"REASONS AGAINST FEMALE PARTICIPATION IN SPORT HAVE ALWAYS BOILED DOWN TO APPARENT BIOLOGICAL LIMITATIONS THAT ARE SAID TO AFFECT PERFORMANCE. AS WAS THE CASE IN PREVENTING WOMEN FROM RUNNING LONG DISTANCES AND PLAYING CONTACT SPORTS FOR FEAR THAT THEIR REPRODUCTIVE ORGANS WOULD BE RUINED OR FALL OUT ALTOGETHER." - LISA BAVINGTON
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Lisa Bavington is a former member of the International Federation of Bodybuilders (IFBB). Recently, she quit the professional bodybuilding circuit to continue her education in women's studies at York University in Toronto.
HERIZONS: Tell me about how your bodybuilding experience has informed your feminism.
BAVINGTON: Bodybuilding is a sport based on the aesthetics of an athlete's physical development. Each athlete is judged on symmetry, muscular development and overall presentation. For female competitors, bodybuilding is a sport that is not about performance; it's about deciding who fits the criteria of acceptable womanhood. I've competed as an athlete in many sports, however, it was not until I became a bodybuilder that I felt I was limited by my gender.
Since bodybuilding is left up to the perception of the individuals who judge your physique, sexist biases that have nothing at all to do with muscular development creep in. I realized that from the moment I stepped on stage, I was no longer an athlete. I was 'just' a woman. This experience informed my views on women's participation in the sport.
There is a prevailing attitude that female athletes must exhibit a level of sexual attractiveness that appeals to an artificial standard of femininity. Yet, most female bodybuilders represent a contradiction in terms. On the one hand, their image portrays a rejection of the ideal female form. On the other, it is an attempt to make up for it by adhering to traditional feminine expectations. Female bodybuilders have acknowledged society's view of the feminine ideal and have chosen to reject it on some level, yet many of them still allow themselves to be judged by it.
Many women in the sport define themselves publicly as 'muscular yet feminine,' suggesting that they have retained something that the others have apparently lost some time ago. I think that they believe that they will be seen as the exception, rather than the rule, in order to be seen as acceptable in the eyes of mainstream society. I have seen how many in the sport take great pains to go overboard in proclaiming their heterosexuality. Many overdo their makeup, hair and clothing and augment their physiques with breast implants. They allow themselves to be sexualized even though it works against the goals of being an athlete.
As a result, I have become more concerned about female athletes and the issues of body image and eating disorders, homophobia and heterosexism, and the over-sexualization of women in sport. I'm not so concerned just with the sport of bodybuilding, as I am about using the attention I gain from my physique as a springboard for discussion and as a way to speak out about these issues.
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In your opinion, what is the role of the bodybuilding and fitness industry in perpetuating women's inequality?
BAVINGTON: You would think that just by the nature of the sport, the bodybuilding industry would showcase the strength of its participants, at least physically. However, the industry actually reinforces sexist stereotypes that women have fought hard against. It sets up the women to be in competition with one another for their femininity on and off stage, rather than their physiques, and that makes it impossible for any kind of unity among the athletes.
The addition of 'fitness' and 'figure' shows to the women's side of bodybuilding has made it even worse. While the men's prize money keeps increasing steadily, the women's portion is now divided between three groups, although overall more money is being made than ever before. …