The Bodybuilding Grotesque:

The Female Bodybuilder, Gender Transgression,

and Designations of Deviance




The other day I received some email from a man who had visited my women's weightlifting website. He was so emphatic in his pronouncement that he felt he had to send the message twice, once with the content in the subject line just in case I missed it the first time. His important missive, in entirety: "Muscular women look gross." After some digestion of these four words, I realized that in an idiot-savant sort of way, this individual had summed up a great deal of material about gender construction, the categorization of deviance, and the role of the grotesque in the gender presentation of female bodybuilders.

The construction of gender

I begin with the contention that there really is no such thing as "natural" gender, in the sense of a static sexed identity, comprised of a variety of unchanging and common characteristics, corresponding to the binarism of genitalia. There is no singular or "natural" way to be a man or woman; rather, gender is painstakingly constructed through a series of external presentations and performances, repeated nearly infinitely until they appear to be natural. Judith Butler, perhaps one of the foremost North American authorities on gender performance, writes: "[G]ender is instituted through the stylization of the body and, hence, must be understood as the mundane way in which bodily gestures, movements, and enactments of various kinds constitute the illusion of an abiding gendered self."1 Gender, which I differentiate from biological sex, is therefore how one chooses to play it. What it means to be a proper man or a woman in society varies historically, across classes and cultures, and within the shifting contexts of daily life; yet these variances in proper gender construction are made invisible, since gender is constituted as "natural". Butler states that though gender is a performance, it is made to appear as if it stems from some essential, biological, "natural" source: "Gender is, thus, a construction that regularly conceals its genesis."2 Because of the invisibility of gender performance, we tend to look instead to the physical body as a source of what makes masculinity and femininity.

To affirm that gender is constructed and does not spring from a "natural" affiliation with some kind of essentially sexed physiology can be problematic for those who feel that there is only one way to exist as a male or female. Many people are more comfortable with two somewhat narrow definitions of appropriately gendered looks and behaviour. "Proper" femininity, for example, does not include muscles, strength, bulk, or physical power. Yet the very fact that female bodybuilders exist calls into question the notion that women are limited by their biology to being soft and frail. The actual physical presence of muscular women is a challenge to rigidly gendered ideologies. In a society that prefers to function with an orderly demarcation of "normal" gender, female bodybuilders are constituted as deviant.

Deviance and normality

What is deviance? For that matter, what is normality? To be deviant, at least in a literal sense, means that one does not fit into a social norm, whatever that social norm may be. However, on a more metaphoric level, examining the label of "deviance" and how it is applied can expose a variety of interesting cultural meanings and significations. In Labeling Women Deviant: Gender, Stigma and Social Control Edwin Shur notes that "deviance is a designation, a way of characterizing behaviour."3 He argues that "deviance" as a category does not exist in isolation, but is rather given meaning within a particular context. In other words, deviance, like gender, is socially constructed.4

Frequently obscured in the ostensibly objective and scientific process of classification is the relationship between naming and power. Suad Joseph writes: "All boundaries and categories are sites of struggle... Boundary making is about difference making for the purpose of empowering or disempowering."5 Historically, many subordinated groups of people have been constituted as "deviant" by the dominant groups or institutions. Generally "deviance" is not defined within an egalitarian relationship; instead, the process of naming deviance exists as part of a hierarchy of power relations.

In addition, "deviance" requires a definition of "normality" to make any sense at all, as well as a demarcation of boundaries between the two. Joseph notes: "Most societies normalize and naturalize these imagined boundaries,"6 as I have already stated in the above section on gender construction. What is deviant does not exist in a kind of ahistorical, asocial, static way but is rather inseparable from the sociopolitical context in which it operates. Deviance and normality are not autonomous, self-contained categories but partners in a contradictory, messy, and shifting relationship.

Within the hierarchy of power relations defining the normal and the deviant, "[i]t is the perception of a threat... that triggers the efforts at systematic devaluation."7 Stigmatizing something or someone as deviant is an attempt to limit the power of the offending party. In a culture which values a certain degree of social conformity, to be outside the mythical norm is to be excluded from a variety of social benefits.

The grotesque/the monstrous

The Collins English Dictionary defines "grotesque", in part, as: "[S]trangely or fantastically distorted". This is a useful trope for thinking about the meaning of "grotesque" as it has been applied to describe female bodybuilders. The label of "grotesque", which implies "deviance" in its opposition to the normative beauty which is expected of women, means something more than merely "ugly"; it suggests a kind of surreal inversion of a well-ordered state. Grotesquerie is associated not only with the ironic parody typical of the carnival, but also with the external public expression of a disordered inner state.8 The grotesque draws attention to the normatively beautiful in its mockery of it. In The Female Grotesque, Mary Russo writes: "The images of the grotesque body are precisely those which are abjected from the bodily canons of classical aesthetics."9 The grotesque exists in a dialectical relationship with the classical (read: the beautiful). Like the play between the deviant and the normal, the grotesque requires a category of "beautiful", against which it is set up, to be intelligible. Russo states: "The classical [beautiful] body is... closed, static, self-contained, symmetrical and sleek... the grotesque body is... multiple and changing... it is identified with... social transformation."10 In other words, the grotesque body crosses boundaries; it blurs distinctions and invents new forms for itself. If this concept is applied to gender, it becomes clear that the grotesque body can be constituted as that which interrupts static categories of gender. The grotesquely gendered body is that which calls attention to normative gender roles while it distorts, caricatures and blurs them. Female bodybuilders, in their alleged inversion of femininity (though often simultaneous hyper-affirmation of it through external cosmetic presentation), challenge and ridicule the idea of an orderly adherence to rigid gender norms.

Related to the idea of "grotesque" is the idea of the "monstrous", which is defined in Collins as "abnormal, hideous, or unnatural" (italics mine). Female bodybuilders have also been described as "monstrous", which in the context of this definition, implies that they are in some way "unnatural". Of course, there must be, by extension, some kind of "natural" self which female bodybuilders are betraying in their monstrosity. I suggest, as I did in my previous essay "Cyborgs in the Gym", that what is constituted as "natural" is in fact a very particularly gendered category. By being "monstrous", female bodybuilders are not conforming to what is "naturally" feminine; interestingly, "monster" is defined in part as "a very large person, animal, or thing". Are female bodybuilders thus described as "monstrous"/unfeminine, simply because they are too large? Rosi Braidotti points out: "The monster is the bodily incarnation of difference from the basic human norm; it is a deviant, an a-nomaly, it is abnormal... the very notion of the human body rests upon an image that is intrinsically prescriptive: a normally formed human being is the zero-degree of monstrosity."11

Gender and the grotesque

Categories of deviance are not applied equally. Male bodybuilders are regularly praised in muscle magazines for being "monsters", a term which, in context, carries positive connotations of superhuman size, strength, and power. These qualities are thought to be an intrinsic part of being a successful male; thus a "monster" male is simply a hypermasculine one. However, to call a female bodybuilder a "monster" is an insult. It means that she has strayed into the territory of masculinity by attempting to claim a degree of strength, size, and power as her own.

In Labeling Women Deviant, Edwin Schur writes: "One way or another, virtually every woman in our society is affected by the dominant definitions of deviance... relatively speaking femaleness [itself] appears to be a devalued status."12 Much of what is considered masculine, and by a long tradition in various disciplines, normal, is predicated on an explicit rejection or denial of the feminine. As a result, the female as a gender category is already placed in a certain relationship to normality and deviance. Russo notes: "Normalization as it is enforced in... the 'technologies of gender' has been harsh and effective in its highly calibrated differentiation of female bodies in the service of a homogeneity called gender difference..."13 Thus normality operates on two levels with regard to gender: on one level, normality is concerned with the maintenance of separate spheres for concepts of "male" and "female"; on a deeper level, normality values "male" and "female" unequally.

As Shur has already noted, the label of deviance tends to be applied in the real or imagined presence of a threat. The apparent gender transgression of female bodybuilders constitutes a threat to static categories of gender. The leaky boundaries of gender presented by the bodies of female bodybuilders must be contained by social stigmatization.

It is important, as I stated previously in the discussion of naming and power, to consider the role of power when examining the connections between gender and the labelling of deviance. As a general group women are under-represented in the ranks of institutional power, and the bodybuilding industry is no different. Thus their participation in the process of normalization is substantially less. While women are taking up bodybuilding in increasing numbers, they still set little of the political agenda or judging criteria. As a result the bulk of women in the sport are not engaged in producing their own categories of representation, but rather having these categories produced for them. They are seen as the passive objects, not the active subjects, of bodybuilding discourse. This is not to say that there are not women who challenge this form of occupational segregation, but without representation at the institutional level, they have difficulty participating in the official politics of naming except as observers.

However, despite systematic efforts to render the female bodybuilder acceptable, to dress her up and take her out, there are constant interruptions by the bodybuilders themselves. Ignoring their detractors, many bodybuilders who are considered transgressively gendered continue to resist their labelling as freaks and outsiders. This resistance is a power struggle over representation; such struggles for women's control of self-representation have numerous historical precedents. Russo notes: "Worth recalling is the historical association of the grotesque with women's social movements from the 'shrieking sisterhood' of the suffragettes to the 'bra-burners' and harridans of the second wave."14 Female bodybuilders (and other female athletes) advocate, in the face of social and institutional censure and categorization, for positive self-definition. As bell hooks writes: "One of the most significant forms of power held by the weak is 'the refusal to accept the definition of oneself that is put forward by the powerful'".15 This resistance to the label of gender deviance has assumed a number of forms. Some female bodybuilders have responded by trying to adhere even more firmly to traditional norms of femininity by, for example, posing in lingerie for photo shoots.16 Others, such as Nicole Bass, play on their typing as strong women and get paid for physically overpowering men. Though the latter group may experience a great deal of social ostracism from some sectors, many are laughing all the way to the bank. But, as Russo asks, "[A]re women... so identified with style itself that they are as estranged from its liberatory and transgressive effects as they are from their own bodies as signs in culture generally?"17 To what degree are various efforts at resistance successful, both discursively in the realm of representation as well as in the "real world" of institutional and political power?

In a sense, the figure of the grotesque presents possibilities rather than limitations. After all, an entire generation formed its collective identity a few decades ago by "letting its freak flag fly". Existing outside of the confinement of normative categories can provide room to breathe, and gender transgression can be emancipatory in the release from static roles. Discussing the metaphoric role of monsters with regard to gender, Rosi Braidotti writes: "[Monsters] represent the in-between, the mixed, the ambivalent as implied in the ancient Greek root of the word "monsters", teras, which means both horrible and wonderful..."18 Braidotti argues that "the female body shares with the monster the privilege of bringing out a unique blend of fascination and horror."19 The female bodybuilder, in her alleged blurring of gender boundaries, inspires both awe and revulsion in some viewers, such as my email correspondent. I think the solution is not to attempt to erase this gender transgression or to hide it under external layers of feminine accoutrements, but to expose it, to make it public, and to present it as a continual interruption to the smooth flow of a rigidly gendered order. By calling "natural" gender into question and questioning the limits of appropriate physical femininity, female bodybuilders create new possibilities and roles for women.



  1. Judith Butler, "Performative Acts and Gender Constitution: An Essay in Phenomenology and Feminist Theory". Writing on the Body: Female Embodiment and Feminist Theory, ed. Katie Conboy, Nadia Medina, and Sarah Stanbury (New York: Columbia University Press, 1997), 402.
  2. Butler, 405.
  3. Edwin Schur, Labeling Women Deviant: Gender, Stigma, and Social Control (New York: McGraw-Hill, 1984), 5.
  4. Schur, 5.
  5. Suad Joseph, ""The Public/Private - The Imagined Boundary in the Imagined Nation/State/Community". Feminist Review. (57): 75 (Autumn 1997).
  6. Joseph, 76.
  7. Shur, 44.
  8. Mary Russo, The Female Grotesque: Risk, Excess, and Modernity (New York: Routledge, 1995), 8.
  9. Russo, 8.  
  10. Russo, 8.
  11. Rosi Braidotti, "Mothers, Monsters, and Machines". Writing on the Body: Female Embodiment and Feminist Theory, ed. Katie Conboy, Nadia Medina, and Sarah Stanbury (New York: Columbia University Press, 1997), 62.
  12. Schur, 3, 5.
  13. Russo, 14.
  14. Russo, 14.
  15. bell hooks, Feminist Theory: From Margin to Centre (Boston: South End Press, 1984), 90.
  16. Leslie Heywood "Athletic vs. Pornographic Eroticism: How Muscle Magazines Compromise Female Athletes and Delegitimize the Sport of Bodybuilding in the Public Eye." Mesomorphosis 1(1) (June 1998).
  17. Russo, 60.
  18. Braidotti, 62.
  19. Braidotti, 65 (italics in original).