Sculpting the Woman

Muscularity, Power and the Problem with Femininity

by Jamilla Rosdahl (Author)
Monographs X, 220 Pages
Series: Queering Paradigms, Volume 8


What is femininity?
Why does the idea of femininity not seem to «fit» with muscular women?
Why are muscular women the object of such controversy and skepticism?
Why do some women build muscle despite these strong cultural reactions?
Muscular women have long been the focus of public scrutiny, cultural contempt and fascination. Sculpting the Woman interrogates the protected status of femininity as it has been rendered irrelevant to the history, theory and politics of the muscular woman. This highly original and provocative work draws on important social thinkers including Michel Foucault and Judith Butler as well as recent theoretical developments on gender, identity and the body in poststructuralism, psychoanalysis, various feminisms and social and moral philosophy. This book offers a personal insight into one of the most threatening of cultural identities: the «muscular female». Through its analysis of femininity’s complex relationship with muscularity, it explores the larger question: «What is a woman?»

Table Of Contents

  • Cover
  • Title
  • Copyright
  • About the author
  • About the book
  • This eBook can be cited
  • Contents
  • Acknowledgements
  • Chapter 1: The Problem of the Muscular Woman
  • Chapter 2: The Invention of the Muscular Woman as a Problem
  • Chapter 3: Truth, Power and Relations to Self
  • Chapter 4: Methodological Elements
  • Chapter 5: What is a Woman?
  • Chapter 6: The Victorian Strong Woman
  • Chapter 7: The Myth of Femininity
  • Chapter 8: Woman as Imagined
  • Appendix
  • References
  • Index
  • Series index

← viii | ix →


I would like to thank the Department of Social Sciences at the University of the Sunshine Coast where this study began as a doctoral dissertation. This work was also supported by the University of the Sunshine Coast Faculty HDR output grant and The Australian Sociological Association (TASA) Annual Conference postgraduate scholarship. Parts of Chapter 6 appear in Rosdahl (2014), ‘The myth of femininity in the sport of body sculpting’, an article published in the journal Social Alternatives, volume 33, issue 2. Parts of Chapter 7 appear in Rosdahl (2010), ‘Sculpting my feminist identity and body: An Autoethnographic exploration of body sculpting and poststructuralist feminist fieldwork’, an article published in the proceedings of the TASA annual conference.

This work would also not have been possible without the support, advice and friendship from many people. I am indebted to the women who took part in this research, all of whom were extremely generous with their time and encouragement.

I would like to thank Associate Professor Julie Matthews for her complete commitment and support during my years as a student. Julie, I consider you my ‘academic mother’ and a very dear friend. As a scholar and teacher you continue to challenge, encourage and inspire my work and writing.

I need to thank Dr Lucinda Aberdeen and Dr Phillip Ablett who have been very generous with their time, advice and intellectual capital.

I am particularly grateful to my beautiful children; my bright and articulate daughter, Mia, who continues to inspire me to aim to improve the world for young girls and women, and to my happy and charming little son, Keanu, who makes me smile and who reminds me of the importance of just ‘being’.

I also need to thank my family. I want to thank my mother, Leila, for her continuous support and for taking Keanu on those late afternoon walks while I wrote. You have taught me the importance of patience and ← ix | x → perseverance. Thank you also for proofreading and editing every single chapter. We did this together.

I want to thank my sister Jelena for her constant support and encouragement. You are my best friend. I will always remember our late-night study sessions. I want to thank my grandmother, Birgit, for her continuous support, enthusiasm and encouragement. You really are the strongest woman I know. You have taught me the importance of hard work and determination.

I would also like to thank my brother, Leo, whose work ethic is inspiring. Leo, during these years of writing, I have watched you work so hard whilst also taking care of your son, Kayden, and your daughter, Ally. You are a very kind, giving and loving father. I am very proud of you.

I have enjoyed the support and advice of my colleagues and other family members and friends who took an interest in my research. I wish to thank Dr Cate Morriss whose scholarship and commitment to feminism encourages me to explore and act to combat inequality and oppression. Finally, I need to thank my students. They continue to inspire and challenge me to explore, explain and put into practice complex understandings of gender relations in Australia.

← x | 1 →


The Problem of the Muscular Woman

There is something profoundly upsetting about a proud, confident, unrepentantly muscular woman. She risks being seen by her viewers as dangerous, alluring, odd, beautiful or, at worst, a sort of raree [sic] show. She is, in fact, a smorgasbord of mixed messages. This inability to come to grips with a strong, heavily muscled woman accounts for much of the confusion and downright hostility that often greets her.


The sight of a muscular woman often generates wild discussions about the very nature of womanhood and the multiplicity of meanings or understandings behind commonly used terms such as maleness, femaleness, masculinity or femininity. Women with muscle are regularly told that they do not conform to normal standards of female identity and feminine behaviour. Muscle is most often associated with men, male bodies and therefore with masculinity. Because a muscular female body challenges western understandings of the traditional female body as naturally feminine in appearance and physique, it problematises the notion of what it means to be a real woman or a real man. A muscular woman confronts the assumption that all men are big, strong and powerful and that all women are naturally smaller, weaker, passive and dependent. The combination of muscle and femininity produces wildly perplexing effects. ← 1 | 2 →

The Threat of Muscularity and its Relationship to Femininity

It is often assumed that women who participate in male-dominated sports such as bodybuilding do not conform to normative standards of feminine identity or conventional displays of womanhood. Building muscle is not something that is associated with ‘normal’ women and when women display muscular bodies they are often spoken of as being unfeminine, unnatural or undesirable (Bolin and Granskog 2003, Boyle 2005, Bunsell 2013). In western societies, traditional or normative femininity emphasises a female body that is white, fit, slender, delicate, neat and sexually attractive. The demonstration of femininity does not encompass physical strength, large muscle or any display of power or bulk. Slimness, attractiveness and sexiness are valued attributes for bodies classified female. A thin and attractive woman is also more often associated with wealth, self-control, strong social skills, occupational success, grace and youth, while ‘fatness’ is associated with greed, laziness, lack of control and indulgence (Bordo 1993b, Sparkes 1997).

Currently, this feminine ideal not only implies a woman who is slender, neat and sexy but it also demands a display of heterosexuality through the use of the body. For example, it is often assumed that a woman naturally enjoys carrying certain feminine markers such as wearing skirts and dresses (that accentuate breasts, waist and bottom), high-heel shoes and make-up, that she possesses personal qualities such as passivity and mystery and that she naturally uses her body to be sexually alluring to men. It is also assumed that most women ought to be desired, that they should aspire to be desired and that they should want to be attracted and attractive to men. Some people also believe that ‘real’ men must desire this ideal of woman, that men should financially provide for, care and support women and that most women want to be financially supported by men. When people with female bodies do not display feminine markers or conform to these types of expectations, they are often accused of not being real women, of being unfeminine or masculine and non-heterosexual.

Homogenised and commercialised representations of the feminine woman become naturalised and normalised and function as a benchmark against which all women must continually measure and aspire to live up ← 2 | 3 → to (Powell and Longino 2002: 223). This normative ideal of femininity invokes the idea that a woman should not only be slender, heterosexual and beautiful but also white and forever youthful. The message is repeatedly reinforced by the noticeable absence of racially marginalised and ageing women in dominant mediated representations of beauty. When marginalised women do appear, they are represented as whitified, ‘contextualized in otherness’ or distorted (Wray 2003: 524). The models of feminine beauty are almost always white women sterilised of any ‘ethnic’ identification. White femininity can be said to occupy the apex of the beauty hierarchy. The female bodies displayed in popular culture magazines such as Cosmo, Glamour and Elle mirror a culture that celebrates an idea represented by ‘plastic and celluloid icons of white femininity, such as the Barbie doll, Pamela Anderson or Madonna’ (Deliovsky 2008: 56).

Very early on women learn that feminine beauty not only has to do with physical perfection but also with behaviour and decorum in service of a white western hegemonic masculinity. As Naomi Wolf (1991: 12) argues, ‘beauty is a currency system like the gold standard. Like an economy, it is determined by politics’. Assigning value to women’s bodies based on cultural and racial standards of beauty is an expression of a white masculinist discourse in which women are ultimately the losers. Female beauty is a myth but it tells a very persistent story about a quality said to exist objectively and universally. ‘Women must want to embody it and men must want to possess women who embody it’ (Wolf 1991: 12). The assignment of value placed on beauty creates a contest in which all women must compete in to be recognised as real and proper women.


X, 220
ISBN (Softcover)
Publication date
2017 (March)
body gender woman
Oxford, Bern, Berlin, Bruxelles, Frankfurt am Main, New York, Wien, 2017. X, 220 pp., 5 b/w ill.

Biographical notes

Jamilla Rosdahl (Author)

Jamilla Rosdahl is a researcher in gender and sexuality studies in the Department of Social Sciences at the University of the Sunshine Coast, where she specialises in social theory, gender, sexuality, disability, the body, nineteenth- and twentieth-century continental philosophy, social and political thought and postcolonial theory. She is also active in gender, sexual and identity politics and human rights, anti-war politics and moral philosophy.


Title: Sculpting the Woman
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231 pages