Lost in Amazonia | The Nation


Lost in Amazonia

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The sources of this irony are manifold. Anything as extreme, hyperbolic and at the same time apparently earnest is bound to inspire humor, and everything about these female bodybuilders reads like a double-entendre or a camp subversion. Even the typefaces in the catalogue shift from modern sleek to comic-book chunk to romantic filigree in the course of a single title. The "muscle hussy" costumes look like a cross between stripper gear and the undersized tatters of the Incredible Hulk. The bodybuilders' "window performance" suggests the "performance art" of prostitutes in Amsterdam's red-light district. Circus strongwomen are called "understanders," not because of their feminine empathy but their position at the bottom of human pyramids; understanders such as Pudgy Stockton and Dunlap Kaan hoist their husbands over their heads, a feat particularly pleasurable to Amazons.

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Wendy Steiner
Wendy Steiner is the Richard L. Fisher Professor of English Emerita at the University of Pennsylvania. She is an opera...

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Over and over, traditional poses display the female body to untraditional effect. When a bodybuilder puts her hand on her hip, she shows off not her breasts but her biceps. The first female bodybuilder with a man-scale physique, Bev Francis, mugged girlie poses in the 1985 documentary Pumping Iron II: The Women, to make fun of the pressure on competitors to look feminine. The demure bondage victim comes in for similar parody in Bill Dobbins's photograph of Laura Creavalle dressed in a few strips of leather, her arms locked in stocks, her eyes lowered, her toes pointed, her muscles bulging.

Female bodybuilders always appear to be quoting men as they strike poses from classical sculpture or superhero comic books. Renée Cox, for example, photographs Heather Foster with helmet, gun and thigh-high leather boots in front of a wall-sized flag; Nicole Eisenman draws The Largest Woman looming over the viewer. Yet the bodybuilder's steel-hard muscle and taut skin find a female analogue in the pregnant belly and lactating breasts, and the hoarse breathing of the bench press sounds like nothing so much as childbirth panting. Samuel Fussell experienced his built physique as oddly feminine: a nonfunctional appearance of strength--useless, ornamental and masking vulnerability. In a similar gender reversal, Pumping Iron begins with Arnold Schwarzenegger in ballet class practicing poses in front of a mirror.

In certain respects, female bodybuilding seems no more liberated than fashion modeling. Indeed, the group poses in competitions suggest fashion shoots and chorus lines, and models and bodybuilders share an obsession over fat, firmness and "look." If they are "artists," they are artists of the body. But of course, the aesthetic in each case is utterly different. The exhibition catalogue makes this point by juxtaposing a photo of the rope-veined Laura Binetti with one of Twiggy standing among mannequins. The model, abnormally tall and thin for a woman, inhabits verticality; the bodybuilder, typically short or average in height and astonishingly wide with muscle, is horizontal. The ethereality of models implies an escape into aristocratic sublimity; bodybuilders are rooted to the earth, plebeian morlocks. Until the recent fitness craze, models' flesh-lined skin hid any signs of functionality in the body except those connected with sex. For female bodybuilders, the absence of a fat screen and the hyperdevelopment of muscles and veins exposes the machinery of the body, and the darkly tanned skin over muscle and blood vessel evokes nothing so much as a flayed carcass. The model looks helpless and weak but at the same time flawless, invulnerable; the bodybuilder looks overpoweringly strong but "ripped," exposed. The model's smooth surface covers hidden depths; the bodybuilder's "solid lean meat," claims Marcia Ian, contains no space at all. Muscle "connotes exteriority, the exteriority of the phallus."

The language the body speaks for model and bodybuilder may be different, but both use their bodies to speak for them. One wonders what is wrong with their tongues. There is a story that Dustin Hoffman prepared for the torture scene in Marathon Man by not eating, sleeping or bathing for days. When he came onto the set in this pitiful state, Laurence Olivier observed, "But Dustin, acting is so much easier." One wants to say the same to these women who starve, drug and exhaust themselves day in and day out, giving up "normal" life for their art. Speaking is so much easier. Complain a little. Rail against the situation of women in this gender-challenged, family-failed, female-oppressing, love-starved world. Maxine Hong Kingston may invent a "woman warrior," but she gives her the power to express her anguish in words: "Nobody supports me at the expense of his own adventure.... no one supports me; I am not loved enough to be supported. That I am not a burden has to compensate for the sad envy when I look at women loved enough to be supported. Even now China wraps double binds around my feet."

After millennia of double binds on female bodies, it seems that some women can speak only bodily. Kingston reveals the revolutionary logic of their painful display in her woman warrior, trained with all the rigor of a bodybuilder. "We are going to carve revenge on your back," say her guardians, and she welcomes the message. The bodily marking of a woman may be unavoidably ornamental: "If an enemy should flay me, the light would shine through my skin like lace." However, this ornamentation is not powerless, but a mighty weapon. "I saw my back covered entirely with words in red and black files, like an army, like my army." And with this army of words written on her, the woman warrior assembles a real army to avenge the injustice of the ages.

This theme of body marking is one of the staples of feminist writing in our day. Andrea Dworkin's "song of myself" is a "flesh poem" that male oppression cuts into her body. The slave girl Sethe's back in Beloved is scarred by a whipping and then transformed into a "chokecherry tree" through the imagination and kindness of a fostering woman. The point is to do the marking oneself rather than suffer it at the hands of others. And so the "muscle definition," the "ripped" flesh, the veins "like an anaconda that winds around a granite boulder" are supposedly proud marks of self-assertion. Barbara Zucker's steel tracery of a muscled back might as well be Sethe's chokecherry tree, and likewise the muscle outlines beaded onto Amelia Lavin's Tigress. Tattoos and piercings speak too, as in Deborah Willis's Nancy Lewis, but muscles and veins are the bodybuilder's true eloquence. No pain, no gain. It makes us cry, perhaps, but we might wonder whether it is ultimately an effective rhetoric. Will it turn into words and then armies?

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