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.