THE ATHLETIC FEMALE BODY:
THE GREEKS DIDN'T HAVE A WORD FOR IT!
If tradition doesn't include the ideal of
the athletic female physique -
maybe it's time to start a new tradition!
By Bill Dobbins
People tend to have strong feelings and deeply held opinions when it comes to the subject of women's bodies.
Take what happened recently when I delivered some photos to the MUSCLE & FITNESS art department a few years ago. They were shots of a woman bodybuilder I considered very attractive and the photos seemed to me to be sensuous but not overly erotic.
One art director (male) looked at them and immediately proclaimed, "These women bodybuilders have no sex appeal. They all look like men." Another art director (female) had a totally different point of view. "These pictures look like they belong in PENTHOUSE, not MUSCLE & FITNESS!" she declared.
Too sexy? Not sexy enough? All I remember is thinking to myself, "I wish these people would make up their frigging minds!"
But you get a lot of that kind of thing when you spend any time around bodybuilding for women. Very emotional, subjective, deeply held points of view. For example:
(1) In the eyes of many men and women, women with muscles---no matter how beautiful, shapely and curvacious they might otherwise be---have ruined their bodies by allowing them to become masculinized. In their minds, muscles = masculine and women with muscles have therefore disregarded a natural and innate distinction between the genders. Muscle on women is seen as some sort of violation of Natural Law.
(2) A lot of men cannot see the female body except in terms of their own specific sexual preferences. In terms of body type or degree of physical development, if it doesn't turn them on---if they don't want to go to bed with it---they're against it. The fact that there may be some other standard by which to judge women and their physical attributes never enters into the discussion.
(3) On the other hand, there are men who have a strong sexual preference for the athletically-developed female physique. Muscles on women turn them on. For these individuals, seeing a woman bodybuilder hitting a most-muscular pose is an intense erotic experience.
(4) While many women admire the female bodybuilding physique, quite a lot of them do not. Some feel intimidated and threatened by women with a degree of physical development they know they can never achieve. Others react with the thought, "I'd never want to look like that,"---as if their own self-image and physical aspirations should somehow be used to set the aesthetic standards for all other women, or in the case of bodybuilding for women, an entire sport.
Why this strong and so-often negative reaction to the idea of women with muscles? Well, as I alluded to above, people tend to have deeply felt and largely irrational beliefs regarding gender identity in general and women's bodies in particular. And the idea of women with muscles is a relatively new (and, therefore, threatening) concept in our civilization. As Charles Gaines, author of the PUMPING IRON books, points out, whereas we have an ideal of male athletic muscularity in our culture dating back to the time of the ancient Greeks, during the last thousand years or we've had no comparable ideal for women. So the idea of the muscularly well-developed male has a long and well-accepted tradition, while the image of the muscular and highly defined female does not.
In the minds of many, the difference between how we view males and the image we like to maintain of females is not just traditional, not a mere cultural artifact. It's a Fact Of Nature. In this view, women who develop overly-large or too well-defined a muscle structure really aren't women. They're "androgenes," masculinized females, part male and part female. They are, in Biblical terms, an abomination.
Of course, in this day and age it's getting increasingly difficult to keep women out of any area of human endeavor by tell them it's "unnatural." This argument was used for too many years as a way of keeping women out of fields such as medicine, law and science, and they're just not buying it anymore.
But this is almost exactly what many young women with the genetic ability to build muscle are being told about the sport of bodybuilding. And if an appeal to Nature doesn't work, there's always history: those pesky Ionian Greeks again. They created all those sculptures of athletically developed men, but no comparable depictions of the female. And since the classical civilization of Greece is viewed as the watershed from which our culture evolved, women are admonished that they should realize the ancients were trying to tell them something!
However, this point of view fails to take certain aspects of classic Greek culture fully into consideration. Namely that the fact that, when it came to women, the Greeks were world-class male chauvinist oinkers.
True, they were the first civilization in the western tradition to fully celebrate the human body. And there was a reason for this. Human beings only began the transition from a hunter-gatherer way of life to an agricultural economy some 20,000 years ago, and the history of modern, agrarian societies only goes back 5,000 to 10,000 years. Becoming farmers changed human life dramatically. People began to live better than they ever had before. They had more to eat, developed increasingly sophisticated technologies, and started to trade across vast distances.
Eventually, they created complex civilizations and such vast empires as that of Mesopotamia and Egypt under the pharaohs. But most of these early civilizations were theocratic in nature. And cultures in which religion rules tend to respect tradition more than they encourage innovation. "Man is the measure of all things" is a humanistic rather than theocratic philosophy. So a theocratic society is not likely to engage in wholesale glorification of the human form.
Then along came the Greeks. The Spartans were a military culture, the Athenians invented democracy, so although they weren't irreligious, priests did not rule Greek society. The Greeks took simple Egyptian geometry and created a complex system of mathematics. They calculated the circumference of the earth with surprising accuracy. They developed sophisticated systems of philosophy, the influence of which is still with us today.
They were also responsible for another invention---the professional athlete. Games of athletic skill have probably been around as long as people. Most were based on the specific skills needed for activities like hunting and war: running, jumping, throwing, weightlifting, as well as facility with a variety of weapons.
The Greeks made these games into an institution. The Olympics. And many of the participants in these games were full-time professional athletes who didn't have to toil for a living but lived pampered lives, with the best of food and all that Greek society could provide, and the leisure to devote themselves full-time to physical training.
Nowadays, we know what happens when talented athletes are left alone to eat, sleep and train with the minimum of distractions---you get superior athletes, with highly-developed, muscular physiques. So Greek artists didn't create all those sculptures of male athletes simply because they lived in a humanistic tradition that
celebrated the human body (although that was certainly a factor).
Instead, Greek artists used these athletic bodies as inspiration for their work because they lived in the culture which invented this kind of physique in the first place! There had been muscular men before, but never a whole class of professional athletes with a degree of muscular development and aesthetic quality never before seen on the planet.
(We know this kind of historic transformation is possible because we've seen it ourselves. In our era, it's called bodybuilding. Michaelangelo may have created inspiring images of the muscular athletic male, but he never saw the likes of Steve Reeves, Sergio Oliva, Arnold Schwarzenegger or Lee Haney. Until the invention of modern bodybuilding, human beings never looked like this in the whole history of the species.)
But while the Greeks were busy inventing the modern athletic male body, it's highly unlikely they would have thought to explore the same concept for women. Because women didn't amount to much in ancient Greek society. For example, if a well-to-do Greek man gave a party, he invited his friends, but wives were not included among the guests. Wives stayed in the kitchen with the children. For female companionship, there was a professional class of prostitutes called "heterai," who, like the Geisha, were also proficient in such cultural niceties such as massage, the playing of musical instruments and the art of conversation.
So the Greeks were no more likely to include women in their exploration of the ideal athletic body any more than they would tolerate women becoming doctors, lawyers or ship's captains, for that matter. And subsequent cultures, through Rome, the Middle Ages, the Renaissance and the Enlightenment followed suit. No, the idea that women should be free to explore their natural talents in a whole range of traditionally male-only fields is a very modern invention. As is the sport of bodybuilding for women.
So the female bodybuilding physique is disturbing to many becomes it's so truly a new idea. When it comes to women's bodybuilding, history is now. Forget the Greeks. They had the Olympics, but not the Miss Olympia. And if historical tradition doesn't include the ideal of the athletic female physique, then maybe it's time to start a new tradition!