The Body Politic


Her thighs are the size of Smithfield hams. Her biceps, when flexed, would make strong men quail. Her buttocks are so powerfully pneumatic that they put you in mind of Paul Bunyan’s mighty ox, Babe, which is probably appropriate because it’s no stretch to imagine someone capable of squat-lifting 405 pounds pulling a wagon across the prairie. Make that a wagon filled with heavy texts on gender theory.

She is five foot four and weighs just under 180 pounds, about the recommended average for a six-foot man or else a Modern Amazon, which is how she’s characterized in the New Museum’s “Picturing the Modern Amazon,” opening this week and billed as the first major exhibition devoted to the representation of “hypermuscular and physically strong women.” The measurable percentage of Betty Moore’s body fat falls somewhere in the single digits, a fairly astounding fact given that her daily diet includes no fewer than 10 egg whites, two turkey burgers (at 7 a.m.), a slab of salmon, two bowls of cream of rice, two MetrX shakes, two chicken breasts, four servings of rice and vegetables, and, for dinner, a 12-ounce steak. “My body fat is low,” says the soft-spoken Alabaman, clearly a woman unruffled by contradiction, although “right now I’m trying to get as big as I possibly can.”

It was Freud who first pointed out that “when you meet a human being the first distinction you make is ‘male or female’ and you are accustomed to making the distinction with unhesitating certainty.” Stable assumptions about sex are not what they once were, as we all know. They probably haven’t been since Simone de Beauvoir jump-started the gender studies juggernaut by noting that “one is not born, but becomes a woman.” Navigating the shifting landscape of gender is, as it turns out, a task that’s renewable daily, a truth perhaps best understood by those few who venture beyond the boundaries of predictable self-presentation—drag queens and kings, for instance, and women for whom the relevant beauty ideal isn’t Cindy Crawford but Xena, Warrior Princess. “People find it strange that a woman can look so muscular,” says the 42-year-old Moore. “They just assume that because a woman has muscles she’s masculine. I might be wearing lipstick or whatever, and they’re still whispering, ‘Is it a woman or a man?’ As far as I’m concerned, anyone can look at me and tell I’m a woman. But people look at me and they see man.”

Back in the mid 1980s, this reporter accompanied a group of strong women to a bodybuilding competition in Columbus, Ohio. The event was sponsored by Arnold Schwarzenegger and was oriented toward men, although there was a small category for women. In the days before use of decadurabolin and other anabolic, androgenic, and metabolic enhancing agents had seeped beyond the sweaty precincts of pro bodybuilding and the World Wrestling Federation, there were few female bodybuilders of any substantial size. The preferred body type for an incipient modern Amazon was a sinewy version of Jane Fonda, aerobics doll.

Among the women in the group one stood out. A genial bottle-blond with a fireplug physique, Bev Francis was just beginning her assault on the preconceptions built into, not just the creaky and insular world of bodybuilding, but the culture at large. A former champion shot-putter, and a powerlifter who eventually broke over 40 world records, Francis even then had limbs so thickly roped they resembled hawsers. Striking a favorite dorsal pose, she displayed the cobra’s-hood back shape so prized among male bodybuilders. She had a six-pack abdomen and could lift phenomenally heavy weights (her records include a 500-pound squat and a 335-pound bench press).

She was generally considered one of the most muscularly developed women anyone had ever seen, and—using the objective measures of body mass and definition—one of the best. But Bev Francis, whose career would extend over most of the next decade, never won a major bodybuilding contest, not that Ohio one, not ever. Even in the eyes of those accustomed to the weirder forms of hypertrophy, she was considered “unfeminine,” daunting, freakish, “too much like a man.” Her very presence threatened people with what theorist Judith Butler has called gender illegibility. “I never won a Ms. Olympia,” says Francis, “but I don’t think there has been anyone who had more influence on women bodybuilders than me.”

This influence went beyond dank gyms and college arenas into pop culture, and from there, naturally enough, to the academy. Setting out to investigate the status of muscular women in contemporary culture, the curators of “Picturing the Modern Amazon” also unearthed her forebears, mythological superwomen as well as their sideshow avatars. With even less cultural purchase than Bev Francis or Betty Moore have, these strongwomen typically fetched up in one of the few places where the abnormal was valorized and sanctioned, the circus. There were Athleta and Vulcana and the once-renowned Minerva, a German immigrant born Josephine Wohlford, who could lift a 700-pound weight from the floor, perform a one-hand press lift with 100 pounds, and whose most famous trick involved hoisting 18 men and a platform weighing 3000 pounds, an achievement long listed by the Guinness Book of Records as “the greatest feat of strength performed by a woman.” Yet who has ever heard of Minerva?

Amazons, says Laurie Fierstein, a bodybuilder and social activist who is one of the show’s curators, have always been “rendered invisible within our culture because they depart from the gender norm. The response to this particular female image has always been one of lust and dread, fear of a woman who has built a body consciously and painstakingly. There’s a cultural need to vanquish the Amazon. She’s a powerful creature who needs to be destroyed.”

But, let’s face it, how puissant is a cartoon? How truly subversive of cultural norms? According to Fierstein, a “muscular woman is a metaphor for a powerful woman,” a fact borne out by . . . what? Wonder Woman? The cult of Xena? The New Museum show’s wealth of drawings, photographs, videos, sculptures, and comic books by artists from Matthew Barney to Louise Bourgeois valorizes Woman as an overwhelmingly physicalized presence. And that’s a good thing. But it’s not exactly new iconic territory. And any unease elicited by strong-girl imagery is probably outstripped by a comforting sense that, in the form of the bodybuilder, woman is right where she’s always belonged: static, posed, and objectified. As critic Susan Bordo writes, “To reshape one’s body into a male body is not to put on male power and privilege. To feel autonomous and free while harnessing body and soul to an obsessive body-practice is to serve, not transform a social order that limits female possibilities.” The same sentiment was once expressed with some pathos by Lenda Murray, the phenomenally muscular Ms. Olympia who—even after attaining female bodybuilding’s pinnacle six times—found herself reduced to hawking fitness tights and fending off scripts for cheesy movie roles. “I don’t want to just look into the camera,” said Murray, “and growl.”

A bodybuilder’s “too muchness,” as manifest in “Picturing the Modern Amazon,” is “still considered extreme, excessive, a deviant behavior,” as Fierstein says. It’s grotesque. And the grotesque body is no more welcome outside the freak-show precincts than it was in Vulcana’s day. “One of the things we explore [in the show],” explains Fierstein, “is the body being celebrated in its largeness, taking up space, pushing itself in public space.” But the public transaction doesn’t compare with the anguished private one, where we all take refuge from a puritan culture’s obsessive insistence that we fetishize and package ourselves.

“I am now seeing a very big picture,” says Susan Bordo, “in which men and women alike are being drawn into a kind of everyday obsessiveness about their bodies. It gets associated with freedom and taking space, but it’s obsession.”

Betty Moore wakes every day at 3:30 to be in the gym by five. She eats a full meal every two and a half hours and is generally in bed by nine. “Bodybuilding changed my life in major ways,” she says. “Now everything revolves around my training. I eliminated so much. I don’t socialize at all. I train, I work, I prepare my meals, and I go to bed. That kind of sets you apart from everyone. People have a stereotype that he or she is a musclehead and they don’t have anything else going on. I don’t have a social life, but that doesn’t mean I’m stupid. I’m focused. Doing this is the most important thing to me, so it’s all totally worth it. It’s a strange life, but I love it.”