Fetishism, Fandom and Fortunes: The Awkward Nature of Being a Female Bodybuilder

Chellss gives me the "feels."
Chellss gives me the “feels.”

It’s hard out there for a female bodybuilder.

There are, of course, the obvious reasons why. Her profession is being squeezed out of existence by The Powers That Be. Receiving weird looks from strangers. The pressures of working in a highly competitive field. The lifestyle. The dieting. The workouts. Financial troubles. How time consuming everything can be. There are more reasons, but one in particular stands out above the rest.

Being fetishized.

I’ve discussed at length the concept of female muscle fetishism from the perspective of a guy who has it. I’ve discussed what it feels like, misconceptions about it, why it’s not a bad thing and what lessons we can learn from it. But I am about to attempt to discuss this topic from a different perspective: That of a female bodybuilder.

Obviously I am not a female bodybuilder. I am not close friends with one nor do I regularly hang out with one. But, I’ve had enough conversations with real life female bodybuilders – through muscle worship sessions during the past three years – to be able to formulate at least a few half-way decent arguments on their behalf. I don’t claim to speak for any or all female bodybuilders, but perhaps I can attempt to step out of my own shoes and look at the world from their perspective momentarily.

I might fail miserably, but it’s worth a shot. So here we go.

Female muscle fetishism unfortunately opens the doors to a number of negative consequences. Female bodybuilders are stuck between a rock and a hard place. On one hand, they can make quite a lot of money on the side by utilizing their assets for financial gain. On the other hand, having adoring fans always comes with backlash. Let’s look at the first point in further detail.

Laurie Steele has buns of steel. See what I did there?
Laurie Steele has buns of steel. See what I did there?

The lifestyle of being a female bodybuilder is difficult from a financial point of view. The costs of being a professional bodybuilder far outweigh whatever monetary rewards one gets in return. Competitions don’t usually garner enough money to live comfortably. Only the elite competitors are afforded the luxuries that come with being at the top. The rest, unfortunately, usually have to resort to working a second job (usually in personal training, modeling, consulting, and so on) just to make ends meet. It’s agonizing to not know where your next paycheck will come from.

So, a lot of female bodybuilders will turn to offering “sessions” as a way to supplement their income. Muscle worship, wrestling, BDSM and other erotically-charged services are what we’re talking about. One cannot deny that these sessions are erotic in nature. Even if no actual sex is involved – which is usually the case – eroticism is an integral part of what these sessions are all about.

Consequently, a lot of female bodybuilders are uncomfortable with this reality. Not everyone likes doing sessions, but they feel like they must in order to put food in the table. Sexuality is a very personal aspect to one’s life. So they have every reason to feel uneasy toward being an erotic provider. While it’s true that, technically speaking, nobody forces you to offer sessions to clients, it’s perfectly understandable why one wouldn’t be 100 percent comfortable with being involved in this underground business.

That being said, a session provider – whether you’re a bodybuilder, wrestler, athlete or someone whose physical attributes are in high demand – can make a significant amount of dough if she markets herself the right way. Let’s say you charge $350 per hour. If you see 10 clients over a period of two days, you can make around $3,500 for two days’ worth of work. If you subtract the cost of the airplane ticket you purchased to get to that city (around $600), booking the hotel room (an extra $200) and food expenses ($50, assuming you don’t bring your own food), you’re still making approximately $2,650 in a 48 hour period. Even if it’s less, let’s say $2,500 or as low as $1,700, that’s an average of $850-1,250 per day, or $106-156 per hour, from the basis of a traditional eight hour working day. And these are conservative estimates. Not every city stay will be that lucrative, but you can also expect certain visits to be more profitable than others.

Her name is "DD," but I cannot find out what her real name is. Can anybody help?
Her name is “DD,” but I cannot find out what her real name is. Can anybody help?

My math can be totally off, but you can clearly see why so many FBBs provide sessions on the side. Travelling across the country (and the world, if you’re in that much demand) and seeing clients for an hour or two at a time can be a real boost to your bank account.

The financial rewards she can gain increase if she develops a loyal clientele in certain cities. Especially if she has one or two clients who are really loyal and are not against spending upwards of $500 to $600 for an extravagant session. I personally don’t have that kind of expendable income, but there are people out there who do. And they can make an FBB a small fortune if they love seeing her that much.

There is another way FBBs exploit their bodies for financial gain: Porn. Whether we’re talking about erotic photography, webcam shows or good old fashioned snuff films, we all know what we’re dealing with here. Further detail isn’t really necessary, but suffice to say, pornography is another viable way female bodybuilders can earn a steady income.

When a female bodybuilder chooses (and I cannot emphasize the word choose enough!) to do sessions, porn, or both, there’s no doubt that taking advantage of her erotic appeal is an undeniably important part of the business. There’s absolutely no obligation to do so of course, but the allure certainly is there for the taking. These financial opportunities are rooted in basic capitalistic principles, but this whole “off-the-books” business boils down to this essential ingredient: fetishism.

To review our terms for a moment, a “fetish” is “an object or bodily part whose real or fantasied presence is psychologically necessary for sexual gratification and that is an object of fixation to the extent that it may interfere with complete sexual expression.” To put it in proper context, it’s when guys and gals receive a strong sexual response to a female bodybuilder’s muscles. It’s no different than any other type of erotic fixation. But this discussion boils down to one very difficult question to answer:

Can you separate female muscle fandom from sexual fetishism?

Or, in other words, is it possible for female muscle fandom to be completely asexual? Certainly sports unto itself isn’t sexual. The ancient Greeks may have conducted their games in the nude, but that mostly was done because clothing can be a hindrance to an athlete’s performance. Today, we have top-of-the-line sports gear that makes that problem irrelevant. Wearing an Under Armor workout shirt almost feels like a second skin. But…we’re getting slightly off topic. Is it possible for our fascination with female muscle to be purely nonsexual? That’s a thought-provoking issue to chew on.

A statuesque Marina Lopez looking triumphant.
A statuesque Marina Lopez looking triumphant.

As discussed before, the sport of female bodybuilding has been sexualized to the point that the erotic aspect of it is probably more financially lucrative than the competitive side of it. To be fair, almost all female sports are sexualized, but that’s a whole other story. What makes bodybuilding (not just female bodybuilding, but male as well) special is the very fact that aesthetic appeal is so foundational to the sport itself. Nobody cares if you have a finely chiseled body if you can hit 40 home runs, rush for 1,500 yards or consistently hit clutch 3-pointers when it matters. Most of these athletes have fantastic looking bodies as it is, but their looks aren’t why they’re valuable. Their value is determined by their on-the-field production. For bodybuilders, their looks are all that matters.

It’s hard out there for a female bodybuilder, indeed. If it truly is impossible – or at the very least, highly difficult – to separate the sport from its erotic undertones, what do you do if you’re uncomfortable with expressing your sexuality so openly? If I were a female bodybuilder, I would have to be very comfortable with my sexuality, or else I would have to be forced to find a new day job. There’s no debate that eroticism, fetishism and the like are deeply embedded within the sport. But is that the way it has to be? Are there alternatives? Can female bodybuilding be genuinely asexual in nature?

To be honest, it can. But it won’t be easy. But that begs a further question: Why does it matter?

Or better yet: Is sexuality inherently a bad thing?

The fetish of female muscle is obviously a taboo subject. Heck, generally speaking the subject of sexuality as a whole is taboo. But from the perspective of a guy who’s attracted to strong women, it’s an especially weird topic of discussion. That’s why this often goes unspoken. From the perspective of a female bodybuilder, things are also probably pretty weird. But “weirdness” is not necessarily an indication of something being wrong. It could be an indication of something that we need to talk about more often.

But, stepping back into an FBB’s shoes for a moment, it’s perfectly understandable why the sport will always be in a tumultuous state. Incorporating sexuality into the industry keeps the ship afloat, but it can also degrade the sport into exploitative territory. Once you start to go down that path, how can you maintain a consistent level of respectability? There’s nothing wrong with sexuality, but must FBBs be reduced down to mere sex objects who exist solely to satisfy our base desires? The answer is an emphatic “no!”

Perhaps we can have it both ways. We can embrace the erotic nature of the sport without degrading the humanity of the participants. That sounds awesome in theory, but theory has a funny way of not always becoming standard practice.

This is an issue that FBBs and fans of FBBs will always wrestle with. I do not believe that sexualizing someone automatically degrades them. But I also believe it can if we allow it to happen. A female bodybuilder is caught in a perpetual cycle of disorder. Their sex appeal can make them superstars in the eyes of their adoring fans, but it also comes with negative consequences that are almost unavoidable.

So, is it fair to say that this is a “problem” every female muscle fan should be aware of? Well, yes and no. One should always be aware of the potential consequences of one’s actions. However, is it really fair to say that this is a problem to begin with? Is it inherently ruinous for sexuality to be so deeply engrained in the sport of female bodybuilding? Does the almost inseparable eroticism associated with the sport do a disservice to its competitors?

Don't get naughty around Wendy McMaster. She might spank you!
Don’t get naughty around Wendy McMaster. She might spank you!

A positive first step is to think of these issues as not being “problems,” but rather things to consider. There is probably no perfect answer. It truly is hard for female bodybuilders and athletes to exist in a business that nearly works against them if they try to downplay their sexuality. As fans, we can hold both sports-related and erotic interests in these women without being degrading to them or to ourselves. But that fine line between appreciation and objectification can be hard to distinguish.

Being fetishized can be a strange thing. Having a fetish can also be strange. If we both admit what we know to be true in our hearts, do we really need to exist with all this pent-up tension? Sometimes the best solution to our problems isn’t to come to a mutual answer, but to a level of mutual understanding. Let’s seek to understand where we all stand and carry on from there, okay?

A Discussion on the Sexualization of Female Athletes

Brandi Mae Akers wearing a sexy see-through dress.
Brandi Mae Akers wearing a sexy see-through dress.

It should be no mystery that female athletes face a glaring double standard in our society. They are, both implicitly and explicitly, expected to flaunt their sexuality in ways their male counterparts are not. Outside of Ronda Rousey, how many mainstream female athletes are celebrated purely for being a fantastic athlete – as opposed to being a fantastically good looking athlete?

The topic of the sexualization of female athletes has been discussed ad nauseam. This article will not dissect this idea is great detail. Rather, we will explore this from a slightly different angle.

Those who critique the overly sexual nature of media representation of female athletes usually argue that they shouldn’t be sexualized at all. If male athletes aren’t sexualized, neither should female athletes. That argument sounds fair. It’s better to hold no standards versus double standards. Fair treatment means equal treatment.

But, as an enthusiast of female bodybuilders and female athletes in general, I’m slightly uncomfortable with that. I can’t speak for anyone but myself, but there’s a fine line between sexualizing someone and demeaning them. I wholeheartedly agree that you should never belittle or dehumanize someone for any reason whatsoever. That’s not in question. What is in question is whether or not sexualizing someone automatically dehumanizes them. It’s a tough one to wrestle with for sure.

I totally get the argument that people are not just sex objects. We are independent agents of thoughts and emotions with basic needs just like anybody else. Every soul is valuable. Every person has purpose. Everyone is important. Whether you believe in the Divine or not, I hope we can all agree that every human being on planet Earth has value. That includes people we love, hate or are indifferent toward.

That being said, is sexualizing someone an intrinsic act of dehumanizing them? I would say if we treat people purely as a means to an end, then the answer is unequivocally “yes.” If we treat someone solely as a sex object whose only purpose is to give you sexual pleasure, then that makes you a terrible person. Even the relationship between a prostitute and a “john” should come with a certain level of mutual respect. Sex, in this case, may be a business transaction, but that doesn’t excuse you from treating the provider of sex like garbage.

I love female bodybuilders. Many of you who read my blog do as well. The reason why I constantly wrestle with this issue is because I definitely sexualize FBBs. I am very much sexually attracted to muscular women. There’s no ambiguity here. It’s really, when we boil things down to its barest essentials, the primary reason why I love them. It’s not the only reason why I’m a fan of female bodybuilding, but it’s undeniably important. If I told you sexual attraction had nothing to do with my fandom of female bodybuilders, I’d be a liar with my trousers definitely set on fire.

Isn't Lindsey Vonn cold? She's so smoking hot, I highly doubt it.
Isn’t Lindsey Vonn cold? She’s so smoking hot, I highly doubt it.

But, deep down inside, I don’t think there’s anything inherently wrong with that. I can sexualize someone and still deeply respect them. I’ve met many women in my life whom I found to be very physically attractive. But I try, although not always successfully, to treat them like human beings first. I’m not a perfect person, but I’m trying my best here.

One argument I could make is that sexualizing female athletes is almost inevitable. When a woman trains for a sport, she’s going to sculpt her physical body into a shape that many of us will find attractive. Muscle definition, curves in all the right places, flawless body development, impeccable silhouettes, etc. And as they say, we’re only human, right? Can you blame someone for finding Alina Popa, who is an indisputable world-class athlete in her own right, so very sexy? If finding Ms. Popa sexually attractive is a crime, then put me in handcuffs, lock me in a padded jail cell and throw away the key for eternity. But, to reiterate my point, I don’t believe my opinion of Ms. Popa’s sexiness is somehow disrespectful to her. I have a tremendous amount of respect for her, both as a woman and as a cream-of-the-crop athletic competitor. But her physical attractiveness is without a doubt a main component of my fandom of her.

It’s a confusing dynamic to deal with, indeed!

In other words, how can I possibly separate sports fandom and sexuality when it comes to female athletes? It’s almost impossible to do so. That being said, that’s no excuse to treat a professional woman basketball player like a junior high school cheerleader or unashamedly flirt with a female Olympic athlete minutes after she’s won a gold medal. Speaking of which, if I have to listen to one more clueless TV reporter ask a female Olympian how she balances being an elite athlete with motherhood, I’m going to rip my hair out. But that’s a whole other issue.

I think the best way handle this whole issue is to have the “yes, and” attitude. For example, you can say this:

“Yes, I find female athletes to be sexually attractive, but I also respect their impressive achievements which can only be accomplished through hard work, diligent preparation and heart.”

It may not sound like poetry, but the sentiment should be clear. You can both celebrate the achievements of female athletes and find them beautiful at the same time. You can enjoy watching female sports on TV or in person and not have to compartmentalize your physical attraction to them simultaneously. Life doesn’t have to be an “either, or” proposition. You can hold two different attitudes at the same time without them being contradictory.

Please don’t misinterpret me. I understand the trepidation about accepting female athletes as sex objects. I get it that once you start to go down a dark path, it can lead you to directions you never originally intended to go. If we start to view them in such a way, will we eventually expect them to pose for magazine photos as a condition of playing the sport? Will we require uniforms of basketball or softball players to be more “revealing” or “sexy” in order to attract the male demographic? Will we start to lose respect for them as athletes because we treat them like sex objects first and athletes second?

These are all valid concerns. I wouldn’t want my favorite FBBs to feel pressured to sexualize themselves out of fear of being ostracized from the business. It is a business, after all. If my favorite FBBs chose to never wear makeup in public and forsake any attempts to appear traditionally feminine, then good for them. I would support them every step of the way. One hundred percent. I want my favorite female bodybuilders to be as free as they want to do whatever they want whenever they want.

Do they want to pose naked for a risqué photoshoot? Good for them. If, on the other hand, a particular female bodybuilder chooses to never ever pose naked under any circumstances, as much as we’d all be disappointed with this decision, I strongly believe she has every right to do that. Freedom means having the opportunity to choose what you want and do not want to do. Her body is her most valuable asset. If she wants to show it off for all the world to see, more power to her. If she wants to remain modest and desexualized in the public’s eye, even more power to her.

The badass that is Ronda Rousey, perhaps the most popular female athlete on the planet right now.
The badass that is Ronda Rousey, perhaps the most popular female athlete on the planet right now.

But this is less about how an FBB (or any kind of female athlete) chooses to conduct herself and more about how we as fans choose to view them. How a female bodybuilder lives her life is nobody’s business but her own. But how we fans choose to live out our fandom is our business.

In short, perhaps the Buddhist “middle way” is the best solution. Don’t go to the extremes. You can both find a female athlete or bodybuilder physically attractive while at the same time respecting them as a person and as an athlete. One can hold both attitudes simultaneously without any hint of contradiction or hypocrisy. In other words, don’t take any side as far as it will go. You don’t have to view every female athlete as either a Playboy bunny or a monastic nun. The “Madonna-whore complex” is an old archetype that’s getting worn out.

The main concept to keep in mind is simple. Channel your inner Aretha Franklin and remember to always R-E-S-P-E-C-T people. I understand it’s unfair how female athletes are put into restrictive sexually-centric boxes without their consent. I understand male athletes, by and large, are not held to similar standards. That’s the very definition of unfair. I also get that no female athlete or bodybuilder should ever be forced to flaunt their sexuality unwillingly. Their main concern should be to play/compete in their sport and nothing else. That is all fine with me.

But as fans of these women, our perceptions don’t have to fit into any particular box. To add to this discussion, bodybuilding is a unique sport. Unlike baseball, football, basketball, hockey, golf, tennis, track and field, soccer, and so forth, winners of bodybuilding contests are judged by their appearances. The nature of the sport is conducive to judging excellence based on aesthetic. So, it’s considered “okay” for choosing your favorite bodybuilding athletes (male or female) purely based on their looks. After all, the sport is called “body”-building for a reason.

Nobody cares how attractive or unattractive a quarterback is. If you can throw for 4,000 yards, 25+ touchdowns and lead your team to the playoffs season after season, teams will pay you a lot of money to play for them. Bodybuilders, on the other hand, are judged by how their bodies look. So judging a female (or male) bodybuilder on their looks isn’t a terrible thing. Following that train of thought, it’s perfectly okay to be erotically turned on by a female bodybuilder’s body. It goes with the territory! An FBB is trying to sculpt her body to fit a desired aesthetic. If you find that particular aesthetic to be pleasing to the eye, what’s the harm?

As mentioned before, it’s sort of inevitable for male and female bodybuilders to be sexualized in the eyes of their fans. Maybe not all of their fans, but surely the ones who would normally be attracted to them regardless if they were a bodybuilder or not. The human body is a beautiful thing. Bodybuilders strive to mold theirs to perfection. If we happen to get aroused by the finished product, so be it.

Misty May-Treanor demonstrating why a lot of guys really don't mind watching Olympic beach volleyball.
Misty May-Treanor demonstrating why a lot of guys really don’t mind watching Olympic beach volleyball.

One could argue that sexuality is embedded within the sport of bodybuilding. It’s not the entirety of the sport, but one cannot deny its underlying presence. Men and women are hardwired to find certain genders, body types and people sexually attractive. I realize asexuality is a real thing, but for the sake of argument let’s assume most of us are born this way. Bodybuilding, by its very nature, seeks to elevate the human form to its highest possible peak. If muscular development is considered a proper barometer of beauty, then bodybuilders are closer to the pinnacle than us “mere mortals.” It logically follows that fans of bodybuilding would unavoidably become sexually attracted to these amazing athletes.

There are certainly women and men who love male bodybuilders. There are definitely men and women who love female bodybuilders. And guess what? That’s perfectly okay! I see nothing wrong with any of this.

Like any form of attraction, anything can be taken too far. This should be obvious to anyone. To treat a female athlete as nothing more than eye candy is an awful choice to make. She’s much more than something pretty for you to look at. She’s an accomplished competitor who deserves respect for her accomplishments and sincere admiration from her fans. I love female bodybuilders just as much as anyone else, but I always try to keep at the forefront of my mind that they’ve achieved things I could never dream of doing.

Think about what a typical woman bodybuilder has to go through every single day of her life:

  • Sacrificing her time
  • Sacrificing her energy
  • Maintaining a strict diet
  • Strenuous weightlifting regiments
  • Various non-weightlifting exercises
  • Following a strict schedule
  • Pressure from friends and family to not pursue bodybuilding
  • Stress from training and competing
  • Persistent insecurity
  • An emotionally draining lifestyle
  • Blatant misogyny
  • Sexism within the sport of bodybuilding itself
  • Worrying about unusual changes to the body
  • Unintended side effects from taking drugs and hormones
  • Paying for food, supplements and other sport-related paraphernalia
  • Travel costs
  • Injuries
  • Rude comments from people in public, over social media or elsewhere
  • Other unpleasant experiences that often go unseen

That’s quite a lot! The struggle is real, indeed. If this doesn’t instill in you more respect for women bodybuilders, then I have no idea what will. When you keep things like this in perspective, you start to realize how insanely disrespectful it is to treat female bodybuilders and athletes as mere sex objects who only exists for your own enjoyment.

I have no idea how to pronounce Zsuzsanna Toldi, but I do know that she's extremely attractive.
I have no idea how to pronounce Zsuzsanna Toldi, but I do know that she’s extremely attractive.

But alas, I highly doubt the majority of FBB enthusiasts feel this way. Most of us know FBBs and female athletes are people, not products. But, as said before, everything must come in moderation. Don’t think of strong women as sexual commodities, but don’t be afraid to celebrate their sex appeal at the same time.

In conclusion, how are we to handle the issue of our society’s sexualization of female athletes? The most rational answer might be this: There’s nothing wrong with acknowledging, celebrating and enjoying a female athlete’s sex appeal. However, there is something wrong with making that the sole focus of her identity. Whether we’re talking about Lindsey Vonn, Misty May-Treanor, Cat Zingano or Brandi Mae Akers, always keep in mind that they’re athletes who happen to be physically beautiful, not beautiful people who just happen to be athletes. That distinction might help clear up any possible sexist attitudes toward these remarkable women.

Understandably, there are many female athletes who are uncomfortable being viewed in a sexual nature, regardless of the respectful intent demonstrated by the admiring party. I get that. I’m not going to dismiss that attitude as being “overly sensitive” or “puritanical.” No one should ever be pressured to be comfortable with their sexuality or how other people feel about their sexuality. That’s not the point here. The point is that as fans, we have a responsibility to recognize the humanity in the strong beautiful women we love so dearly.

A very pretty Jennie Finch.
A very pretty Jennie Finch.

This topic can be a touchy one. I will admit that I do not have all the answers. I could be wrong about a point or two or three. The best rule of thumb is to look at this issue from all perspectives and try your best to put yourself in their shoes. How would you feel if every time you stepped up to the plate, onto a basketball court or in front of a bodybuilding stage, thousands of people started thinking of you not as a hardworking and passionate athlete, but instead a nameless Barbie doll with muscles? That sounds like a pretty condescending way to be treated.

Be kind. Be respectful. Don’t be a jerk. Always remember that regardless of who we are, whether we’re a world class female bodybuilder or an unapologetic fan of female bodybuilders, we’re all people trying to coexist on this beautiful, confusing and interconnected planet. In many regards, recognizing this basic fact could eliminate the vast majority of the problems we face every day.

What are your thoughts? I would love to hear your opinions. Feel free to share them in the comment section below or send me an e-mail at ryantakahashi87 (at) yahoo (dot) com. Just so you know, I write out my e-mail address that way to avoid my inbox being inundated with gratuitous spam. But I never consider any of you readers to be spam! I welcome feedback of all kind just as long as it’s productive, informative and respectful. So have at it!

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