Rival Bodies: Negotiating Gender and Embodiment in Women’s Bikini and Figure Competitions
Women’s bodybuilding has attracted attention from gender researchers. However, increasingly popular fitness shows that feature different competitive tracks—bikini and figure—have garnered very limited scholarly consideration. This study draws on interview data from twenty bikini and figure competitors as well as ethnographic research conducted at several prominent bodybuilding shows in Texas with fitness competition tracks. Our investigation provides a comparative analysis of women’s participation in bikini versus figure fitness competitions as an embodied gender practice. Participation in this relatively new sport underscores the interconnections between gender and variegated forms of embodiment that we call athletic, aesthetic, erotic, and everyday bodies. Pre-competition regimens pose challenges for women’s management of their bodies due to dietary deprivation, rigorous workouts, and the specter of track-specific judging criteria. Pre-competition strains are often evident in primary relationships as women’s bodies are prepared for aesthetic presentation in a way that, for bikini and especially figure competitors, can undermine physical functionality and social capabilities. Competitions themselves reveal relationships marked by a mix of camaraderie and hierarchy among competitors, with those in the figure track often viewed as more “serious” athletes but less conventionally “feminine” than their bikini counterparts. Post-competition, women often struggle to accept the return of their “normal” everyday body. This study reveals the agency of women and their bodies in the context of a fast-growing sport while considering the broader social implications of fitness competitions given their tracking of women’s bodies.