The Dawn Chorus

Fresh Australian Feminism

Little Miss Abs

Posted by Mel Campbell on July 18, 2008

Today, the first news headline that caught my eye was this Telegraph (UK) effort. After I had recovered from that odd bit of anthropomorphism, I encountered this even more alarming headline: “Mum defends 10-year-old bodybuilder”.

(Picture: Daily Telegraph)

Maughan Wellham, of Thornton, NSW, is 10 and competed last weekend in the Ms Fitness Australia category of the International Natural Bodybuilding Association’s All Female Classic competition, held in Melbourne. She was the only child in the event, so they had to invent a new category for her, “Ms Fitness Kidz”. (Note the wacky zpelling.)

She’s nowhere near as creepy as the terrifying and notorious child bodybuilder Richard Sandrak, but child bodybuilders are always creepy because they superimpose an ‘adult’ conception of the body – deliberately honed, trained, hardened – onto a child’s body that we prefer to think of as innocent, unformed and in flux.

In fact, our culture’s ways of thinking about children’s bodies are severely limited. There’s the child prodigy’s body that inspires awe at its feats and moral panic surrounding pushy parents or coaches, the sick, disabled or injured child’s body that inspires sympathy and righteous anger, and the obese child’s body that inspires disgust and moral panic surrounding ignorant or helpless parents. Then, worst of all, there’s the sexualised child’s body that inspires a fervidly imagined paedophilic gaze and moral panic surrounding sexual precocity.

Maughan has been caught up in these clumsy ways of talking about kids’ bodies; just as at the tournament, there isn’t really a category for her. Her mum, along with event organiser Tony Lanciano, insist that it’s not precocious, creepy, unhealthy or symptomatic of bad parenting for a 10-year-old to be doing this: it was Maughan’s idea to compete and she trains for athleticism (the prodigious body) rather than for appearance (the sexualised body). “We’re not telling girls to start heavyweight lifting. It’s about fun and fitness,” says Lanciano.

Australian culture holds the virtues of sport to be so self-evident that we can bathe even the most unsavoury things (gang rape, drug use, domestic violence) in an acceptable glow if athletes are involved. But I think the issue was more neatly skewered by National Amateur Body Builders Association president Graeme Lancefield:

“Bodybuilding is not sport – it is a show – like ballet, dressage or pageants.”

Bodybuilding is precisely about appearance. If you’ve ever seen the infamous documentary Pumping Iron you’ll realise just how avidly bodybuilders submit to the visual display of their art (although Arnold Schwarzenegger is more into the “feeling of cumming”). Bodybuilding isn’t an aesthetic I personally appreciate, but it is purely an aesthetic. These muscles aren’t necessarily strong or athletic – they are built to be critically judged for their appearance.

Moreover, I think it’s telling that the other examples Lancefield gives of ‘shows’ are traditional pursuits for girls. And that’s where this gets problematic.

There are also many subgenres and categories within bodybuilding. Maughan was competing in a ‘natural’ (zero doping tolerance) tournament, within a ‘fitness’ category. With an emphasis on bikinis and high heels, and routines set to music, this kind of female bodybuilding seems less about fitness and more uncomfortably close to a beauty pageant.

(Picture: Daily Telegraph)

Here’s Tony Lanciano on the reception Maughan got:

“She showed her biceps beautifully in time to the Gladiator movie theme music. When she showed her abs and thighs, the crowd erupted.”

That just sounds so wrong. Here we are getting back to that discomfort over the sexualised child’s body. I can’t help but agree with child psychologist Michael Carr-Gregg, who says, “What we should be saying to kids is they should be valued more for what they do than how they look.”

But ultimately, the thing that disturbs me most about this incident is that it’s come to seem so normal for women to display and be judged on their bodies that it takes a child doing the same thing to make us feel weird about it.

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19 Responses to “Little Miss Abs”

  1. audrey said

    “But ultimately, the thing that disturbs me most about this incident is that it’s come to seem so normal for women to display and be judged on their bodies that it takes a child doing the same thing to make us feel weird about it.”

    Mel, I’ve always felt uncomfortable with female bodybuilders, but I suspect that has more to do with a kneejerk ‘ick’ factor that comes from looking at women with masculinised bodies. I’m not sure if that’s something I’ve been manipulated into by society or if its a deeper conviction; but I just can’t help but look at these women and feel really grossed out.

    Mind you, that could have a lot to do with the way they parade themselves in these pageants (and yes, they are pageants). The oil, fake tan, overdone faces and sexy clothes combined with particularly chiselled body features just seems like a caricature and makes the women look a little ridiculous. Maybe that’s what I’m uncomfortable with.

    Anyhoo, I agree with your final point. I think it’s what bothers me most in the endless discussion of sexualisation of children – that apparently it’s only bad for children to be exploited and judged on their appearances, and not, you know, everyone.

    PS zpelling….hehehe.

    • Ty said

      If you took out the word “female” and put “male” it would be the same, right? They both parade around, and are objectified the same. The fault is in your eyes… not in what God gave them.

  2. Leah said

    Just an aside that came to me while considering this issue, I think it’s important to always critique people’s actions rather than their appearance.

    Overly focusing on appearance can go in two directions – disapproval and approval, and I guess what I’m trying to say is that neither is a great option as they are both superficial. So rather than focus on Maughan’s appearance and whether others approve or disapprove of it, I’m more interested in her actions and why she does what she does and whether it is harming her physically or mentally.

    I’m reminded of a friend of mine who suffered from anorexia, when she was ill her family were always telling her to put on weight, when she recovered they were always telling her she looked great which sounds lovely, but it made her still feel scrutinised at a superficial level – it was a reminder that people were still examining her body and judging it whereas she just wanted fewer comments on her body and more on her actions. So I guess we should be careful to label Maughan’s body as creepy or gross or whatever, as it could just continue a public judgement of her body when we should be focusing on her actions.

    Of course I understand it’s not a black and white issues, and that one’s actions affect one’s appearance and the two can’t always be cleanly divided, just wanted to put my oar in :)

  3. Suannah said

    My sister did not compete in body building, she is not a body builder. She competed in “kids fitness” and qualifies for the US “Kids fitness” – look it up. She is an athlete, she runs fast. She doesn’t care how she looks, or how you think she looks, she only had fun showing that not all Aussie kids are lard buckets, and that great health can be achieved by normal moderate exercise and healthy food and not eating 3 meals at Maccas a week. You all have it wrong, and THAT is sad.

    • Will said

      This girl is amazing, she does nothing wrong and I would like to know who appointed these idiot individuals and media to say what this girl can and cannot do.To all you idiots that say she shouldn’t be put on display can you explain how it is O K for kids to be cheerleaders, gymnasts and beauty pagent queens? Maughan is in perfect physical shape and she has the right to be very proud of herself. Other peoples kids that spend the day eating and playing video games are the ones you should be talking about. If you want to charge someone with child abuse then look at little girl cheerleaders jumping around in the worlds skimpiest skirts or gymnasts in body tight suits doing the splits. But you idiots deem that o k and bodybuilding not o k. You have know right to comment negatively to this girl.
      Meaghan, go do what makes you happy, you have worked very hard to get yourself in peek physical shape and should be proud of your accomplishments

  4. rhianawhitson2 said

    Susannah, this does not mean that her body should be paraded on stage to be judged or aestheticised.

    I understand that if you are her sister (?) you would no doubt understand her personal motivations better than we (although as a ten-year-old I still question the issue of her being able to fully consent to participating in such an event… but thats another debate altogether), however, I happen to find it worrying that Maughan’s wish to demonstrate that ‘not all Aussie kids are lard buckets’ has to be fulfilled in an voyeuristic arena that, as Leah said is all about aestheticisiation, in my opinion instead of being an anti-‘lard bucket’ image of good health she becomes an exploited child who has been taught from a very young age that her body is something to not only expose, but to be judged.

    Fitness is, now more than ever before vital for young children, but what ever happened to Netball? Maughan can still do her bit to fight against childhood obesity without having to have her ten year-old body paraded on stage in a bikini and strappy sandals…

  5. blue milk said

    I’m still just kinda stunned to see that they called her category “Ms” instead of “Miss”. Weirdly enlightened.

  6. Lou said

    Wow! She is a bona-fide hottie. Yowsers! Those pics will get a workout tonight ;)

  7. steven said

    is the reaction to this missing what is going on at the comps?

    is the point to go and ogle the participants bodies for some sexual gratification – or are they getting rated on the overall size and proportions of their muscles?

    I’m not a fan of the ‘look’ of male or female bodybuilders (be they adult or child), but I think people are getting mixed up in what is actually happening because the ‘normal’ experience of oiled up bodies in little swimsuits on a stage in front of a crowd is more ‘check out the tits and arse’ oriented.

    It is all well and good to agree with the “kids should be valued for what they do”, but that would be like suggesting kids netball games should be decided upon “how hard each child tried”. But you don’t, in netball, you win by getting more balls through the hoop – in bodybuilding, you show your ripped abs.

  8. jim c said

    I do very much like and am physically attracted to the look of more athletic, fit women who lift weights and workout. I know that this is a huge turn on for many men and there are lots of websites dedicated to it. So I know that for many, these pageants are sexual displays and thus I do find it very uncomfortable to see a young child displayed in one. Just as it would be awkward to see a child parading in a bikini in any beauty pageant.

  9. […] Beijing National Indoor Stadium, you couldn’t blame a spectator for thinking they were at a Ms Fitness Kidz competition. Yet Károlyi still claims to know what real sixteen-year olds look like: We are in the […]

  10. Helen said

    I agree as to the ick factor, but what concerns me is that at her age, she should be using her youthful strength and fitness to actually DO something – swimming, climbing, pony club… Something to feed her brain and soul as well as body, not just this kind of glorified beauty pageant. (And that milieu won’t be exactly crawling with friends her own age.)

  11. John said

    I have to disagree with most of you. I think she is nothing wrong but improving her health. I am a retired bodybuilder and from the photos I’ve seen of Maughan, she has put in alot of hard work. The muscle development in her legs is better than most adult males. And that is pretty impressive and should be applauded.

  12. Suannah said

    You do not seem to be able to get over yourselves… how do you sleep passing all that judgement without knowing anything. Lets bag all the kids on any stage simply for being seen. If the world didn’t like spectating… no one would attend any event or watch any tv, no one would be on a stage or on film… I am embarrassed to have thought myself a feminist … you all just wait for someone to do something out of the ordinary that you can bitch about and you start attacking without any real understanding. Of course Mauhgan doesn’t just get about showing off her physique, she is an athlete, she runs at state level! If a female wants to be on stage and show off let it be, if she wants to cover up from neck to knee – let it be, if she shaves her head or grows it long, has an abortion or a baby, plays with Barbies or trucks, is educated or naive…why in the name of God can’t females simply support females. You don’t think there are pros and cons to most decisions? That any negative could be cast as a positive and vice versa? No matter what I say, or mum says, or Mauhgan says, you will find a loop hole to pass criticism through. She does heaps of sport, soccer and gymnastics and running, she loves being active – thankyou blogger Helen…and blogger Jim C… how twisted is your thinking?? I bet you like to watch the netball and tennis too just to see girls skirts flipping about. Gross. That’s great, bet Jim C has a wife that’s just thrilled to go to the beach with him perving on all the females. Holy cow, don’t let that guy anywhere near kids athletics events please! And blogger Lou…you really need help too.
    What a shame we have to be so uptight about body image. There are fat chiks and thin ones and we should all be comfortable enough in our selves to show it or stow as we please. Half the feminist artists out there make their feminist statements wearing farless than a swimsuit with tampons and chicken carcasses as props and I don’t see you hanging them from your noose.
    Wake up to yourselves, what disturbing childhood experiences are lying behind your opinions?
    I am in year 12, I have great grades and am a student leader. I’m not dressing to impress guys and I don’t want a boyfriend to distract me while I study for my future, I keep active, I eat well, don’t smoke, I hate sexism, and I hate hypocrits who sit about judging others… if my mother is always congratulated for the great job she has done raising me, I don’t think she’s using a different recipe for success where my siblings are concerned.
    Okay, the event Mauhgan did was a bit out of the ordinary in this country, but really, who was the real evil here? The self serving journo who published alot of untruth and used my sisters image to fuel a media frenzy!
    Aesthetics? Judged? You can’t talk. If you didnt care about appearance you wouldn’t share an opinion, if you didn’t do your own judging you wouldn’t have an opinion to give. Aesthetics isn’t just visual, it can also be verbal! The world is FULL of people, we are all different, isn’t that okay?
    Why don’t we have a list of rules drawn up that say what we can or can’t do as females… what we can or can’t aspire to…what we can or can’t wear…then we could all think just like you…oh, wouldn’t that be perfect!

  13. Mel Campbell said

    Yo Suannah, chill out, we are not attacking Maughan. And nobody here wants to force everyone to think like us. (We don’t even always agree among ourselves!) But you’ve got to remember that women’s choices (whatever they might be) are always influenced by the culture we grow up in and the attitudes of people around us. As feminists, we think it’s really important to analyse society and culture to reveal the ways that women are disadvantaged and disrespected compared to men. Then we try to imagine ways that we could make things fairer for both genders.

    For me the hardest part of being a feminist is criticising another woman. Back in July I actually wrote a blog post about just that. But disagreements are vital to feminism, and disagreeing with someone else’s choices isn’t necessarily a personal attack on them. Suannah, if women never debated the things they disagree about, then that sounds much more like “everyone thinking alike” to me.

  14. […] thedawnchrous (july […]

  15. This is a nonsense this such a young girl in competitions takes part.

  16. Jason said

    I think the most important factor here is that she seems to have been motivated to do this herself, because of what she had accomplished. She seems driven and proud of what she achieved, namely an unusually muscular and defined body. She is judged on her appearance, just like adult male and female bodybuilders, because she wants to be judged; she is proud and competative. This is empowering. Much different scenario than being judged for your body when you are walking down the street or applying for a job. The muscular body cant be shown in a t-shirt and shorts, so she wears a bikini. That doesn’t seem like exploitation to me. Men wear similar bikini bottoms for the same reason, displaying musculature. Anyone sexualizing her has a problem, the same problem that may occur if he sees her on the beach in a similar bikini. For that matter, if a 10 year old boy with unusual musculature competed in a speedo, someone in the audience could be sexualizing him. It would be that audience member’s issue, and hopefully he (or she, but most likely a he) would never act on it, and would even seek therapy if it is obsessive. The show seems from this vantage point to have been honoring muscular bodies and nothing more.

    If she was doing all of this because her mom forced her to when she hated it, then my opinions change.
    If her routine ever became intentionally provocative (which is a blurry line) then my opinions change.

    Good Day!

  17. Toby said

    if you’re against kids being in bodybuilding competitions you have to be against kids under 18 being in any kind of pageant, at least in bodybuilding they have to train and get in good shape instead of just being smeared in makeup and being dressed up in hooker clothing

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