Geraldo Show (1990): “Women’s Bodybuilding Sex, Sweat, Stigma, and Steroids”

Geraldo Rivera a talk show host, attorney, and reporter  at one time had a talk show, which became popular and gave rise to what is known as trash TV. Before Jerry Springer, Geraldo pioneered this format having stage brawls, celebrity gossip,  and general low brow misconduct. This program was clearly not a place of debate or intellectual discussion. There were attempts to reformat the program to such a platform in later seasons, but it was not a success. Viewers preferred outrageous chaos , rather than civil discussion.   Occasionally, there were episodes that at least tried to be informative or stimulating. What is fascinating is that  Geraldo  had a program featuring women bodybuilders and asked athletes about their experiences and the inner workings of the sport. The  episode was aired in 1990. The reason that the episode is of particular interest is that it explores the relationship between the body and gender. At the time when this aired, female bodybuilding was only close to a decade old and many people could not image women of such  with physiques. The audience reactions reveal much. Having athletes come and explain what they do helps break down prejudices or negative preconceived nations.

          The first show that aired in 1990 opens up with examples of changing standards of beauty. Geraldo says “over the past centuries we have changed the image of feminine beauty.” He then delineates the paradigms : the softer more plump body, the thinner model appearance,  and by the 1980s a more toned and firmer body. Geraldo then poses this question: “having we gone one step further than that?” The answer obviously is yes and the proof is the rise of the female bodybuilder, specifically in a more broad sense muscular woman. The idea of the weaker sex or biological inferior becomes challenged and alters particular power dichotomies. Strong man and weak woman can no longer be the  power order if there are other models that rival that concept.

Geraldo then proceeds to introduce the women who were at the top of the sport in the 1990s : Dianna Dennis, Lenda Murray, Janet Tech, Erika Andersch, and Laura Creavalle. This seems revolutionary although many people do not realize it. Never before in human history did women achieve strength and an image like this before. Muscular women have existed before this sport, but they were never given an outlet for their talents. The reason the muscular woman induces shock is that it overturns certain notions of the female body. The female body is either associated with being delicate or soft. Here the athletes on stage formed a new image of woman. When looking at the backgrounds of these athletes, they engaged in what is considered traditional feminine activities. Lenda Murray was a cheerleader, Janet Tech was a ballet dancer, and Dianna Dennis is a mother ( her son is asked a question by Geraldo). This shows that many people have a narrow idea about what a woman a is and what she can be. Clearly, women are more physically capable  than previously thought. The female body and appearance is constantly scrutinized. Female bodybuilders face this more so, because the deviate from the mass media defined image of beauty. Geraldo asks  question ” do ever sacrifice breasts?”  which exposes  a level of subtle sexism in regards to women’s bodies. Creavalle answers the question in a civil manner, joking ” I never had large boobs anyway.” It should be understood that breasts do not disappear with weight training. Women are subject to criticism more so about their appearance than men, due to negative views of women. To some people, women’s only value is their level of sexual attractiveness. This level of dehumanization goes back to a time when women were considered property. Misogyny dictated codes of behavior and conduct for women including the concept of femininity itself.

            The second half of the program shows the athletes dressed in regular attire. The discussion then goes to femininity and gender relations. Men’s reactions to muscular women’s bodies becomes a focal point. These reactions are not always negative. Some could be neutral, indifferent, or enthusiastic. One reaction is one of curiosity. If a man never has seen a woman this powerful before, their is a level of  wonder. It is something that they may not be used to. It is not everyday that a man runs into a woman just as strong or stronger than himself.

There is a reaction that has to do with intimidation. Geraldo poses the questioned to Carla Dunlap “Are men ever intimidated by your physique ?” Carla Dunlap explains this feeling of intimidation as insecurity among particular men. They may react to women who are assertive, intelligent, or confident  in the same manner. This also Carla says could be related to self-esteem, because they may be intimidated by other men they perceive as more attractive or successful. Then the fear is that some how these women would physically harm men. There is the idea that women like this would have a more belligerent attitude to men and as some put it “smack them up if they get out of line.” The strong woman is not violent, nor seeks violence against men. There is a habit of an oppressor group making claims the oppressed want vengeance for past grievances. Some how there are men who are intimidated by strong women have reasoned are out to conspire against men in some way.

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     These false ideas and stereotypes are prevalent. This fear is more than just lack of knowledge, it could be based on sexist prejudice. Those of a more traditionalist perspective believe there a some activities that women should not attempt or be a part of. There is a misconception that physical strength is connected to toughness which is a male based gender stereotype.  The assumption based on this stereotype is that these women are less feminine, because they are strong. The questions in the second segment explore the biological and cultural dimensions of femininity. Questions asked of women then delved into childbirth and the effect of the menstrual cycle. These types of questions about child bearing potential would never be asked of male athletes. Medical research has proven that women who engage in physical activity will not harm their chances of childbirth. Amenorrhea can cause not solely by extremely low body fat levels, but by low calorie intake. The female body has been seen in terms of physical limitations and the fact that women give birth was a excuse to exclude them from various activities.  The natural feminine state in the traditionalist view was to be a baby maker. Dated concepts have been overturned, yet still persist. Women who are in the sport also to much surprise are still pressured by societal standards of beauty. The topic of eating disorders and breast implants are mentioned. Some women go to extreme lengths to achieve a particular look that could be harmful. It could be  the reverse of  a woman attempting to create a unhealthy slender body weight to resemble a model. The pressure to get breast implants also reveals another double standard that women face in terms of body appearance. The women look different on stage compared to off season.  Many times it would be hard to tell they have such physiques when fully clothed. Women who are sports have to  face this double standard in terms of acceptable feminine behavior and appearance.

           When discussing sports the topic of steroids inevitably will be mentioned. Steroids by this time where a schedule III banned substances in the United States. Laura Creavalle explains that drugs do not create  a great athlete.  Genetics, training, and nutrition are major factors to aspects of athletic performance potential. Use is not only in bodybuilding, but in track and field, baseball, football, weightlifting, wrestling, and various sports . The question of fairness is raised, however would this not be fair to a person who does not have the genetic advantage to excel? The reason this bothers some people is because it is moving humanity further to a point of transhumanism. This means humanity will be able to alter nature and biology so much through genetic engineering, biomedical science, and technology  that it will radical redefine what is human. There are numerous types of performance enhancing drugs and it is clear they are going to become more sophisticated. This debate does not have a simple answer, but one part is certain. The sports world does not need a war on drugs. The show was not afraid to mention this controversial topic.

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Sports organizations have the right to ban whatever substance they want to. However, individuals have to right and freedom to put into bodies whatever substances they decide to. Prohibition did not work with alcohol and the War on Drugs has caused major political and social damage to American society. Women are faced with a different dilemma in use. Harsh criticism and gender bias  are present for women. When people criticize muscular women, steroids are used as a justification for vituperation. It has been shown that more men use steroids than women, but women are stigmatized more so for use. The idea is that testosterone is a natural male hormone ( even though women produce it in small amounts)  and women taking the synthetic derivative violates nature . This idea has problems not only because of its gender bias, but inaccuracies. What we consider natural can be ever changing due to biology and environment. Humanity has the ability to change and alter themselves physically and mentally. The argument at that point becomes irrelevant. There are objections to use in women solely based on appearance. Women who either abused or have engaged in long term use may suffer from virilization. This shows that women are only valued for their looks, rather than genuine concerns about health. There are side effects, which could result in illness later in life, but the issue focuses more on image.   A combination of sexism and stigma make it difficult for women entering the world female bodybuilding.

         There has been an evolution in how women perceive their bodies. The athletes on the program have defined what is beautiful on their own terms rather than through a male dictation. It is a image that is both powerful and majestic, but does not lack a womanly charm. The sport continues to develop in multiple categories. Lydia Cheng  bodybuilder and judge stated on the program that the sport does change and that judges do not look for the same image every year. Since 1990,  the sport has advanced into different categories. There is fitness, figure, physique, and bodybuilding. Detractors say that bodybuilding for women is dead, but that may be the case. This is an evolution in aesthetics and the physical capabilities of the female body. Carol Ann Weber was asked the question in which direction the sport would go. Her response proved to be ahead of its time. The sport could either face challenges, dissipate, or go in a completely different direction. It seems all three of these events have happened. yet, the evolution is still not complete.

Women who engage in this activity also report have a new psychological sense of self. They feel more confident and secure about their own safety. Knowing that they are strong gives a new feeling of independence and self-reliance. Besides the transformation in both mid and body there has been a cultural impact. While not entirely accepted, muscular and athletic women have a presence in media. Crossfit and a larger arena such as the Olympics show to the public the public this new form of women’s physiques. The program seems to show the audience has a positive response to what these athletes do. However, there were audience members with an opposing view. Their ideas about femininity is that women should have a level of softness, yet they did not hesitate to say they respected their efforts and diligence. These comments of praise could be disingenuous, but they say so only to mask their beliefs in strict gender roles. The biggest irony it seems was that it was women who said they did not care for the muscular look. The positive aspect it seems that more of the audience approved than opposed. A sign of some progress at minimum in small steps. It is uncertain how many people either had their minds changed after seeing this.  An important topic left out the show was the fact that not only do these athletes find this new form of body attractive, but there are growing numbers of men who like the appearance of female muscle. The rise of the internet has only increased those numbers and it is uncertain how many male admirers there are.  This episode of Geraldo  was one of the rare cases in which it educated an audience about  a sport that women only recently got into.

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Geraldo Show (1990): “Women’s Bodybuilding Sex, Sweat, Stigma, and Steroids”

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