Female Body Building vs. Western Cultural Ideals

The following is a research study I completed April, 2006. The piece won the 2006 Costume Society of America – Jim Liles Student Award, for Southeast Region VI. I was honored to present my research at the region’s annual symposium, held in Alexandria, Virginia. Southeast Region VI Newsletter


Statement of Purpose

What does it mean to be aesthetically perfect as a female? Does it imply that on every occasion she is seen, everyone always regards her overall appearance as flawless? Many females today have the desire to appear with astonishing, unsurpassed, perfected beauty at any given time. Women go to great extremes to satisfy themselves regarding their image. Their ideal self is one who never shows a physical defect, shines with confidence in her looks, knows she is radiant, and proves that there is no room for improvement. Furthermore, our culture has taken it to the next level. Our Western cultural ideal, the extremely slim, “Barbie or supermodel” inspired female body contour has dominated the expectations for female figures. This ideal shape has driven the minds of Western females to the absolute farthest measure. A myriad of females have stumbled upon eating disorders, health detriments, and other conditions which have resulted in misery for them as they pursue their journey to look like the Western cultural ideal. Moreover, many women share one common goal through living in society today – to lose weight (Hagel, 2005). For a number of women; however, in their quest for a lean, perfect body, have found themselves in an even more intense and demanding state. This is the life of body building. In my study, I set out to explore and determine if this muscular body type is really ideal.

List of Objectives

There are a few other objectives I wanted focus on during my investigation relating to female body building.

  1. I wanted to determine which gender and age group preferred this look more than the other.
  2. I wanted to uncover rather or not men in different age ranges found a muscular woman desirable, unattractive, or if they were even intimidated by her.
  3. I wanted to learn if a female had a chance, would she want to be as muscular as a competitive body builder. Why or why not?


Overall, this research will generate information that can be helpful to everyone living in our current era of psychological aspects of the body and expression. For example, if the reader discovers that a muscular figure is not considered feminine and attractive, a woman may discontinue extensive training and harmful dieting. In the long run, this information could be beneficial to many women and serve as enough reason for them to refrain from dangerous supplements, disorderly eating, and low self-image. On the other hand, it may even help to uncover some new trends in the ideas of body figures. For instance, when learning about the drives behind females’ needs for muscular bodies, the reader may see the emergence of a new ideal. This new “perfect” body may shift from being exceptionally skinny to strong and powerfully built!

In addition to gaining knowledge of several aspects of female body building, the reader will also be able to validate the means behind this new development of female figures. What is the big deal about building up large muscle masses and showing them off? There are many possibilities for the motivation of women to capture a masculine body. Plus, there must be a specific relation between this drive and the daily life of a female. When realizing these connections, a reader may even decide that there is no true explanation that directly engages their individual concerns. Finally, as mentioned before, the information produced in this study may supply reasons for females who are abusing their bodies to discontinue their routines. Therefore, their health would no longer be damaged due to an unsafe body building regimen.


The Perfect Body

This article expresses the main idea that one perfect body does not exist. However, there are perfect bodies that are meant for different contexts. For example, the perfect body for ice skating is nowhere near the perfect body for body building. “Perfection comes in all shapes and sizes” (Barnette, 1995). Furthermore, Barnette suggests that a body builder who was born with muscle building potential has a huge advantage in this area. However, the ideal body for a body builder is subjective, and still perfection brings about much confusion and debate.

Flexing the Tensions of Female Muscularity

The discussion in this article centers around the question of how female body builders bargain a competitive body builder’s figure in place of a normal, feminine physique (Boyle, 2005). The chief problem in this sport for female competitors is the relationship between femininity and muscularity, which also is a concern in my research.

Lose Weight and Keep It Off

“Many women share one common goal – to lose weight. In your quest for a lean and sexy body, you’ve no doubt come across scores of diets, pills, scammy exercise equipment, and more that promise you the world but severely under-deliver” (Hagel, 2005). This piece touches on ideas about dieting myths, false ideas about working out and bulking up, as well as concludes how losing weight should be done in a quick and safe way, which deals with calorie consumption. So, are the majority of women taking the safe route in developing the body they want?

Flexing Femininity

This lengthy editorial considers the built bodies of female body builders and the environments in which they train in. “Empirical findings suggest that place of training provides a material and discursive environment that reworks bodies in the feminine/masculine binary. The female body builder works her body within this binary as well as beyond the acceptable feminine/masculine dualism” (Johnston, 1996). Also, wishes for a muscular body may come from other areas such as nature, mind, sex, and gender.

On The Muscle

An idea conveyed by the author is that the female body builder threatens not only the current socially constructed definitions of femininity and masculinity, but also the system of sexual difference itself (Schulze, 1990).

Body Building and Sculpting

The main idea expressed by this article relates to the 20th century, where the eternal quest for the ideal shape is still popularly engaged upon (Quinn, 2005). It also provides an insight of ways men and women seek out this shape and try to consume it through weight-lifting, strenuous exercise, dieting, and even cosmetic surgery. For the majority of cases, the shape that results from these activities resembles a rather masculine figure.

The Essentials of Marketing Research 

This textbook, written by William G. Zikmund, was the perfect aid in producing a well-designed survey, helping to clear up any uncertainties of processes undergone, as well as serve as the basis for making the best decision on various aspects of going about the research. The two main subjects I relied upon this text were information on the Likert Scale, and the correct ways of carrying out the research collection and process.

Gender Differences in Effects of Mood and Body Image

This article discusses in detail an examination that was completed to explore the relationship between mood alteration and body image. Regression analysis controlling for individual differences in mood score and body build found that as experientially induced mood decreased, participants said they felt heavier but underweight people felt lighter. “Unhappiness invokes comparison with a gender stereotype of physical attractiveness” (Barber, 2001). Again, mood could have a direct effect on the effort put forth by a body builder, rather novice or advanced.

Gender and Body Images: Stereotypes and Realities

“Body image is a multidimensional construct defined by a person’s perceptions of and attitudes about their body” (Cash, 1989). The basic findings of the study conducted in this article consist of the thesis that body image is dramatically connected to gender. Furthermore, each gender perception of body image differed substantially according to measured aspects of features that make up body image.

Self-Esteem and Body Modifications in Male and Female Students

The conclusion of this piece was that self-esteem is positively correlated with body satisfaction. Moreover, a student typically had a higher self-esteem when they had an overall high perception of their physical appearance and were satisfied with how they looked. I tried to include the possibility of self-esteem playing a part in the level of motivation an individual had in achieving a muscular build.


  1. Description of Research Method

In the initial step to conduct research on female body building, I designed a survey with twenty-five ideas or questions that were to be answered using the Likert scale of choosing a number of 1 through 5. The number 1 represents “strongly disagree”, while the number 5 represents “strongly agree.” As assumed, the number 2 indicates disagree, 3 is neutral, and 4 designates agree. (Zikmund, 2003). I chose to use the Likert Scale to accumulate and determine a percentage of males and females who had varied opinions and standpoints on female body building. Furthermore, this would provide me with an ample amount of quantitative data. In addition, I included three open-response questions that would aid in the collection of a sufficient quantity of qualitative data.

  1. Sample

The sample of thirty people, which was made up of fifteen males and fifteen females, was surveyed at a local gym. This test group represented a moderately homogeneous group of active, fitness-conscious individuals who were also concerned with their image. Plus, I concentrated on a wide spread of ages, ranging from 12 to 57. In the last part of the survey, each partaker was asked to identify their gender, as well as identify their age by selecting one of the eight 5-year ranges that fall in intervals between the targeted areas of 12-57, which made up the total scale. I found it best to enclose the demographic and classificatory questions at the end of the questionnaire, because many participants will become offended and easily turned off if this type of question is the first one they come across (Zikmund, 2003). All of the individuals who were surveyed were involved in regular exercise routines, ranging from low-level cardiovascular and/or aerobic workouts to intense weight training and muscle mass concentration. Along with the questionnaire, I brought along a magazine clipping of a few photographs of well-known female body-builders to use as a reference of the degree to which the women built their bodies. Again, I was able to connect with thirty individuals, consisting of an even number of each gender. There were twenty-eight successful surveys, but two were unable to be assessed, due to illegible writing and a failure to participate. However, I was pleased with 93.3% positive return on my surveys.

  1. Data Presentation

After evaluating each survey, calculating the scores for the various questions asked, I formulated averages according to the Likert Scale, which indicated how strongly men and women agreed or disagreed with the questions presented in the survey.


As interpreted from the graph, “Effects of Female Body Building,” the percentage of men surveyed who like the body builder figure for a women was 54%, and 68% of women liked the muscular look. Next, 76% of men wanted to be more muscular, and 70% of women found having more muscles desirable. The idea that body building would bring positive changes to their life and/or change them positively as a person appealed to 82% of men, and 58% of women. Of the men surveyed, the amount that would alter their lifestyle with strenuous workouts, strict diets, supplements, and surgery was 78%, and only 42% of women. Last, when asked about a body building life changing everyday routines in a person’s regimen, 66% of men said it would, and exactly half of women admitted to it.

Another representation expressed by the graph “Effects of Female Body Building” shows how five major outcomes discovered in the survey rate among the men and women who participated. Several points can be drawn from the graph. First, it is shown that males would like to be more muscular, but it is less concern for women. Next, the thesis was proven that men do not necessarily find a female body builder attractive. They prefer the feminine look. Moreover, the graph demonstrates that body building would greatly impact men’s lifestyle, whereas women did not put as much regard to body building.

This next graph, titled “The Sample” simply serves as a key in describing the participants according to two control groups that were intentionally kept constant throughout the study. The first control refers to the number of men and women who participated. There were 28 total subjects, 50% were males and 50% were females. The next control was the age range each participant fell into. The age range was important because the opinions and preferences of older versus younger males and females could be a determinant of variation, as well as a cause of biased results. Due to limited number of partakers, the amount of people in each age range is very small.

In spite of the small sample size, several inferences can be made from the responses made by each age range. First, the individuals who fall into the categories containing those participants over age 40 did not find as much relevance to the study as the participants who are approximately 18 to 35. Also, the findings incorporate the probability that male and female participants who are younger than 18 have not yet been exposed to; or developed a great amount of insight, to the highlights of body building. Although teenage girls are likely to become more image-conscious at this age, they do not place much priority on dieting, supplements, and surgery until adulthood. Age is a definite factor in determining the perspectives of men and women on the positives and negatives of body building in females.


When reflecting upon the original three objectives to be explored in my research study, I realized that a portion of my hypotheses were validated, while others were contradicted by the actual results. Primarily, I predicted that men were more physically attracted to a feminine physique, and not to a muscular body-builder. My results supported this, when displaying that less than half of the men surveyed were impressed by the picture of the champion body builder. Men are not drawn to the overpowering image possessed by a muscular female. Furthermore, they are attracted to the thin, Western body ideal.

In addition, the theory that men are not fascinated with a female body-builder can be stemmed from different causes. A great deal of the male participants admitted that the overbearing look was somewhat responsible for creating insecurity in them. Also, a few men confessed that a muscular woman could possibly intimidate them when in a public setting. Plus, about half of the men surveyed selected options that proved they thought a female body builder was unattractive and not at all pretty.

The last objective that I had much interest toward is the extent to which a female would go if she did want to look like a body-builder. In contrast to my prediction, many females refused to alter their life in any way to change how they looked. In my experiences, the majority of women I knew personally had already undergone one or more procedures, or had some alterations in mind they wanted to pursue in the near future. The actual finding in this area of the study is a relief to many due to the growing number of teens who are becoming more and more critical of their own self image. The survey shows that the majority of this representative sample are happy with who they are, and also have a lot of confidence.


While the term “aesthetically perfect” still lacks an absolute, clear definition, it can be drawn upon that each view of perfection can be different for any individual, depending on who they are, as well as what characteristics they render.

“Different folks for different strokes” is the attitude most likely placed on a culture’s picture of perfection (Barnette, 1995). This further stresses that there is no perfect body for everything or everyone; but, there are endless amounts of perfect bodies.

Although many females today get trapped in the challenge to reach what they see as perfect, which may include a muscular, body-builder’s figure, this is not the crave for our Western culture.

An additional theme that was a huge focus of the research study is the importance of a female becoming what she sees as perfect, as well as what measures she would take to get there. This issue is growing in enormous amounts of concern, as females are exercising actions that are more and more dangerous in order to get the body they want. As stated previously, these strokes toward perfection include demanding and exhausting workout, unreasonable dieting, harmful diet pills and supplements, and irreversible cosmetic surgery. Even more threatening cases lead to anorexia and bulimia. In spite of the rising instances of these issues, the research study was evidence for many women being content with who they are, each aspect of their appearance, and showing an overall satisfactory level of self-confidence. Thankfully, the assumption that many females are avoiding these damaging practices is supported. In conclusion, the female body builder does not reign as a body ideal in the Western culture.


There are several extensions of this research study that could be taken to generate further information. Initially, there could have been a larger sample taken from a larger population. More participants would have created more opinions, standpoints, and additional spontaneous information, which could have lead to the development of more support for each hypothesis. Plus, there is the likelihood for several unique thoughts brought about in the qualitative data. On the other hand, more thoughts could be the basis for more controversy due to a greater chance for disagreements. The conclusions would have been even more credible with a higher amount of surveys completed.

Next, it would have been beneficial to the success of the study to incorporate further focus on the relationship between self-esteem and body satisfaction. Regardless of what the ideal in a particular culture is, more people are likely to be totally satisfied with their own bodies and attributes if they simply carry a high level of self-esteem. It only makes sense that a person who lacks self-esteem will look for constant approval of their self. Plus, low self-esteem creates negative feelings towards one’s abilities and feature. They may carry the “grass is greener on the other side” attitude. In turn, this attitude gets you nowhere, and in no way will it ever increase the quality of one’s self perception. There is much room open for further debate on self-esteem versus the level of pleasure one places on his/her real self.

Last, an open door for further learning leads into the connections of dress and body image. What types of apparel and other body modifications do women use if they are in the process of reaching a body-builder figure? Is the clothing tight, bright colored, or does it have a masculine style to it? The clothing could be designed to draw attention to different areas of the body. As many wedding dresses in the past have been designed to do, a body-builder’s typical outfit can flaunt the parts of the body she is proud of, while hiding parts that are not her strongest points of her overall appearance. Dress varies in great deal from person to person, and can depend on the level of self-esteem a person has, as well as work to express a goal of a gratifying looking glass self, as well as how others see her. It is a very powerful way to create any perception of self a woman is trying to hold and convey in her life, rather it be the desired Western cultural ideal body, or the woman she is proud to be.

Posted on July 21, 2012, in Award-Winning Research Study, Straight from Holly and tagged , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink. Leave a comment.

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