Strong and Hard Women
An ethnography of female bodybuilding
Routledge – 2013 – 188 pages
Females with large muscles evoke strong reactions from men and women, often involving disgust, discomfort, anger and threat. The controversial nature of female bodybuilding has caused a significant rupture on feminist ground. Whilst proponents claim that female bodybuilding is a way of empowering and liberating women, others see it as a form of corporeal entrapment. This book investigates the controversy. Do women who pump iron resist physical restrictions of imposed femininity, or are they engaged in an ultimately oppressive quest for ‘perfect bodies’?
In an original two year ethnographic study based in the South of England, Tanya Bunsell immersed herself into the world of female bodybuilders. By mapping these extraordinary women’s lives, the research illuminates the pivotal spaces and essential lived experiences that make up the female bodybuilder. Whilst the women appear to be embarking on an ‘empowering’ radical body project for themselves, the consequences of their activity remains culturally ambivalent. This research exposes the ‘Janus-faced’ nature of female bodybuilding, exploring the ways in which the women negotiate, accommodate and resist pressures to engage in more orthodox and feminine activities and appearances.
This book will be of interest to academics and students in the fields of gender studies, the sociology of sport, the body and research methodology.
This exciting study is based on Tanya Bunsell’s own fascinating journey into the world of female bodybuilding. It provides a unique perspective on an under researched area of sporting, gendered and embodied life, and will as a book make an important contribution to the literature. Ground breaking in its discoveries, it will appeal to students and academics interested in the sociology of sport, body studies, gender studies and the performance of gender, and the history and culture of women’s sport and leisure.
Chris Shilling, Professor of Sociology and Director of Graduate Studies, University of Kent, UK.
‘In Strong and Hard Women, Tanya Bunsell has delivered an outstanding ethnography of female bodybuilding. The book is a rich portrait of becoming, being, and having a muscular female body. By investigating the question of whether female bodybuilding can be an empowering transgression of hegemonic standards of feminine embodiment, Bunsell offers an important book that deserves to be widely read and debated.’
Brett Smith, Editor of Qualitative Research in Sport, Exercise and Health and Senior Lecturer at Loughborough University, UK.
‘As one of the first sustained ethnographic studies of the subculture of female bodybuilding, Bunsell’s energetic thesis focuses on the lived experience of female bodybuilding and the actual process of building and sculpting muscles during all those hours of dedication to the gym. This book will be an essential read for researchers of sport, exercise and the body; scholars of feminism and gender politics and anyone who has ever known the lure of the gym, its clang of metal weights and the exquisite pain of pumped muscles.’
Niall Richardson, Senior Lecturer in Media and Film, University of Sussex, UK.
‘This remarkably insightful ethnography examines the women who inhabit the subculture of bodybuilding, an activity which she presents as both transgressive and troubling. Bunsell’s approach is made all the more poignant by showcasing the lived experiences of not only the female bodybuilders whom she interviews, but also herself, hence offering an unusually intimate investigation of both research and researcher.’
Adam Locks, Programme Co-ordinator of Media and Cultural Studies, University of Chichester, UK.
This important work provides no easy answers to the cultural ambivalences that exist around women, muscularity, and strength, but it offers much to contemplate.
E. J. Staurowsky, Drexel University , Summing Up: Highly recommended.CHOICE Review, December 2014
1. Introduction 2. Researching female bodybuilders 3. The history of female bodybuilding 4. Muscle is a feminist issue, Sarah’s story part 1 5. The identity, lifestyle and embodiment of the female bodybuilder 6. The dark side of female bodybuilding, Confession of a muscle slave 7. Exploring the ‘empowerment’ of female bodybuilders through concepts of space 8. Ripped, shredded and sliced: Reworking the notions of ‘pain and violence’ in female bodybuilding 9. Competitions: A heroic journey, Sarah’s story part 2 10. Conclusion
Tanya Bunsell is a Lecturer in Sport Sociology at St Mary’s University College, Twickenham. She has been teaching since 2003 and was awarded her PhD in Sociology from the University of Kent in 2010.