Malarky

Venus with Biceps: A Pictorial History of Muscular Women by David L. Chapman & Patricia Vertinsky

Got muscles? Expect scrutiny if you’re female. Venus with Biceps interrogates the history and taboos of female muscularity and pairs a taut consideration with a diligent pictorial unearthing.

This welcome book is interspersed with chapters outlining the limited perceptions placed on women’s bodies and how they have progressed, regressed and progressed again. David L. Chapman, who culled and amassed more than 200 images for this book, unveils a riveting history of strongwomen with roots in theatricality, athleticism, performance, ancient Greece and exhibitionism.

The images come in varied sources and forms: photos, advertisements, illustrations, comics, posters and even cigarette cards, up until the 1980s. We can understand plenty from these rare images, including what informs the continuing relentless scrutiny of women’s bodies today (a scrutiny that increasingly extends to expectations even of the pregnant body).

There have always been ardent opinions on the female form that often bore little relation to biology or the potential women have for developing strong musculature.

The obvious development of muscle -a sign of male power -in women was considered a masculinization of the female body. It is still subject to critique and reactions of fear and disgust in the mainstream celeb-obsessed media. As the art critic and novelist John Berger wrote in Ways of Seeing, “Men are expected to act, women to appear.”

At the start of the 20th century the first strongwomen appeared on the fete, carnival and circus scene. They were viewed with freak-show bemusement by an audience of men seeking titillation. Curiously, there was often a family link to strongwomen; she might be the daughter of a strongman or in the case of Melina, the wife of strongman Louis Cyr. Athleta, a Belgian strongwoman known for lifting half a dozen men and a large barbell, had three daughters who were all raised to be strongwomen.

A shift began in the 1920s that saw a change in attitudes toward embracing a new model of “able-bodied womanhood.”

Victorian prudery was out; the flapper was in. There was more evidence in photos of displaying muscles in contrast to earlier attempts to disguise them, with the hourglass figure upheld as the ideal.

The Great Depression of the 1930s sent attitudes spiralling backwards towards “traditional expectations” and “womanly allure”, although a “lightly muscled body could be considered attractive.”

Emphasis on the female body distinctly changed after and during times of war. Women were required to participate in physical labour and that participation was recognized as vital. The attitude was that women needed to be fit and strong in order to serve their country and the war effort. The 1940s saw the advent of Wonder Woman and role models such as Rosie the Riveter, who personified working women. Towards the end of the 1940s, female athletes also saw more respect for their ability and physique.

Between the 1950s and 1970s, all the progress was essentially lost and muscular women appeared to vanish. Then, in 1977, the first bodybuilding competition that judged women’s muscles -not their beauty -took place at the YMCA in Canton, Ohio.

David L. Chapman and Patricia Vertinsky are to be admired for this excavation and excising of these visual records and stories from obscurity. This is a reading opportunity that can only be described as uplifting, informative and delicious. The book is not weighed down with an overly academic tone; the tone is one of consideration, historical context and fun insight. It does not purport to be an exacting record, but it is a delightful departure point for readers and enthusiasts and a reference to aid the constant inquiries those with mysteriously large calf muscles must engage with, in the experience of this former gymnast reviewer.

Venus with Biceps: A Pictorial History of Muscular Women by David L. Chapman & Patricia Vertinsky

Arsenal Pulp Press, $29.95, 359 pages

Biblioasis will be publishing Anakana Schofield’s novel Malarky next year.