Stronger Than Yesterday, “Venus With Biceps” Do It Nothin’ But Their Way

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David L. Chapman has been writing books about bodybuilding and the photography of muscular males for a long time. For example he wrote Sandow the Magnificent: Eugen Sandow and the Beginnings of Body Building, American Hunks: The Muscular Male Body in Popular Culture, 1860-1970, and Comin’ at Ya!: The Homoerotic 3-D Photographs of Denny Denfield. After all that it shouldn’t be much of a surprise that in his search for historical depictions of bodybuilders and strongmen, he discovered images of strongwomen, too.

And yet, here I am — surprised!

I wasn’t sure which part of his newest book, Venus With Biceps, surprised me the most. Was it the fact that he found so many photographs? The fact that, compared to pictures of strongmen, relatively few images of strongwomen exist? Or was it the fact that nobody had thought to collect these images in one place before?

Because this is the first time anyone has compiled a collection of these images — 356 pages worth — and the result is something truly spectacular. Women with elaborate up-dos and absurdly corseted waistlines fill the pages; it’s enough to make you marvel at the sheer athleticism it must take to lift weights without being able to physically draw breath.

Many of his subjects were employed in the entertainment industry. Women who displayed strength that was considered “unusual” for women to possess were seen as oddities or freaks, and could usually find ample opportunity to make a few bucks as performers in circus and stage shows.

One performer, stage name was Charmion, was mistaken for a man so often that she created something called the “Trapeze Disrobing Act,” which is basically exactly what it sounds like. While swinging on the trapeze, she would take off as much clothing as local indecent exposure laws would allow (hint: not much). By today’s standards, the act itself is fairly tame stuff, but it raises an interesting point: strongwomen at the time were so determined to prove they were female that they would take off their clothes for an audience. It wasn’t about appearing sexy, it was about providing evidence of their biological sex. People just couldn’t believe that a woman could be that strong.

The American humor magazine, PUCK, attacked the issue of female strength and exercise in this very early satire. In 1880, the problem of women who wanted to gain strength and (by extension) self-determination was the real subject of this illustration.

Women have always been discouraged from doing sports for two main reasons: moral propriety, and the risk of injury. It’s assumed that women will be more concerned about possible injuries than men will — that concern for our reproductive organs will deter us from participating in sports. If fear of damaging reproductive organs deterred anyone from playing sports, men’s sports would not exist. The assumption here is that family values trump our own personal desires to achieve. Also that we even want to have children, or that we were born with female reproductive organs.

Modern day strongwomen who participate in bodybuilding competitions see their sport as an opportunity to provide an antidote to old-fashioned ideas about the female form. Natural bodybuilder Marla Battles began training and competing eight years ago, as a 40th birthday present to herself. “It’s about seeing what your body has the potential to do,” she says. “We learn something about ourselves every time we go onstage.” For most competitors, bodybuilding is about exploring the body’s capabilities. Katy Wayman-White acknowledged that her career as a bodybuilder has helped her sons appreciate strength as beauty. “They think it’s normal. I was a single mother raising three boys for a long time. They think strength IS beauty.”

There had been muscular women before Lisa Lyon — many of them, but they never really had the right combination of sexiness and muscularity to make them stars. Lisa was different. She had a thin, strong physique and knew how to show it off. suddenly, female bodybuilding had a spokeswoman who looked different from the beauty queens who had previously populated the posing platforms of women’s bodybuilding. She balanced her muscularity with her femininity, and intoxicating mixture for the general public. This exercise photo is from a 1980 feature article on Lyons in Iron Man magazine.

I love that this book exists because so many people still believe that women need to look a certain way, use their bodies a certain way, be in the world in a certain way in order to be women. Strength is for everyone. Pictures like these serve as a great starting point for conversations about the history of women in sports, about gender performance, about what constitutes beauty and why we create standards for strength based on gender. But more than that, these pictures, and these women, are proof that there have always been women who weren’t afraid to push the boundaries of social convention.

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Images and excerpts provided by Arsenal Pulp Press.
Thumbnail image: Mildred Burke, female pro-wrestler from the mid-1930s to early 1950s. Burke established the World Women’s Wrestling Association.

Writer, semi-idealist, hobbit.

Meghan has written 1 articles for us.

23 Comments

  1. yeahhh i love sports and being good at them soooo I dont care anymore about how muscular I am. I’m 175, 5’10 and I row…. there is no way not be muscular 😀

    – also look at those shoulder muscles holy moly.

    – modern version of intense shoulder/ general all around muscle, google Susan Francia… omg.

  2. heyy, yeah Im 5 ft 10 but 5 ft 7 is still good for lightweight. When I sstand next to national team members i remember how short i am…. they are 6 ft 0 to 7. It makes me wish I was super tall. But Im hoping to get better and pull decent times this summer and fall 😀

    – omg the espn thing where she is totally nude… yeahh! its amazing because she is sooo muscular and gorgeous and a crazy talented rower… its amazing/terrifying and inspiring all wrapped up in one!

    – also side note so irrelevant, but i need to tell someone why not autostraddle. I came out to my whole family today! and im 21 and soon Ill come out to my rowing coach and yayyy! 😀

  3. As a former collegiate athlete (ice hockey) I have an extreme appreciation for the dedication serious weight training takes. It was disheartening to hear some of my teammates discuss how they were not going to train as hard as they could for fear of having “manly football player legs”. *Le sigh*

    And, I have seriously been considering starting to train for power lifting. I am naturally strong and would probably do pretty well for myself. For now I will continue to use grad school as an excuse, but really I just need to get over caring about what other people will think. Cause I love how accomplished I feel after a great lift.

  4. growing up, my only form of exercise or fitness was being a ballerina. not to say that it wasn’t serious — it was — but it’s also very feminine-focused, obviously, right down to hand / finger position and the look on your face. so the idea of kicking down a gender wall in an effort to be fit never occurred to me. and i hated P.E. because i just felt too ‘feminine’ to even touch an inflated ball. which was really stupid, considering i could pirouette en pointe ten times in a row and grand jete like a boss. i don’t know why sports intimidated me so much.
    anyway! Venus was so so interesting and, like Meghan said, really inspiring, because women have been bucking the system for so much longer than most of us realize.
    great book!

  5. So I first glanced at the cover image of this book without my glasses on and momentarily thought the title read “Nuns With Biceps”.

    That would’ve been a very different book, but probably no less interesting.

  6. This book looks great! I also like the idea of ‘Nuns With Biceps’, I would read that for sure.
    The illustration of kitchen calisthenics is ‘amusing’… I wouldn’t like to be the lady doing the darning in the top right corner though… ouchie.

  7. hey (vending machine) I’m assuming here that your are gay or bi ( I could be wrong) but if soo did you come out to your team? or coach? and how was it? There are no gay rowers here in my city. Just wondering if it went well ??

  8. Great article! I’ll have to check out this book 🙂

    Also wondering… if the image of those buttons are an actual thing? Is it possible to buy them somewhere? My work apron needs them!!

  9. This is a reply for Laniea’s comment, though for some reason I cannot reply to others’ comments on my phone.

    For those that are intimidated by regular sports, you can try ones where there is no winning, losing, or rules. I played regular sports growing up, and eventually realized I did not give a fuck about how many points they got, how many seconds passed, how many times they put a ball on the other side of a rectangle, etc. I stopped and just did my physical activities I always liked to do.

    For instance you cannot win or lose at diving or walking. One time I mentioned wanting to walk across my town, and a friend joined me. Another day I walked to the edge of my town, across the next one, and back, almost 20 miles total. I walked with my nephew when he was learning to do it. The first time I dove to 100 ft. it was very dark and beautiful, I will never forget it.

    Another time I did not have the $ to get my tanks filled, and I just took the mask, snorkel, and fins to this pond. I saw a freshwater jellyfish, and I did not know there was such a thing. I contacted some biologists about it, and I later found there was no record of this thing ever having been seen in my state. I like to run also, though not fast.

    Basically there is a lot of other stuff to do besides regular sports, and it feels good and is fun.

  10. For a long time I didn’t really like team sports. I’d been in soccer since I could run more than three steps without falling down, but I was never any good at it. It wasn’t until I started playing rugby in college that I found out that team sports could be fun.

    Everyone I knew was like “But you’re so small! You’ll be crushed! And you bruise easily! Guys don’t date girls with bruises!”

    And I was like “Half the girls on the team are smaller than me, I dominate, I like my bruises, and oh p.s. I figured out that I’m bisexual so I don’t care if guys don’t want to date me.”

    So, acknowledging that I could be strong and that I LIKED it was kind of a way of discovering who I really was. Which was amazing.

    Also, for Mackenzie, I think the buttons are like…archived artifacts? But if you print out the ones up there, button-making doodads are fairly readily available at craft stores and you could make tons of awesome, totally bitchin’ buttons.

    • Thanks! I was hoping I could just do it the lazy way… lol!
      But actually I’ve been planning on getting a button maker, So I might have to make some eventually!

  11. Thanks lindseyhart. This summer I am doing wreck dives. You dive down to a shipwreck and swim inside. I always liked going in abandoned buildings, and it is a continuation of that under water. That is more my speed for sports. I concluded that organized sports ultimately limit physical activity/experience in the same way that religion often limits spirituality and ethics and schooling often limits education. This is just a personal conclusion though, and it isn’t meant to insult people who don’t feel the same.

    Happy walking/hiking!

    • Hi, been meaning to get back to you on the “wreck dives”. This sounds incredibly fun and exciting. Would love to hear more about it this summer.

      I don’t really do any water sports because I get kind of anxious around water, but I can relate since I do some mine and cave exploring. Started when my brothers and I would go out to the Mohave desert when we were living in southern California and explore old mine shafts. Now that I am up in Northern California, sometimes go out with friends and explore mines in the Sierras or find caves to go through in some of the local mountains. Its a kick.

      take care!

  12. I wonder if the book mentions Vulcana, the strongwoman our local women’s circus is named after.

    Speaking of which: circus classes are an AMAZING way to get fit, without the gender normativity and competitiveness (unless you *really* want to). If I, a clumsy n00b, can learn how to tumble and occasionally handstand in my 20s, so can you! Also, if you find a women’s circus, it’s a great way to find queer women – over half the women in any women’s circus I meet are queer one way or another!

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