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  • Writer's pictureHeather Murphy

Gender Inequality and Femininity in Sport

Updated: Jul 29, 2021

On July 17th, two of our athletes (one being a coach) at Islander competed in a natural (i.e. drug tested) bodybuilding competition. The show was small, due to COVID restrictions, but mighty. The atmosphere was amazing and the athletes awe inspiring. But (there is always a "but") there is one thing that really stood out to us that we feel is important for us to discuss.

Important note before we begin and explain the whole motivation behind this blog post. The Islander community is, and always will be, learning how to support and grow with our LGBTQ+ community and will use our platform to do so at any chance we can. We certainly aren't experts on the subject but are always striving to educate ourselves and our members to the best of our ability. We also do not intend to bash any sport by writing this but are just trying to bring awareness to a topic that hits close to home for us. At the end of the day, we all know we are just doing the best we can and by bringing these topics up, maybe more thought will go into them by the decision makers and event organizers.

Before we get to the details on what we saw at the bodybuilding show, we want to point out a few things we have noticed lately in the media. We have been seeing athletes from all over the world pressing gender inequality in sport by breaking certain "rules" on things as seemingly simple as their athletic attire during competition. This week we learned that a Norwegian women's beach handball team were fined because they decided to wear shorts instead of bikini bottoms during the European Championship. Why is wearing shorts only permitted for men's sports? This is actually crazy, haven’t we come further than this? In addition, we see other athletes (i.e. German gymnasts deciding to wear a full unitard) pressing the standards that have sexualized their bodies for far too many years. We applaud these brave individuals and hope more come forward to do the same.

Image: Women's beach handball team wearing shorts

Image: German gymnast sporting a full unitard during the Tokyo Olympics.

Despite many efforts for gender equality in sport, we still see numerous obstacles that women face. For example, if women present as "too" masculine their sexuality may come into question leading to potential gender typing and mis-gendering - or worst - genetic testing. All of which is just wrong wrong wrong on so many levels. Generally speaking, the media tends to focus on women's physical appearance FIRST before anything else. Which, by the way, completely ignores their athletic accomplishments. This brings us directly to our recent experience at the local bodybuilding competition.

Bodybuilding in general is a sport that is focused on what the human body looks like and ranks those bodies in different categories depending on how much muscle the athlete has and how lean the athlete is. You are literally on a stage being judged for how your body looks and that's accepted as a fact - afterall, it is the whole premise of the sport. The hard work and dedication that goes in to preparing for one of these competitions is no easy feat. The athletes that perform at the highest levels train just as hard as any other athlete that competes at an Olympic level, in my opinion. It's truly an amazing sport just like any other.

But when it comes to judging your performance (aka physique), it's not just about years of training and preparation it's also about how you present your "package" (common term used by bodybuilders) on stage. This presentation has always had a much higher significance when it comes to judging for women in the sport compared to men. Without knowing exactly what goes into the scorecards (side note: I've personally competed 5 times but never been a judge), we know that hair, make-up, how bedazzled your suit is, nails, jewelry, how pretty your face is, how large your breasts are, presenting “feminine” open hands and not “closed fists” all contribute to your overall score against other competitors. Which, of course, have absolutely nothing to do with the overall physique you train for day in and day out. These types of judging criteria are completely left off the table for male competitors.

Image: IFBB Pro Nicole Wilkins during competition in the Figure Category. Presenting as hyper-feminine in all areas to balance a muscular physique.

Gender inequality was challenged recently in the sport of bodybuilding at our very own local BB show. You may not have even noticed... and that's why we wrote this post. Not noticing in fact is what our athletes wanted, to nail the point of their bodies are comparable to those that did “follow the rules” yet no one missed the rules because they didn’t matter to the comparison, just the scorecard. Scorecard wasn’t the reason our athletes competed in the first place. They want to showcase how they crushed their training and presented a physique to be admired but also taking it that one step further and challenge the hyper-feminine standard that they do not identify, nor feel comfortable, with. Can we *insert mic drop* now?

So what we saw was beautiful people with... no long nails, no makeup, no jewelry, no bedazzle, no hair extensions, no eyelash extensions, no excessive bra padding. Just them showcasing their hard work without all the extra stuff. And like we said before, did you really notice? Maybe, maybe not. Then there’s also the really questionable body related practices… hair flipping is practiced for HOURS by figure competitors and categories alike them. To then, just end up covering up your entire back hiding your muscles. Isn’t this a body competition? Instead of practicing her hair flip for the judges, she decided to place it in a bun and showcase all those thousands of hours of pure work to build a “Back like Babs”. This folks, is Danielle Babstock. First time competitor who happens to be Dee Rees’ best friend and partner. It was Dee’s second show, two years ago in 2018 she set out to prove the point we are making in this post and the need to has only grown since then.

Image: Danielle (left) and Dee (right) after competing at the CPA Championship.

To bring this whole story back full circle we should also point out that Dee requested to wear bottoms that were more of a short style boxer brief as opposed to the high waisted bikini style. The request was, unfortunately, denied by organizing staff. Knowing full well that if she wore shorts instead of bikini bottoms she would be ranked lower in the judges eyes. But for Dee none of that even matters. She competes for herself and not to win a trophy (ugh, we love Dee). But unfortunately if she showed up with shorts instead of a bikini bottom she would not be allowed to compete. Let that sink in. She would be denied stepping on stage. So she complied and wore a bikini that she had used in a past competition (also something the judges don't like to see).

“ The standards don’t showcase my body’s strengths, so if I’m getting judged on that then, what I would wear would be different. My strengths include my lower abdominals, very challenging to achieve for females compositionally, they’re more prominent than most males even, therefore wearing a low rise brief like the men get to, with my butt cheeks inside a uniform making me comfortable, would be in fact very beneficial if only I would be allowed to step on stage and not be disqualified.” - Dee

Image: Dee standing next to her only competition in the Women's Physique Category where she placed second. In addition to the examples we provided earlier, you'll also note the placement of Dee's bikini bottoms being "too" low on her hips. To the judges/sport, this does not showcase a “feminine” V taper when she turns around, simply because that isn’t her idea of femininity and she’s showcasing her physical composition based strengths.

All in all, we love the sport of bodybuilding but there are certainly some flaws that need to be looked at closely to see how important it really is to the whole judging aspect, especially since we are looking at judging physiques - not how someone presents themselves on the spectrum of femininity. Lastly, we wanted to include this message from Dee.

“I spend every single day that I wake up, trying to prove my femininity. PROVE. I’m a proud woman but I get judged everyday I walk to the street, based on my look. I have proud “masculine” features, but also “feminine” ones. The thing is they’re features of people. We are not the same so we have to stop making it so. Bodybuilding for me, stepping on stage to be judged is nothing new, I do so in my career firefighting as well (and the critiques are nothing new to me nor wanted). The only critiques I take to heart are that of my character. Backstage of every bodybuilding show I’ve been to, these are the critiques I get. The light and joy I spread through a dim, tense, backstage area.

Femininity and muscle comes in many forms. It isn’t a story told by a bikini or mandatory poses. Ornamentation ? Why must I distract you from my body, what are you really judging ? Beauty and appeal? I didn’t sign up for a pageant. Pose and beauty flow gives you points, but you don’t get to dictate what that means to me, cause I feel it, and I know you see it… to the scorecard that means routines without showcasing masculine or dominant moves, open hands for ladies, not closed aggressive fists, turning at the waist in poses to not look so bulky and dominant. Showcasing femininity they require. I did ? You didn’t see? Thought my confidence in being a masculine presenting proud woman, true joy on stage (even though I’m in a bikini I’m not comfortable in), and showing you a new side/idea of what women can be in todays modern world should count. I am a woman, but this is what it means to be a woman in my body. This is my idea of being feminine, its my confidence in it. Being judged and not caring cause Im happy, but being told I cannot is why I do what I do. Why cant I ? I’m there for me, so let me, be me. Take the points away because its not what I care about, but take the point also. To have rules like this…

“Shouldn’t be ripped , diced, peeled , vascular, massive thick or dense. Excessive muscularity will be scored down. Must be v shaped bikini. Scored down if suit not up to standard. Open hands in all poses.”

Then preach mission statements like this….

” Regardless of your reason for competing-- be it as a career, motivation, confidence, competitive spirit, wellness, recognition, friendship or pride--the CPA offers the most credible and greatest opportunity to be recognized”.

The promoters firmly believe in their mottos…

“Working together in the best interest of the athletes is what this sport is all about. Always have the athlete’s best interest at heart, showing passion, hands on hard work and believing 150% that we are #fortheathletes in this sport. “

To summarize the statements .. in Dee’s words…

Regardless of reason? Mine are confidence, spirit, and spite. It’s 2021. Sexist rules don’t belong in sport. I’m here to be recognized and not in the way bodybuilding organizations want it to be. But it needs to be. The best interest of the athletes is wearing whatever they’re comfortable in, showcasing the best parts of them. No one is to determine what femininity or masculinity is, its undefinable and always changing because we are humans, people, we differ and change constantly. It’s time to change, rules are meant to change too with the people they govern. Take the points away, but also my point.

We hope this post gave you a perspective on something that you may have not otherwise noticed or thought about.

Much Love,

Heather & Dee

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