Fitness, Figure or Freak?

On a sunny day, walking to a nearby nature preserve, Ashley Notarianni (24) showed me on her phone, a picture of herself. My eyes fought a bright sun against a dim screen. Of what I could see, I saw a thin, fragile, boney, unrecognizable girl.

As her story unfolded, I found out that when Notarianni was a teenager, her father passed away. Her father was her main cheerleader and supporter while in competitive sports such as basketball. After he passed, Notarianni’s motivation and competitive side diminished. Notarianni’s father passing affected other parts of her life; this downward spiral lasted throughout college, including staying up all hours of the night, partying and not taking care of her body.

Today, Notarianni no longer represents the girl seen in that picture. Notarianni is a grown, confident women dedicated to being healthy.

With a flawless, sparkling smile accompanied by a laugh that can be heard from afar, Notarianni is a bubbly women that can brighten anyone’s day. Notarianni has shoulder length, dirty blond (originally brunet) hair, standing at 5’3’’. As a medical sales representative, this girl has both brains and beauty. But underneath all of that, especially her clothes, no one would be able to tell that this independent girl is a part of the rapidly growing co-culture of female bodybuilding.

Ashley Notarianni  in competition.

Ashley Notarianni in competition.

Every morning Ashley’s phone alarm clock wakes her up around 5 or 6 in the morning. Dreading the morning tasks, she drags herself out of bed to put on clothes and heads to the Princeton Club – the place where she and I work out. There she does her morning cardio on her favorite (or should I say deeply despised) cardio machine. Notarianni is on the stair master (working the quadriceps, hamstrings, calves and the gluteal muscles) for at least 45 minutes to an hour.

She then pretties herself up and heads to work. After a long day as a medical sales representative, Notarianni heads back to the Princeton Club to continue what she had originally started that morning.

Every two weeks Notarianni has a new routine. She does this because it causes muscle confusion, which results in muscle growth. Within the routine, Notarianni does lots of sets (the total amount of time you do a specific exercise) and lots of reps (the number of repeated body movements in order to complete a set). For example, Notarianni will complete a total of 6 sets and 18-25 reps. For me, after 12 reps of something, my muscles are screaming for a break. Watching Notarianni at the gym, I know she takes little time between sets. Working out like that takes endurance and inner strength.

Sports sociologist, Tanya Bunsell discusses in her book, Strong and Hard Women, how female bodybuilding evolved out of a third wave of feminism, challenging the idea that if “women can change how they see themselves [then they can change] how they are seen by others.” Bunsell continued to describe how bodybuilding “trickles into all areas of her [any female bodybuilder] life and empowers and enriches her to strive for more.” Notarianni is just one example of this.

Bunsell brings up how “there has always been a conflict between those wishing to develop a toned, athletic appearance and competitors who wish to push their bodies to the extreme.” And in compliance with the demand, different “bodybuilding” categories such as bikini, figure and fitness were created. Even though each category has different aspects and rules (sometimes overlapping), on completion day, it is ultimately it is up to the judges and what they are specifically looking for. That’s why it is so hard to compete in a sport like this: every women there is beautiful and strong. But the majority depends on the judges’ “taste.”

For example, fitness is judged “on aesthetics in a similar manner to bodybuilding, but competitors are expected to have a lot less muscle and higher body fat.” As Jamilla Rosdahl stated in her article, “The Myth of Femininity in the Sport of Bodysculpting,” how “body ‘figure’ competition is an offshoot from bodybuilding where women are required to minimize muscularity on their bodies.”

Figure is a “Bikini-type contest, where women display their ‘toned’ physiques [much less body fat compared to fitness] in ‘feminine’ poses whilst wearing high heels” Bunsell describes. In figure competitors are more likely to be sponsored due to their more “marketable bodies.” Here, women are expected to emphasize femininity through open palms instead of closed fists. Bunsell mentions how the goal is to display “softer and less aggressive in appearance.”

Notarianni is a bikini model – the section of bodybuilding that includes smaller, toned, symmetrical muscles with a main focus on femininity, beauty and grace. It’s “not just [being] skinny” Notarianni added. Here many women are expected to have their hair done (including extensions) and also doing their make-up. Sometime competitors even go to the extent of getting “teeth veneers” (plastic slips that go over the teeth for a perfect smile).

While training for her first competition, Notarianni has been dedicated. And I know from observation, how hard this women works. For the past 18 strenuous weeks, Notarianni has endured both mental and physical strain during the journey of “carving” her body. She mentioned how it is, “a long process, but you notice your body changing, which keeps you committed.”

Notarianni thinks of self-control as doing something that you are supposed to do, like going to the gym and not skipping. And maybe that is the secret to her motto. Maybe if people can change their perspective from a “perceived” negative to a more positive outlook, then we can change how we originally felt about it. This can be applied not only about individually working out, but the idea of females being bodybuilders.

But opportunities like this were not always around for women to partake in. Bunsell described how “it was not until the late 1970s … that female bodybuilding competitions were finally born.” And even though today female bodybuilding is acknowledged as an official sport, many of those who choose to participate are subjected to ridicule, become labeled as what Bunsell describes as “freakish and grotesque” and ultimately are out casted.

In US society, female bodybuilding is a taboo. The sport is unfamiliar to many and according to Rosdahl, as a consequence the “women with muscular bodies [become] objects of public scrutiny.” Rosdahl continues to mention how female bodybuilding challenges the concept that, “men are naturally masculine and women are naturally feminine.”

Muscular women may not fit either category, and as a result, many people think negatively about the sport. Some are uncomfortable with female bodybuilding because it challenges Bunsell’s idea of “how muscular a woman can become and still retain her ‘femininity.” But as Bunsell further investigates “the troublesome and disturbing body of the hypermuscluar women is deemed so outrageously deviant by society that it provokes and evokes” negative attitudes from those on the outside.

And sometimes disapproval can come from those who you’d least expect. After Notarianni began working out and discovered that she enjoyed it, she thought about doing a bikini show. But those surrounding her thought differently. Her boyfriend at the time (currently her ex), along with friends, told her that they didn’t think she could do it. While her mother even was apprehensive about the whole thing, her brother was of great support (probably because he lifts too). But knowing Ashley, she courageously accepted the challenge, hoping to prove people wrong.

When I asked Notarianni how she thought female bodybuilders were portrayed today, she said, “good, but of course I’m going to think that because that’s what I do.” Notarianni later commented how it is a fast growing fad and that, “it is those who don’t have the commitment [of training and self-control] that are making [the sport and the athletes] look bad.”

While talking about what it meant to be a female bodybuilder, Notarianni happily stated that bodysculpting, “transforms the body into ways you didn’t think your body could transform.”

Bodybuilding is an important co-culture for women to embrace. Since we are little, women were told to be thin is to be beautiful. This is shown through countless magazines such as Cosmopolitan, Vogue and TV shows like “America’s Next Top Model.” We are told to be anorexic and then we will be accepted by others.

Female bodybuilding sends a positive message for ladies to understand that being strong and independent is desirable and achievable. Rosdhal mentions how some believe, “that all women are naturally smaller, weaker, passive and dependent” and thus we must forever be this way.

But this is most certainly not true. Today, women are able to be muscular while still maintaining their femininity. Rosdahl comments how “femininity is intimately connected to the bodysculping sport and [gives a women] her own sense of ‘feeling like a woman’.” Even though female bodybuilders are looked upon as “outsiders,” they are reflecting a much bigger issue in US culture: why are we so obsessed with body image and the ideal male or female body?


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