose to weight-train at a men's gym - even though there was a separate women's facility in the building.

The activities of the women body-builders contrasts with those of other women at the gym, whose aim is to be thin.

"Women who 'wanna-be-waifs' seem to desire to be 'debodied'. Women who 'wanna-be-muscular' desire to be 'bodied'," said Ms Tate.

Women said they trained in order to feel in control - "in control of their bodies, nature, appetites, femininities and lives".

One interviewee used her weight training to decide how she would look for her wedding in September: "I can say exactly how I'm going to look. I can say I want to wear something off the shoulder and deep in the back. So I'll work on my back and shoulders, especially in July so they'll be firm and tight."

The women also described how they enjoyed going through the pain barrier to achieve control. "What's the pain of the burn when you have experienced childbirth?...The pleasure of the burn is being in control of your body and mind and the pleasure you get from looking at the product of the burn, your body," said another of the interviewees.

Women have been weight-training since the beginning of the century, when Kate Sandina, a British woman of "massive proportions", went on stage and demonstrated a variety of feats of strength. These included "a two-handed clean-and-jerk of 250 pounds".

Women have also participated in weight-lifting contests since 1932.

However, the cultural importance of visiting the gym and looking fit, thin and muscled, is increasing, said Ms Tate. It is a culture which is evident across a wide cross-section of women regardless of class, race, sexuality or location.

She argued that weight-training and body building is a means of "empowerment".

She said: "By choosing to have a muscular body, the women are offering challenges to the gaze of the other." She added: "Inscribing 'the masculine' on a feminine body is about inscribing power and is thereby transgressive, as, in contrast to men, women tend to be restricted from embodying power in their physical selves."

Ms Tate concluded: "As women who are physically strong and muscular - which are the traditional symbols of male power - they have symbolically invested in their bodies. Through these bodily practices women construct themselves as transgressively feminine."

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