• August 30, 2015

Bodybuilding Professors Outmuscle the Stereotype

Bodybuilding Professors Outmuscle the Stereotype 1

Courtesy Melina Bell

As an assistant professor of philosophy at Washington and Lee University and a professional bodybuilder, Melina Bell is used to people judging her body of work—and her body.

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close Bodybuilding Professors Outmuscle the Stereotype 1

Courtesy Melina Bell

As an assistant professor of philosophy at Washington and Lee University and a professional bodybuilder, Melina Bell is used to people judging her body of work—and her body.

As an assistant professor of philosophy at Washington and Lee University and a professional bodybuilder, Melina Bell is used to people judging her body of work—and her body.

Guess which form of scrutiny gives her the sweats.

"When I'm standing up there all tanned and flexed, I am free of anxiety," she says. "It's when I'm presenting a paper that I start to feel exposed."

For Ms. Bell, or Coach Bell to her students, bodybuilding is more than just posturing and preening, coated in self-tanning lotion and wearing nothing but a posing suit (don't call it a bikini). It's an integral part of her academic life.

While intense muscle building and scholarly research may seem like odd partners, several female professors interviewed by The Chronicle have found a symbiotic relationship between the two.

"They really complement each other and allow for a more balanced life than many academics have," says Ms. Bell, who recently won the lightweight and overall titles at a competition held in New York by the International Association of Resistance Trainers. "If more of history's great thinkers realized this," she says, "they might have been able to get outside of their minds and kept from going crazy." (Imagine Plato with six-pack abs; now that's sound mind and body.)

Body image. Gender norms. Cultural resistance. Those are themes that bodybuilding professors, and their powerlifting counterparts who take their cues from the vaudevillian strongwomen of yore, often think and talk about. So it's no surprise that a certain strain of "Amazon feminism" (think Hippolyta, or perhaps Wonder Woman) runs through the group and influences their academic pursuits. Ms. Bell's most recent article, "Is Bodybuilding Unfeminine?," is scheduled for publication this year in a collection of essays titled Strength and Philosophy.

"For women to lift weights continues to be a subversive act," says Anne E. Bolin, who in addition to being an amateur bodybuilder is a professor of anthropology and sociology at Elon University. She teaches, among other things, about male humor at the gym. "We're moving ahead in social, economic, and political arenas, and our bodies are the last frontier for us, the last place for us to gain equity and do with what we want."

Strongwomen have a history of being on the fringes of American society. In the late 19th century, performers with stage names like Minerva and Athleta were catching cannonballs, lifting men with one hand, and playing tug of war with horses in traveling circus acts. By the 1930s, women started appearing by the dozen at Muscle Beach, in Santa Monica, Calif. Still, it was not until the 1970s that women were allowed to compete in organized contests of strength.

That was when Janice S. Todd, who once courted her future husband by heaving a heavy log end over end, literally wrote the rules for women's powerlifting competitions. Until then, for example, anyone competing in a powerlifting event was required to wear a jockstrap.

With the new rules in place, Ms. Todd, now a professor of kinesiology and health education at the University of Texas at Austin, began competing regularly. By the end of the 1990s, the Guinness Book of Records and Sports Illustrated would proclaim her the world's strongest woman.

The public did not know what to make of her.

"People thought I was a puzzle that they had to unpack," she says. "I remember clearly, in Canada a TV show sent out staffers when they found I did needlepoint. They wanted pictures of me doing 'feminine' things."

To Ms. Todd, there was no reason her great strength—she was the first woman to lift a collective 1,000 pounds in the squat lift, dead lift, and bench press—couldn't be considered a feminine attribute.

"We genderize strength more than any other physical attribute," she says. "You don't hear anymore that women should not run as fast as they can. Women being faster than a man doesn't have much social stigma. Brute strength or the possession of muscles, people are still threatened by that. I wanted to prove strength in women is nothing to be afraid of."

Not all professors who have spent time building muscle for competitive purposes are convinced of the pursuit's merits.

Leslie L. Heywood, a professor in the English department at Binghamton University, spent years as a powerlifter before the physical toll had transformed her into a "skinny, fanatical Ashtanga yogi."

Though never a bodybuilder herself, in that the muscle she built was for the sake of strength competitions and not to have her body judged, Ms. Heywood wrote a book in 1998 called Bodymakers: A Cultural Anatomy of Women Bodybuilding (Rutgers University Press).

At the time, she thought bodybuilding was a true feminist movement because of how "radically it contested the idea that women are weak." She's no longer so sure.

"I realized it wasn't all good," she says. "The level of steroid use in the sport is definitely an issue. People become so immersed in this world they lose sight of reality, focusing on one activity to the exclusion of all else. It's such an obsessive and small world that once you're out of it you think, 'What the hell was I doing?'"

Ms. Bolin, who has been a bodybuilder since seeing the movie Pumping Iron II: The Women, in 1985, doesn't dispute that steroids exist in the sport, although not in the "natural" contests she's been a part of. There are two sides to every story, she believes.

Is this a tale of women's being "juked into following men and doing steroids?" Ms. Bolin asks, or is this another case of their being able to make their own choices? "In some ways, you have to look at this as, if the men do it, why can't the women do it?"

It's a question central to the academic and physical lives of these professors. And it's the thought that ran through Ms. Bell's head the day she noticed the link between her muscle building and her Ph.D. studies at the University of Pennsylvania. A television reporter backstage at a bodybuilding competition asked her a question that made "everything click."

"She said to me, 'Do you understand how far you are setting back the woman's movement by dancing around the stage in a bikini?'" Ms. Bell says. "I thought I was being progressive by competing, and I realized there was more than just a physical aspect to the sport. I was so shocked by this question I almost dropped self-tanner on me and the person I was tanning."


1. tfriel - October 12, 2009 at 05:14 pm

I've been weight lifting since 1983. I don't look like a bodybuilder but I've had my share of stares when I start hefting free weights around. Once they realize I know what I'm doing and they see me pressing 75 pounds 12 times, the men often accept me as a companion with a common interest. Weights are great for the female body in that they build bone density better than other sports. I never feel like my workouts in biking, swimming or running are complete without regular weight lifting. Sad that so many women still see it as unfeminine. At 52, I still have pretty tight muscles and often surprise people who guess I'm much younger. I think body building is the extreme part of the sport of weight lifting. It gets more press so women think they will all end up looking like that. However, I once did body build and found it to be a lot more work than I wanted to do..shorter women have a much easier time getting those heavy looking muscles. I did have some fit issues with my clothes when I was doing that but you'd probably never guess I was a body builder.
Strength does not always imply such extreme body shapes as are depicted in the body builder mags and contests.
I think people should be allowed to do what interests them without linking certain "problems" with it. For example I was in Tae Kwon Do for years competing in sparring. I tended to regarded as rather odd and competitive and dangerous for that. You wear what the sport requires. Are women in bathing suits competing in the Olympics in beach volleyball putting women behind? I think not. Stop thinking in stereotypes and start asking yourself what motivates her...it feels great to be so fit...I get it and so does every athlete who has ever competed.

2. harrison - October 12, 2009 at 06:59 pm

I have been coaching bodybuilding/fitness on my university campus for over two decades and lifting weights is an important core function for health and wellness (for students, faculty and staff). It is more than eating healthy and walking to class. To see so many males and females learn this concept has been rewarding to me as an educator. To deter the skeptics, I strongly encourage the hundred students in the Bodybuilding and Fitness Club to live the healthy lifestyle, including good behavior, excellect grades and a level head. Also having faculty and staff in our fitness Octathlon events annually or supporting the students in strength meets or our annual campus bodybuilding/figure allows professors to set a positive example for the students.

3. roro1618 - October 12, 2009 at 08:54 pm

Great article. I've been weight training for 7 years and I talk to students about my gym work. It's all about good health.

4. mbelvadi - October 15, 2009 at 09:56 am

Ironic that Ms. Bell would justify what she does with the word "balanced" - there isn't anything "balanced" about what she's done to her body, judging from that first picture. She looks barely human in that pose/costume, and yes, I would say the same about male extreme bodybuilders. And if it's so inherently healthy, why the need for artificial makeup, euphemistically referred to in the article as "self-tanning lotion"? There's a world of difference between lifting weights and such to promote general health and strength for functional reasons (eg a job or avocation that requires it) and deliberately sculpting individual muscles to produce an aesthetic effect - it reminds me of the bizarre things done in dog breeding (e.g smashed-in pug noses and the like) to produce what a very narrow cultural sect finds aesthetically desirable.

5. greeneyeshade - October 15, 2009 at 10:31 am

That photo looks like it was photoshopped...

6. kdellangela09 - October 15, 2009 at 11:51 am

BRAVA Dr. Bell! Those of us who weight train and are academics "get it"...

Body building is no different than the "extreme" sport of academic scholarship.. it requires sacrafice, makes us different from other people, often is accompanies by substance use ( caffeine) and has the potential to cause problems in our health ( being sedentary and stress) and relationships.

We admire those who are able to flex and strut in their research and theory and discourse. We do not admonish each other to find balance by seeking mediocrity in scholarship .. ....

Some of us work and play hard in our brains AND our bodies.... This too is balance....

7. rpmthinking - October 17, 2009 at 01:54 am

Based on a different article in a recent Chronicle, there may be more women body builders than women in Bell's role as a philosophy faculty member.

8. michaelharrawood - October 19, 2009 at 12:46 pm

First, congratulations to Professor Bell. You look awesome! Second, I think mbelvadi misread Bell's use of the word "balance." I don't think Bell's bodybuilding is about being fit or healthy. No more than a professional athlete or dancer or musician works out or practices for fun. Nor is it strange that she oils up and tans before a competition or a photo shoot: these are the conventions not just of this sport but of most body art these days. You have never seen a pro-wrestler who wasn't similarly prepped; you have never seen Brad Pit with his shirt off when he has not been waxed, tanned and oiled. There is not an argument here about Nature or what's good for you. Interestingly enough, it is in bodybuilding, and not academe, where the real arguments are happening right now about what is Natural and what a woman's body ought to look like.

The balance I think Bell is talking about is between her mind and body. Most of us with Ph.D.'s are at least as tweaked and fucked-up as bodybuilders. We are narcissistic to imagine otherwise. We spend hours -- years! -- learning languages, mastering literary canons, living in labs -- nothing about this is Natural, or even Normal. Most of are what Clifford Chatterly once called "life of the minders." Nobody gets a doctorate in philosophy or literature because its "good for you." Bell is talking about a balance between one extreme avocation -- to use mbelvadi's word -- and another.

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