Coming on strong

There were no female athletes at the first modern Olympics a century ago - today, 3,800 will be there. Women are achieving physical equality, and the ideal body now celebrates strength. Muscles are sexy, after all. By Holly Brubach. Photograph by Troy House

A woman might train her body to excel in an astonishing variety of sports, to be precise and fast, to run with longer strides and to reach with her legs for the finish line, bettering her personal record by precious seconds, until eventually she wins three Olympic medals and commands such widespread admiration that she is called "the greatest athlete of all mankind for all

time". But could she find a husband? That was the question with which the press confronted the American Mildred (Babe) Didrikson after her triumph in the track and field events at the Los Angeles Games in 1932.

A single woman, Didrikson was upheld as an example of the miserable fate that could befall young girls who grew too muscular. If the natural order decreed that women were "the weaker sex", then the woman who became strong disqualified herself from the attentions of the average man, who would no longer feel superior in her presence. In 1933, Didrikson set the matter to rest once and for all when she married George Zaharias, a 300lb wrestler.

Hindsight enables us to see that Didrikson was the harbinger of a new ideal, and that most people at the time were simply not fitted to appreciate the beauty of a strong woman's body. Her glory, it seems, posed a threat to the existing order. Other women, for their part, were apparently content to aspire to the prevailing notions of the ideal female body. Those notions, reiterated and updated, persist in the images that surround us, and women persist in transforming their bodies accordingly, in an effort to endear themselves to the world.

But, before setting out in pursuit of beauty, a woman must decide which - or, rather, whose - idea of beauty she wants to pursue. Until recently, there were only two options. The first - the body custom-built for clothes - is an image of women as they would like to see themselves. The second ideal - the body custom-built for sex - is a vision of women as men would like to see them. The end dictates the means, dividing women into separate camps. Some diet, in order to approximate the models in Vogue. Some get breast implants, in the hope of looking like the women featured in the Victoria's Secret catalogue.

It is only in the last few years, in ads for sneakers and sports clothes, in fitness magazines with circulations a fraction the size of Vogue's, that a third ideal has begun to emerge: the body custom-built for athletics. It is an ideal whose consequences are still unsettling and far-reaching. But at this point our fascination outweighs our trepidation. We made our way through Terminator 2, riveted by the sight of Linda Hamilton's biceps. Conde Nast in America, the publishing empire whose titles include Vogue, has announced plans to introduce a new magazine about women and sports next spring. A woman - the basketball star Sheryl Swoopes - has, like Michael Jordan, had a sneaker named after her. Didrikson was simply born too soon. The ideal she represented was dismissed in her day, but it will not be put off any longer.

Back in the 1970s, at the onset of the so-called fitness craze, women's magazines that had been turning out perfunctory articles on callisthenics, timed to coincide with the onset of bathing-suit season, began directing their attention to the science of aerobics. Readers were exhorted to work up a sweat. Weight loss and muscle tone would follow.

The argument for regular, vigorous exercise was not only aesthetic but also medical, buttressed by quotations from doctors. Not that it needed buttressing - the women's movement and sexual liberation had predisposed women to the idea of taking responsibility for their bodies. Clothes and make-up were considered not for the trends they represented but as tools to be deployed at will, in the service of the magazines' larger subject: a woman's self-image. If the models pictured in these fitness articles weren't appreciably different from the models pictured in the fashion pages - if, in fact, at times they were the same models - the magazines could be forgiven: the women in aerobics classes at the time, even the die-hards, were mostly taut and lean, with muscles that weren't especially pronounced.

Since then, the glamour of fashion and the culture of fitness have pretty much parted company. As research has come out in favour of strength training, with weights or some other form of resistance as a supplement to cardiovascular work-outs, bodies have changed, and women have acquired muscles that their mothers never had. Meanwhile, the narrow standard for the bodies that populate the pages of the fashion magazines remains unchanged. After a brief - and highly touted - moment a few years ago, when women who looked more ample and somewhat fleshier were being admitted to the ranks of the top models, the norm has reverted to the emaciated type that has predominated since Twiggy's heyday in the late Sixties. In fact, the new generation of so-called supermodels - Kate Moss, Jody Kidd, Stella Tennant - is stick- thin. Even Cindy Crawford and Claudia Schiffer, who star in their own exercise videos, look more toned than strong, their muscles lacking definition.

The fashion magazines have abdicated any responsibility for women's fitness. The exhortations are gone; the articles on the physiological benefits of exercise are brief and infrequent, eclipsed if not replaced by first- person accounts of liposuction and other cosmetic surgery in keeping with the ideal body shown in the fashion pages. When, in 1979, Conde Nast inaugurated a magazine by the name of Self, to be devoted in large part to exercise and health, it cleaved the two ideals, freeing each to pursue its own course. From then on, Vogue could concentrate on the body best suited to the latest clothes, and women hungry for serious information about exercise were obliged to turn to special-interest magazines (of which Self is today only one of a dozen or so).

It's instructive to contemplate the differences between the various ideals for women and how the corresponding physiques are acquired. The fashion body is an achievement, arrived at by means of renunciation; it is the paradigm for an aesthetic of purity, for a nun-like dedication to the cult of appearance and a capacity to forgo the sensual pleasure that food has to offer. In fashion photographs, the women who have attained this ideal strike aggressive poses, their limbs attenuated, angular and linear. Their faces, innocent and flawless, convey a certain smugness; their looks are outward evidence not of what they've done but of what they haven't done. They have risen above their bodies, subjugated them, pared them down to their essence of skin and bones. A tendency to appear frail and brittle lends these women an air of feminine helplessness: they must be handled with care. In a train station at rush hour, men would offer to carry their suitcases.

Offers of another kind undoubtedly come the way of the odalisques in the Victoria's Secret catalogue, who are seen reclining, in various states of dishabille. Their attitude is languorous, passive and complacent, as if they were waiting for something to happen or for a man to come along. Their proportions are improbable, if not as preposterous as those of the women in Playboy and in pornographic magazines. Still, the Victoria's Secret types look like cartoon versions of real women, their bustlines selectively exaggerated to an extent that occurs rarely, if ever, in nature. (Because breast tissue is composed mostly of fat, a woman that bosomy would be fuller in the hips and thighs as well.) It seems safe to assume that this ideal, as embodied by these women, is the result not of what they've done but of what has been done to - or for - them: breast implants and, in some cases, liposuction. Even so, their legs and arms are never scrawny. Unlike fashion models, these women look as if they have an extra layer of upholstery gently cushioning their sharp corners.

These privileged glimpses of a life set in the boudoir are in stark contrast to the scenes in Women's Sports and Fitness, in which athletes streak across sunlit, wide-open landscapes. Caught in the act of biking, rowing, jogging, training for a triathlon, these women exude competence; they can carry their own suitcases. Their muscles, like the fashion models' slenderness, are hard-earned, but here the means is not abstinence but exertion. Though their bodies have been meticulously cultivated, their bodies aren't the point: the point is their ability to perform. What is most striking, given that it's the other two ideals that are calculated to please - to win the admiration of women or the affection of men - is the fact that these athletes seem content in a way that the other women don't.

And so, if women in our society are confused about what's required of them in order to qualify as beautiful, it's no wonder.

The progress of women in sports has been, admittedly, somewhat fitful, and the image of a muscular woman has been particularly slow to gain currency - perhaps because, deep down, our attitudes toward women's physical strength are in conflict. We applaud the notion of women at long last coming into their own. And yet we wonder whether their achievement, by encroaching on what has traditionally been a man's prerogative, might in some way skew the balance between the sexes: women's gain is suspected of being men's loss.

Worse, women who have muscles are regarded by some people - men and women alike - as traitors to their sex, guilty of trying to become men.(Female body builders are widely regarded as the prime offenders. The trouble with this argument, and with this example, is that female body builders look not so much like men but like male body builders - their fellow subscribers to an aesthetic that many, if not most, of the rest of us find grotesque.)

There is no underestimating the anxieties triggered by the prospect of women's physical strength. Will women, having laid claim to attributes we think of as manly, eventually usurp the positions that men have been occupying? What if women injure themselves by trying to do what nature, in its almighty wisdom, never intended them to do? By inviting comparisons (if not competing directly) with men, who are biologically better equipped for most sports, are women setting themselves up for humiliation and defeat? Will muscles do away with the last trace of women's vulnerability - a quality that men have traditionally found attractive and touching?

And yet, muscles on women seem to serve a purpose. Anne Hollander (a critic whose first book, Seeing Through Clothes, traced the parallels between artists' depiction of the nude body and fashionable dress) believes that muscles are a way for women to take up space, as men do. They add physical substance, which, she says, "makes everyone take notice and listen to what you have to say and pay attention to your existence." Hollander notes that, in other centuries, substance was something women achieved by means of the clothes they wore. "Queen Elizabeth I was a skinny little thing with a flat chest," she explains. "In order to make her presence felt, she had to wear pounds of padded stuff that expanded her torso at the sides, giving her the force she needed. It was absolutely not an option where she was concerned to have that narrow nymph's body, which was much admired in the love poetry of the time. That sort of woman had only indirect power."

At 6'3" and weighing over 12 stone, volleyball star Gabrielle Reece, a prominent attraction on hoardings in the London Tube, commands respect and attention, too, but she's wearing a sports bra and briefs. The techniques available to Elizabeth I for colonising the space around her would be impractical today, as would the avoirdupois of the imposing Victorian matron. We wear clothes that expose our bodies, and so the only acceptable way for us to add mass is to add muscle.

What is especially striking about the images of women we see in Nike ads or in the sports pages of the newspapers is that they come to us with so few precedents. From classical antiquity right up to our century, painters have rendered women without muscles (Michelangelo was one of the few exceptions.). Even Amazons, on the basis of their bodies alone, are indistinguishable from the goddesses of love; we recognise them by their short, one-sided tunics. The men in art, in a tradition descended from the Greeks, wear their muscles like armour just beneath the skin; no insult, physical or otherwise, could penetrate their strength. Their bodies are faceted, the surface subdivided into planes, like a Cubist painting. The women, however, tend to be enveloped in a blanket of fat. The transition from their ankles to their calves, from their calves to their knees, is made smoothly, uninterrupted by bones and tendons. Their thighs are lush. Their breasts are like peaches.

Judging from this cavalcade of inherited images, we might easily conclude that the guys in ads for Calvin Klein underwear look enough like the men we see in Poussin's paintings to be directly descended from them; it's the women today who look as if they're no relation to their predecessors. Along the road to independence, which has spanned the better part of our century, changes in the way women look and dress have ratified the changes in their lives. First, they cut their hair; then they seized on articles of clothing from men's wardrobes - trousers, shirts, hats, coats, even ties and boxer shorts. Now women are appropriating the muscles in which men have outfitted themselves for so long. Hollander envisions a not-too-distant future when men and women will look reasonably similar, meeting on some androgynous middle ground, with muscles on women much more commonplace.

The course of fashion in the 20th century has been a long, slow striptease: first, the ankles came out from under long skirts; then the calves and the knees; the midriff; the thighs; the breasts. The vestiges of shame linger for a short time after the initial exposure, until eventually the sight of what had been hidden becomes familiar.

As the century has gone on, we have stripped women's bodies of anything extraneous - any padding, any surplus flesh, which in another era might have been considered decorative. In the process of lightening the load, bones have come into play. We now delight in watching the levers and pistons and hinges of the human machine in motion.

Will the tyranny of the body built for sports be any less punishing or any healthier than the tyranny of the body built for fashion? There is no reason to imagine that it will. Already, there is alarming evidence of eating disorders among female athletes, and the hormonal ramifications of rigorous training are yet to be defined. Like models, athletes have been genetically ordained. The 12-year-old who wants to grow up to look just like her heroine stands no more chance of turning out like Gabrielle Reece than she does of becoming the next Kate Moss, no matter how much time she puts in at the gym. As it turns out, the athletic ideal, like the others, is beyond the grasp of all but a few. Even so, it seems reasonable to suppose that in the process of emulating her favourite sports star, a girl might gain a sense of pride in her body and its accomplishments. Which is more than can be said for those young girls who strive to resemble the catwalk models by starving themselves.

Muscles bestow on a woman a grace in motion that is absent from static fashion photographs, they also impart a sense of self-possession - a quality that is unfailingly attractive. The athlete has come by her powers of attraction honestly. Other women's valiant attempts to make themselves beautiful are no match for the athlete's evident pleasure in her own articulate body.

It is a kind of fetishism - albeit a healthy one - that has taught us to appreciate women's bodies in detail. Our education has been gradual, requiring the better part of the last hundred years. Fashion designers, models and movie stars have been our tutors. We have learned to love a woman's pelvis, her hipbones jutting out through a bias-cut satin gown. We have come to admire the clavicle in its role as a coat hanger from which clothes are suspended. And, more recently, we have discovered elegance in the swell of a woman's quads, in the tapering form of her lats, in the way her delts square the line of her shoulders. In athletes, we recognise women who own their bodies, inhabiting every inch of them, and the sight of their vitality is exhilarating. Our own potential has become apparent, thanks to their example. We want to be like them - alive all over

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