305. Memory, Power & Spectacle. A Gendered Outlaw: The Deviant Identities of Female Bodybuilders

Since early ages, men have dominated sport and the ability to display physical exertion within public arenas as an honoured spectacle of power. The visual appeal of muscularity and bodybuilding has commonly been associated with masculinity (Commane, 2014). However, popularity of female health and fitness has continued to heighten since the 1980’s, directing the image of the ‘athletic woman’ into strength, correlating to gender differences. Nevertheless, a specific narrative of the athletic figure remains: comprised of the slender female body, illustrating issues in terms of masculinity. Stemming from this, a subculture of women developing their muscles for the purposes of competitive bodybuilding emerged under the public’s scrutinising surveillance, as highlighted by Lowe (1998:56).

The first organised female amateur-level body building contests were during the mid 1900’s; the first official female body builder contest was held in Canton, Ohio, in 1977. Throughout this period, women tended to be perceived as social deviants for extremely modifying the traditional female body so that it is no longer a fluid figure of curves but replaced with angular muscles developed particularly around the chest, arms, stomach and calves (Shilling 2009). Cultural memory is examined in terms of what is perceived to be the ‘idealistic’ female figure; questioning if it is possible to identify one acceptable figure within contemporary culture. Development of the female body builder is enhanced by a specialist interview with Crow Dillon-Parkin (2014), whom competed in bodybuilding, 6 years previous in the British Natural Bodybuilding Federation and has had relevant experience regarding the ‘niche’ concept of the female bodybuilder.

The figure of a female bodybuilder is analysed and shaped through underlying themes of power, memory and spectacle. Focusing on regimes of power that limit femininity, therefore causing a spectacle within society, (Debord 1967) and the ways extreme figure of a bodybuilder can cause dysfunction within society (Foucault, 1975). I also reflect upon the identity of the female bodybuilder, developing independent disciplines upon their bodies by self-surveillance (Foucault 1995) in an isolated subculture within society, (Vaneigem, 1983). Public surveillance of the female body builder as a subculture thus causes a rift between the natural ‘traditional’ female body and the physically enhanced female body, (Jodie Marsh, 2007) so that the ‘authentic’ figure is difficult to identify. The severe discipline of self-surveillance upon the body is addressed, (Foucault, 1975) in order to also recognize health issues that are caused due to extreme aesthetic and natural modifications of women who have developed to become the spectacle of the sport, and are therefore negatively recognised within the media.


Public surveillance and being scrutinised as an abstract spectacle within society intertwines with the female bodybuilder; often described as a ‘gendered outlaw’ (Shilling, 2009). A female body builder’s identity tends to become stigmatised as deviant, particularly within westernised culture. If a female chooses to extremely modify her own body, it can make her appear to be crossing gender boundaries; Shilling (2009) notes that men do not challenge patriarchal structures of power, as the muscular male body remains acceptable within society as a ‘traditional’ form. Public surveillance suggests that the body requires further natural or aesthetic construction. From a young age, children in Westernised society begin to experience figure image concerns, as noted by Anschutz & Engels (2010). A startling figure of 35.9% of women were reportedly satisfied with their body size, according to Anschutz & Engels (2010), in their practical research of the effects the Barbie doll has upon female body image. Anschutz & Engels (2010:628) suggest that an average sized Barbie doll could have caused a ‘relief effect’ upon their participants, resulting in them eating more because they would ‘feel good’ about their own figure, therefore comfortable. It is clear that the majority of society does not conform to the perceived ‘idealistic’ figure; the Barbie doll remains an original childhood memory of the ‘ideal’ female figure within westernised culture. Female body builders encounter high degrees of anxiety and self-surveillance upon their bodies during training, whilst acknowledging continuous public scrutiny. In terms of power, this suggests that the female bodybuilder is strong physically and mentally by not collapsing under public identification of their ‘negative’ stigma.

Davis-Floyd and Lovell (2000) address that transgendered individuals erase their natural identities and suggest that this is comparative to female bodyguards or soldiers who are considered deviant by virtue of crossing gender boundaries. It was suggested that these women who worked in male dominated professions were, ‘symbolic men’ (2000:140). Despite this, the very notion that these women have succeeded in gaining these professions recognises that their power within contemporary culture to dominate; demonstrating a degree of power to threaten masculine cultures of society. Female body builders tend to recognise their physical power through the process of self modifying the body and disciplined self-surveillance, resulting in a counter gender discourse. Foucault (1978) composes the idea of self-regulation and the perception that the majority of society is self-regulating. Visual identification can threaten even within the subculture of bodybuilding, by challenging the aesthetics of ‘masculine power’ upon a woman within a public space, on stage as a spectacle.

In relation to this, Shilling and Bunsell note, “The fact that the appearances, actions and desires of female body builders may threaten not only institutional norms but the gendered foundation of social interaction itself,” (2010:142). In terms of cultural memory, looking at the context of Shilling and Bunsell (2010), if one ‘other’s’ themselves, by dramatically changing their appearance so that it transgresses their gender discourse, as female bodybuilders do, they disrupt society; therefore creating a spectacle by re-forming their identity within a public space. Disruption within society challenges interaction of male and female gender discourses by the expectations of normative social order because, in westernised cultures, the body always tends to be problematized.

The media has targeted female body builders for their appearance and therefore suggests that their figures are unrepresentative of ‘traditional’ or more ‘authentic’ feminine figure, despite the difficulty in defining this ‘ideal’ figure. The form of the female bodybuilder has been scrutinised within various federations. Lowe (1998:56) comments on the still discourses of power that are considered within the subculture of female bodybuilding and the likelihood of the attachment of a negative stigma: “If a bodybuilder [female] is considered a “trouble maker” (either too muscular or has too big of an ego) then the gatekeepers may place her down at meets or may not give her sponsorship.” The identity of female body builders continues to consider what figure is acceptable for competition and what is not, applying power of authorisation of acceptable figures that can compete within a federation through rules and regulation.


In order to examine the portrayed ‘deviant’ subculture of female bodybuilders in detail, a primary ethnographic research with Crow Dillon-Parkin (2014) enabled a more descriptive account of the way in which the body becomes judged on stage: “you have what’s called pre judging which is a misnomer as it is being judged and usually would be relaxed poses. Where in actual fact you are not relaxed but completely tensed from head to foot and you’re in a very strange stance when it is photographed from the side of the stage,” Crowe (2014). The figure becomes a spectacle upon stage when considering the ‘relaxed pose’ as a form of regulated surveillance and representative to power by how the body is controlled. Crow (2014) suggests that being a spectacle of the competition is enjoyable for women. Hoskins (2012:19) conceptualises ‘prosthetic memory’; drawing upon theories from Landsberg (2011), “memory is unmoored yet dominated by the media,” such as the media speculating the birth of the female body builder and controlling it to be framed as ‘unnatural’ considering traditional gender discourses. As Crow (2014) suggests from her description of the competition, the tensed stance is photographed and this can therefore make the competitor seem intensely extreme. Richardson (2008) points out flexing in bodybuilding is seen to symbolise both power and authority via the individual’s discipline of the body physically and mentally. Therefore control is argued to be resisting traditional symbolic images of womanhood; Commane (2014) suggests that some feminists consider this as a visual illustration of empowerment equality.

Despite mediated perception that female bodybuilders are deviant, it has resulted in a unifying subculture. However, Lyotard (1979) observes that when unity has been created we subsequently create a degree of disorder. Formed by a mutual passion, this subculture continues to create disorder within society because female bodybuilders drastically change to the ‘traditional’ female image. The female bodybuilder shares an alternative identity that can be united of (physical) power and this historic notion of the ‘freak’, exposing ‘unflattering’ muscles adorned upon an originally ‘delicate’ feminine figure. This ideology of societal disorder (Lyotard 1979) is investigated by Debord (1967:16) whom suggests that the spectacle is at once united and divided, continuing to create disorder in both society and within the subculture of female bodybuilding. Females are being judged in bodybuilding competitions upon their muscularity, a masculine biological feature that is naturally vacant within women. Crow (2014) describes how competitive judging is delivered and begins with a comparison of the physiques, “this particularly looks at muscularity, you theoretically are being massively posed but actually your supposed to be relaxed, but they are judging muscularity.” Hoskins (2012) additionally adds, that the metaphor of ecology is a series of interlinking parts distinguishable within separate identities. Therefore, one has an identity based on their appearance and whether it is in tune with their gender discourse or not (Hoskins 2012). If a female is being judged on her muscular appearance she tends to be labelled as masculine, this often limits her representation of sexuality and gender discourse. Crow (2014) admits that some women even competitively manipulate their bodies in order for their muscles to look superior, therefore intensely masculine. From the front relaxed pose, according to Crow (2014), during a quarter rotation to the right, one would crouch and push one leg against the other in order for one’s hamstrings to become enhanced for the judges to examine.

Movement of female bodybuilders has created a spectacle that has become unstoppable to media coverage providing an over representation. Vaneigem (1983) discusses the idea of isolation, that female body builders tend to experience when under competitive public and self-surveillance, suggesting that, “we have nothing in common except the illusion of being together,” (1983:26). This depicts the female body builder’s stigmatised identity: united to train, supportive online forums were described by Crow, made by women for women who body build. Alternatively, the competition itself brings the illusion of unity to a reality. Women become individual competitors on stage. Vaneigem (1983:47) continues to add, “In the realm of power, mediation is the falsified necessity wherein people learn to loose themselves rationally.” Vaneigem (1983) is therefore commenting on the alienation that can be felt within a subculture, because of this mediation of power becoming reinforced upon the subculture’s unity, certainly in terms of female bodybuilders, the illusion of unity becomes apparent when alienation is felt during competing against fellow sisters on stage. The nature of the spectacle suggests that media tend to scrutinise only the image of the performer, despite well natured sportsmanship during intense training processes.

In terms of ‘authenticity’ of the body building competition itself, scrutiny of the judges and what they look for in male and female body building is comparable between genders; “they want to see abs; they want to see feathering in your muscles and they would like to see the shredded glutes, though with women you would have to be so lean for that to happen,” Crow (2014). This kind of ‘lean tick list’ suggested that judges could mark ample natural breast tissue down. A condition that Crow had encountered in previous competing events: “I have been marked down in bodybuilding competitions because when you diet down normally your breasts disappear but mine didn’t.” The judges can clearly see the definition of an implant; if natural breasts were smaller then it would have been ‘clearer’ that one had lost more weight for the competition, despite this alternative contrast of the apparent approval of extreme physical body modifications. Loosing her natural breast tissue becomes disempowering for a female, as not only are marks lost during judging of a competition; her identity becomes mis-judged in westernised society. In terms of cultural memory, the female body has historically regained its identity through the shape of the chest.

However, not all aesthetic bodily modifications have been accepted. Considering the extreme body modifications of Jodie Marsh (2007-2013) whom had approached the British Natural Bodybuilding Federation (BNBF) in order to pursue a documentary of her physical development. The head of the BNBF, Vicky McCann, was clear that she perceived the level of media attention was not considered necessary and was concerned that Marsh’s very obvious body modifications would stigmatise female bodybuilding as a negative spectacle. This is because McCann (2007) perceived that women did not need to be as lean as men, only their muscle needs to be as defined as possible. McCann also believed that breast implants were unnecessary for female athletes. Considering the media’s attention to Marsh’s body development in a short space of time, her actual physique is rather petite, as confirmed by Marsh herself during an interview on This Morning (2011). Marsh admitted that her muscles were highlighted with deep tanning, specifically for competitions in order to make one’s body appear visually defined, enhanced by stage lights reflecting the tan, therefore illustrating her muscles angular definition. Commane (2014:02) argues that, “as a consequence, Marsh’s (2007) self identity are important factors exploring femininity as a concept”. Commane’s (2014) argument suggests we can no longer read the muscular female body in one particular context, it is a woman’s choice to participate and femininity needs to be considered in various contexts.

Considering the cultural memory of the female figure becoming manipulated; socially we have historic ideologies of the portrayal of both the female and male forms. However when they are changed dramatically the figures tend to become unaccepted within society due to deviating against a set of gender discourse-led normality. Fisher (1997) notes that extreme male body builders are stigmatised for going beyond hegemonic ideals of masculinity. Shilling (2003) apposes that this does not threaten their ‘hyper-masculinity’ as it is viewed as a ‘body-project’ therefore their identity remains intact unlike a woman’s. Crow (2014) notes that one would have to be physically and mentally strong in order to get distinct muscles and observes that the competition is primarily judged on how one appears with these muscles, not about how useful these muscles might be: “in fact, in terms of function, you could become less functional as a human if your muscles become too big.” Drawing upon Foucault’s concept of ‘forms of possible knowledge’ (1994), Lemke (2011:39) refers to this as, “the problem of truth, the problem of power, and the problem of individual conduct.” Therefore when this knowledge is not conformed to, dysfunction occurs within society because social norms are broken by subcultures. This conscious desire to become a visual spectacle within society remains within bodybuilding, it appears, for both genders: Crow (2014) shares that she has never felt the need to stop sculpting her image identity: “I would have liked to have thought that I might go, ‘yeah, I should tone it down abit’ – Ive never got to that stage! I never thought I was too big no matter how big I was, I’ve always wanted to become bigger!”


The process for women to become extremely lean, in order to effectively compete within bodybuilding, is physically harder than it is for men: “biologically and physically it can mess with your head being low on calories,” (Crow 2014). Self-discipline again becomes highly relevant, the power to stop one ‘deviating’ from their programme through regulated surveillance. An illustration of a certain degree of self-discipline that women can have upon the body, in order to be lean enough to compete, could be a type of power that men have become to envy. Monaghan (2008) points out that, “men seen as fat, at least in westernised culture, risk demasculisation given the negative meanings ascribed to their corporeality”. Crow (2014) continues this westernised observation by contextualising Monaghan’s (2008) notion of demasculisation in further description: “fat is a very strange metabolic tissue, there is a feminisation effect, when men do get fat, because fat is an oestrogen modulator. So testosterone in a fat man becomes aromatised into oestrogen more readily, therefore encourages a more feminine fat distribution pattern.

Foucault (1975) comments on social consequences by suggesting that knowledge is a technique of power over others; men suffer from societal pressure to remain in an athletic physique. Foucault (1975) adds, that power is techniques or actions; knowledge ceases to be liberation and becomes a mode of surveillance, regulation, and therefore a discipline. Female bodybuilders portray their knowingly stigmatised bodies to a public audience. Surveying their own body and added media surveillance of their physical development (Marsh, 2007), gives one the power to define others (Foucault 1975) in terms of body comparisons to sculpt individual identities within their subculture.

Walhausen (1975) discussed that strict discipline is an art of correct training. Therefore, he suggests that the chief function of disciplinary power is to train rather than relate to imposing judgements. Discipline, according to Foucault (1975), ‘makes’ individuals and is a specific technique of power that regards individuals as instruments of its exercise. Therefore, the discipline that female body builders exert during their training process has become a wave of power over not only their body but over masculine observation. Men tend to refer back to cultural memory of the ‘authentic’ womanly figure, despite its modification throughout history, and therefore struggle when traditional gender discourses are successfully crossed. Foucault continues to suggest that power is not triumphant but is modest and suspicious; power tends to function as a “calculated, but permanent economy,” (1975:170). Discipline, in this sense, is arguably desired within a westernised context of the ‘idealistic body’, from amateur or professional sporting individuals. It is suggested that discipline, shared between both genders in the bodybuilding subculture, brings with it a specific process of punishment (Foucualt, 1975). Only females encounter this punishment by the high level of negativity of the media because of the way that they have extremely manipulated their bodies to unconventionally conform, leading to being stigmatised within contemporary culture as a spectacle of crossing gender boundaries.

The IFBB sponsored Miss America contests and until the late 1970’s, previous to the beginnings of competitive female bodybuilding, these types of fitness beauty contests were the only place in where women were able to present themselves and fully participate, (Lowe, 1998). However, the degree of beauty and fitness of a woman would be judged with contestants adorned with makeup and supported by heels on stage: conforming to a feminine identity. Bodybuilding for females is: “a beauty contest but with muscles!” admitted Crow (2014). Crow (2014) discussed the ways in which women become feminine within bodybuilding: smiling, according to Crow (2014), was necessary for a female to do during the competition, “it’s not about being glamorous – its getting noticed on what you’re wearing.” Hoskins (2012) suggests, concerning memory, we have an ecological approach, we cannot look in isolation at the medium of how it constructs the past unless the wider contexts of how it exists are considered. Therefore, societal pressures that have warped the way in which men and women consume and adapt to the health and fitness industries must be identified, as these pressures have been apparent for decades. The ‘ideal’ and ‘authentic’ male or female figure can never be reached, despite self-surveillance and discipline; public scrutiny continues to provide a stagnated debate upon one’s appearance.

Men have become subjected to a more degrading, singular pressure, concerning body fat, within particularly westernised culture. Similarly within a post-feminist context, Evans & Riley (2014:55) suggest, “women [and men] are called upon to continuously scrutinise and work on their bodies in order to meet narrow definitions of femininity [or masculinity] that orient around being…heterosexually attractive.” Crow (2014) points out that the brain and the body need to communicate in order for it to function properly. Crowe (2014) suggests that it is a westernised idea that the brain controls the body, which metaphorically makes us similar to a robot. “We have managed to successfully split the brain from the body so splitting the bodies appearance from its function results in driving us mad within the process,” (Crow 2014). Here, Crow is referring to the enormous pressures men are becoming to equally face within modern society, concerning body image and health. Crow (2014) describes in more detail why some men have suffered within contemporary society because of the public’s surveillance of the amount of fat upon the masculine body.

This idea of surveillance upon the body is continued through the notion of the female gaze (Mulvey, 1975). However, more recently, Evans & Riley (2014) point out that females have become under surveillance of other women, rather than men. Evans & Riley (2014:54) developed further the effect of power subjectification through post-feminism and the way women made sense of how they were looked at. For women to visually deconstruct another woman based on her appearance could potentially damage her sense of belonging because she becomes knowingly objectified within a public space. Evans et al. (2010:116) note: “women now increasingly gaze at both other women and at themselves, the male gaze has sometimes apparently been removed all together,” therefore suggesting modern woman tends to no longer seek male approval because she has freely chosen not to. Despite choosing not to, during the training process for female body builders, as previously mentioned by Crow (2014), the male (and female) gaze still lingers within modern society, enacting as a power to speculate the body to a very public audience.

In underlying themes of memory, power and spectacle, the female bodybuilder becomes examined by contributing factors such as public and self-surveillance (Foucault 1975). By acknowledging the notion of women policing each other, actions of female bodybuilders are framed from various approaches as deviant. Female bodybuilders are judged and publicly questioned in terms of gender standards, an area where women’s bodies are continuously surveyed by other women (Evans & Riley 2014). Despite a female freely choosing to compete in bodybuilding, attempting to authorise the nature of femininity, from a feminist perspective (Commane 2014), voluntary compliance is stigmatised by the notion of self-modifying the body in order to conform to a pressured ‘idealistic’ figure that is formed from westernised cultural memory (Anschutz & Engels, 2010). From examining this stagnate debate it is clear that discipline upon the body is highly relevant for both genders within bodybuilding. Rules and regulations are put in place in order for the figure to become speculated upon stage (Crow 2014). This formality of sportsmanship during competitions is overlooked by the media’s visual portrayal of the modified female body. Despite beauty pageants competitions hosting similar disciplines (Lowe 1998), the female bodybuilder appears to remain deviant for the deliberate modification to the ‘womanly’ figure that should be recognised as physical and mental empowerment.


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