'Papa regarde, c'est super femme'. Bodybuildsters, vrouwelijkheid en identiteit in de jaren tachtig


  • Marjolein Van Bavel


Within academic literature female bodybuilding has primarily been praised as a form of feminist resistance to traditional ideals of femininity. Women’s bodybuilding can be seen as a way to create ‘gender trouble’, as the hyper-muscular female body expresses a subversion of dominant gender norms. Others have, however, wondered whether and to what extent one can speak of such feminist resistance. After all, female bodybuilders seem willing to mimic and almost exaggerate traditional requirements of feminine iconography. Previous research thus considered the practice of women’s bodybuilding from normative forms of discourse. These interpretations render these women as passive rather than active agents within dynamic social processes, in which the individual and practical embodied experiences are often forgotten. Interviews lend themselves pre-eminently to accessing embodied agents. By interviewing seven women who participated in bodybuilding in the eighties, the article attempts to bridge the gap between academic discourse and materiality in the study of these female bodybuilding bodies. In the experience of embodied practice, the concept of ‘feminist resistance’ was renounced. These women constructed an identity of femininity, contrasted with masculinity, and testified that gender should be worked on through performance. And although many elements within literature on ‘feminine recuperation’ were confirmed through the interviews, greater complexity was uncovered in the experienced reality. Through bodybuilding these women were provided with strength, confidence as well as being able to create an identity for themselves, incorporating traditional male characteristics. Female bodybuilding therefore contains a liberating potential on the level of personal experience, distinguished from the concept of ‘feminist resistance’ within literature.