Bodybuilding Professors Outmuscle the Stereotype

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.
October 11, 2009

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."