Not many of us may be familiar with or sympathetic to the teachings of the early Christian church, but most of us have heard of “The Seven Deadly Sins” at some point.
Whether you’ve seen David Fincher’s classic 1995 film “Se7en” or you just happen to be well-versed in the ethics of medieval Christendom, The Seven Deadly Sins are:
These seven vices are associated with self-indulgence and contribute to the fall of humanity. While changing social mores throughout time might knock a few of these sins off their perch, we still to this day regard many of these behaviors with shame.
Female bodybuilding, to switch gears just a bit, is in a position of both strength and weakness right now. On one hand, the popularity of CrossFit, Fitbit, hybrid workouts, customized personal training and fitness apps is making it less taboo for women to lift weights and exercise hard. These trends may not necessarily lead more women down the path of bodybuilding, but the doors are definitely more open than they were in generations past.
On the other hand, the sport of female bodybuilding is being more and more marginalized as the years go on. Elite, hyper-muscular female athletes are being pushed out of the industry while more watered-down “fitness” and “bikini” competitors are taking their place. Pretty soon, it’s not inconceivable that the Ms. Olympia competition may not exist anymore. Competitions involving highly muscular female bodybuilders will definitely still persist, but they’ll most likely receive less mainstream support than they did before.
For fans of female bodybuilding, this is a tragedy that feels both inevitable and sadly predictable. We hope this day never arrives, but one can certainly see which direction the tide is turning.
That being said, how does one explain this downgrading of the sport many of us love so much? One of The Seven Deadly Sins may offer a plausible explanation.
Let us explore this issue in greater detail.
- Envy, in both men and women, is contributing to the assault against female bodybuilding
Unfortunately, the attack against female bodybuilding is coming from two different directions: men and women. Let’s first start with men.
Traditionally-speaking, men are considered to be the “stronger sex” while women are, by default, dubbed the “weaker sex.” There is biological data to back this up, as well as centuries of culturally imposed gender roles – spanning across the entire globe – that contribute to this well-entrenched social paradigm. The concept of men being naturally stronger than women is something we didn’t have to learn in school. Most of us know this by our own accord.
Therefore, when we (and by “we,” I’m referring to us guys as a whole) encounter a woman who’s clearly stronger than us, we feel emasculated. We’re supposed to be the stronger ones, not the losers coming in second place. If you’re at the gym and you see a lady deadlifting two or four 45-pound plates more than you, it makes you feel puny, incomplete and a shame to your gender.
In other words, you feel envious. “Envy,” just to be clear, is defined as “a feeling of discontent or covetousness with regard to another’s advantages, success, possessions, etc.”
I still don’t quite know the difference between “envy” and “jealousy,” (I think “jealousy” is being resentful toward another person as a result of your feelings of envy) but it’s pretty clear what’s going on here. The guys who disdain or are disgusted by female bodybuilders are more targeting their own insecurities instead of expressing their hatred toward someone else. When you see an Internet troll describe a female bodybuilder as “trying to become a man” or saying “she probably has a penis,” what they’re really doing is conveying their personal anxieties rather than stating an objective opinion.
Emasculation can be a powerful motivator. Or a powerful wrecking ball of other people’s accomplishments. It’s sad that more guys aren’t encouraged by women who achieve high levels of strength and muscularity. But not all of us see eye-to-eye. What some of us guys perceive to be sexy others interpret to be an attack on their manhood.
Conversely, envy among women is also at play here. Female bodybuilders may not be shattering any proverbial “glass ceilings” per se, but they do tear down certain excuses we use to justify female weakness. Like men who feel emasculated when in the presence of a muscular woman, there are most certainly women who feel “effeminated” – if such a word actually exists – by the same thing. The small number of women (but by no means insignificant) who achieves strength that surpasses the average man brings about a sense of inadequacy in the majority of women who cannot achieve similar results.
They too are repulsed by their more muscular sisters because they feel challenged not by “society” as a whole, but by their peers. It’s one thing to call yourself a “strong, independent woman” and hope the rest of the world goes along with you, but it’s another thing entirely to actually put in the effort to become a genuinely strong woman. Talk is cheap. What female bodybuilders and athletes do is definitely not.
- The best way to deal with envious feelings is to pretend like the object of your envy doesn’t exist
Nobody wants to feel emasculated, degraded or second rate. Nobody wants to wake up, look at themselves in the mirror, and see mediocrity reflected back at them. You feel mediocre because you can’t compare to your competition, however you define “competition.”
So what’s the best way to assure you don’t lose to your competitors? Simple. Don’t have any competitors.
Obviously, it’s impossible to snap your fingers and make everybody who is richer, smarter, stronger, better looking and more successful than you magically disappear. So the next best thing is to pretend like they don’t exist. Or, on a more practical level, deny their identity as a method of “erasing” who they actually are.
This is why the insult “she looks like a man” is so common among trolls. Women aren’t supposed to be stronger than men, so when a woman is proven to be stronger than a man, then she must not actually be a woman. She’s probably secretly a man disguised as a woman. Or a woman with biological characteristics more becoming of a man, which by association means she’s not a genuine woman. Which then means her accomplishments aren’t legitimate. And if her accomplishments aren’t legitimate, you feel better about yourself because that battle you thought you lost you then win by default.
Delegitimizing your opponents is a classical tactic to eliminating their victories. If you convince enough people – including yourself – that female bodybuilders are actually women with substantial male components (biological traits, hormone levels, etc.), it makes their accomplishments as elite athletes null and void. It comforts your mind knowing Alina Popa isn’t really a normal woman who, by her sheer willpower and hard work, built herself to be stronger and bulkier than most guys. She has to have an unfair advantage somewhere! Perhaps she has an unusual amount of natural testosterone hidden in her system that, scientifically speaking, makes her a “man.” Yeah, that must be it! There’s no way that she can be that buff while being 100% female. Case closed.
While it’s true many female bodybuilders take drugs that increase their capacity to build muscle mass, that doesn’t make them less of a woman. Scientific arguments aside, the point I’m trying to make is that delegitimizing the accomplishments of a female bodybuilder is the primary way critics try to pretend like the objects of their jealousy don’t exist. Deny them their identity, and you “win” because it gives you personal comfort knowing there’s nothing wrong with your own identity.
It’s a terrible thing to do, but unfortunately it’s all too common.
- Envy is more of a product of your own insecurity
As mentioned before, the contempt critics of female bodybuilders feel toward them is more a product of their own insecurities rather than anything else. They aren’t angry at them necessarily, but are actually angry at themselves for not doing enough to measure up.
I won’t stress this point any further, but I will add one more nugget. One of the biggest problems facing our society is the belief that someone’s accomplishment is automatically someone else’s loss. In other words, too many of us embrace the idea that life is a zero-sum game.
In case you need a refresher, a zero-sum game is “a mathematical representation of a situation in which each participant’s gain (or loss) of utility is exactly balanced by the losses (or gains) of the utility of the other participant(s). If the total gains of the participants are added up and the total losses are subtracted, they will sum to zero.”
You don’t need to be a mathematical genius in the vein of the late John Forbes Nash, Jr. to understand what this means. In sports, athletic competition is a zero-sum game. Either you win or you lose. There’s no middle ground. Yes, some sports have ties. Other sports have placements, so you can come in third or fourth place and still earn a comically oversized check. But most of the time, athletic competitions end with either an absolute winner or an absolute loser.
But life is not always like that. One smart kid earning an A+ on their spelling test doesn’t in any way, shape or form prevent other kids from earning a similar grade. Theoretically, every single kid in your class can earn a perfect score (logically, every kid could also earn an F). Yet when you’re the only one who earns the highest mark, why do the rest of the kids treat you with scorn? Why are you labeled a “smarty pants” or other such similar names? For whatever reason, too many of us have been taught that someone else’s gain will automatically result in everyone else’s loss. They can’t prove it, but they inherently believe that you earning the A+ means they’re left with the B- or C+ grades by default.
But life is not a zero-sum game. Seeing a strong, beautiful woman at the gym doesn’t mean you can’t accomplish the same thing. Nor does it mean she got there through some unfair advantage. Beauty doesn’t have to be a competition. Even if you aren’t gifted with a lot of natural beauty, I’ve written before that female bodybuilders earn their beauty in ways that their peers who hit the genetic jackpot don’t.
Some of the most beautiful female bodybuilders in the world have faces that aren’t traditionally pretty. Some are plain looking. Others might have faces that revolt you. But their bodies are breathtaking and deserve high praise. Regardless, one woman being beautiful doesn’t mean the woman standing next to her can’t also be beautiful. Life isn’t like that.
Perhaps this psychologically explains where envy is rooted in. We, for whatever reason, are socialized to believe that people who are successful make it harder for the rest of us to be just as successful. But this is a fallacy. Life isn’t about fighting over who gets the biggest slice of the pie. It’s about each one of us baking our own delicious pie, without any regard to what other people are doing. This may not be true in every facet of life, but we’d be better off if we all lived life in the positive rather than the negative.
- Envy keeps everyone down, even those who’ve reached the top
The last point is probably the most important. Envious feelings hurt everyone. Everyone. Including those who are the object of envy.
Call it “victor’s guilt.” Some people feel guilty for “winning” at life. A parent who has a healthy family might feel bad for their neighbor who can’t conceive a child no matter how hard they try. That same kid who earned the A+ on their spelling test might secretly tank their next test so that they could be more like everyone else. That rising star in the world of female bodybuilding may reduce her muscle gains so that she could encourage her less successful peers to feel better about themselves.
These reactions are understandable. They also reflect a larger issue when achieving the most you can becomes discouraged, or worse, taboo.
It goes without saying that there are many examples in life when someone’s gain truly comes at another person’s loss. But more often than not, this is not the case. Female bodybuilders are already stuck between a rock and a hard place (and I’m not just referring to their rock hard abs and firm glutes). They live a financially and emotionally draining lifestyle that’s receiving less and less support from their own industry, their own peers, the opposite gender and their own gender group. Perhaps this is a slight exaggeration, but perhaps it’s not. Either way, it’s hard out there for a female bodybuilder. The battles, both large and small, they have to face every single day is enough to boggle the mind.
How they manage to maintain their lifestyles and persist in pursuing their dreams is a testament to their inner strength, which is probably mightier than their physical strength. Not all of us are that mentally tough. Female bodybuilders are without a doubt that tough minded.
In conclusion, female bodybuilders create cognitive dissonance in our minds. Or more accurately, emotional dissonance. They spark feelings of envy within us that make us hate them even though we have no justifiable reason to actually hate them. Hate is often attributed to a lack of understanding. It’s also been described as irrational. Whichever it is, envy is at the root of all this. It is until we wrap our minds and hearts around this that we will be able to treat FBBs the way they should be treated: with great respect, not malice.
The best piece of advice I can give is to celebrate people’s accomplishments instead of dwelling on your own shortcomings, either perceived or real. This fortune cookie mantra could be applied to almost all aspects of our lives. Life is too short to hate on other people. Life is also too short to waste your time wishing you could be “better.” Who can really define “better?” This is not to justify mediocrity, but instead to point out the fact that it’s harmful to kick yourself over not being “perfect” or “better than XYZ.”
This is partly why I started my blog. I want to celebrate these beautiful women and their beautiful bodies. Not because I want to shame anyone or tear down anything, but because I want to focus on the positives in life instead of the deficits. We may not all universally agree that “envy” is a Deadly Sin, but we should agree that it tends to lead us in poor directions.
Cut out the frivolous negativity in your life, and good things will follow. And that’s a game we can all play and win.