Power Laced with Femininity: Stereotypes and Female Bodybuilders

Farah Malhass' photo shoot in the Vancouver Sun. Image via Ali Jarekji, Reuters.

Becca Swanson, bodybuilder, power-lifter, and pro-wrestler (who has been called “The Strongest Woman on the Planet”) writes on her site that she has “a burning desire to show the world my powerful physique laced with beauty and femininity.” This self-consciously anti-oxymoronic statement reflects the fact that female bodybuilders have often been subject to the most extreme form of antipathy against athletic women, as a result of the stereotype which labels physically powerful women as masculinized, or even aberrant.

For Jordanian Farah Malhass, with her love of tattoos and dreams of participating in professional bodybuilding competitions, these attitudes seem familiar as she reports encountering prejudice from those who can’t understand why she would choose to “deform her body” in this fashion.

Like Dina Al Sabah, another Muslim name in the female body building world, Malhass is clearly committed to a fitness career. Predictably however, when it comes to media coverage, Dina and Farah’s athletic aspirations and achievements are almost always deemed a footnote to the “real story,” which, apparently, is how scandalous they are by “Middle Eastern standards.” In blatantly paternalistic style, an article in a fitness magazine on Al Sabah opines that “Kuwait’s tourist bureau should be advertising [Dina's] image on its travel posters,” but that instead she is “more likely to be seen on a wanted poster in that desert kingdom.” Similarly, Malhass is said to “take on a world of prejudice” by stepping into the gym – note the Vancouver Sun’s article, which positions Malhass looking determined, and two men looking distinctly prejudiced in the background.

As easily as that, the context of the discussion is transplanted from fitness and sport to an arena where women’s freedom is measured in proportion to the amount of fabric they wear. As the article on Al Sabah reminds its readers, “what most Westerners view as the subordinate status of women [over] there is reflected most obviously in clothing.” Al Sabah, having escaped the clothing of subordinate status, is presented as a woman who has achieved freedom through modeling lingerie.

The sentiment expressed is that Al Sabah, and now Malhass, are empowering Muslim women by becoming role models. The irony is that their role model status doesn’t seem to be linked to their athletic prowess, or their entrance into arenas traditionally restricted to men, or even to their making strides towards the achievement of the Amazon feminist’s hope for physical equality.  If anything, it’s the opposite, as evidenced by the tongue-in-cheek description of Al Sabah’s “sweeping curves as epic as the dunes of the Sahara.”  Al Sabah and Malhass apparently represent an empowering image because they have reclaimed their “true” femininity from the oppression of too much fabric.

While increased female participation in strength and combat sports in recent years has been hailed by many as one way to release the pressure on women to conform to artificial standards and gendered body image norms, the media coverage of Al Sabah’s and Malhass’ bodybuilding careers suggests there’s some way to go before that can be achieved.

To return to Becca Swanson’s self-conscious conjunction of power “laced with beauty and femininity,” it is clear that many female athletes find themselves trapped between the frailty myth which characterizes femininity as passivity and weakness, and the masculinization myth which defines physically strong women as aberrant. This poses the unavoidable question, how can athletic women achieve a balance between those two stereotypes?

In their attempt to enter traditionally masculine sports and recuperate these fields for women, many female athletes manage to avoid the masculinization charge only through an equally problematic insistence on a stereotypically sexualized image. The implication is that if an athletic woman wants to avoid being labeled masculine, she has to strike a pose that the male gaze would find photogenic. From Nada Zeidan, markswoman and car rally driver, who is graced with the glamorous epithet “cover girl” in the media section of her website, to the less ambivalent case of Dina Al Sabah, whose fitness career has taken a turn to lingerie modeling, the trend seems to repeat itself.

Malhass in the weight room. Patrick Baz, AFP/Getty Images.

The fact that Malhass’ posing for the camera would not be out of place in a Rotana videoclip suggests that she is not finding it any easier to avoid the stereotype traps.