When I worked on an audio-visual project on women bodybuilders in India a few years ago, I learned of the complex landscape of masculinity, body image, femininity and sexuality that these women have to navigate everyday.
Sibalika Saha, who has chosen hardcore bodybuilding, has seen her body change dramatically over the course of pursuing the sport to what a socially constructed label would call “masculine”. She however chooses to defy stereotypical labels that categorise her body according to the male and female binary, raising the question – why fit into definitions of how women should look?
Karuna Waghmare, on the other hand, chooses a less hardcore form of bodybuilding, called athletic physique, which retains the norms of femininity. She prefers to maintain her body within the standards of the “feminine” and feels comfortable embodying the definition of how women should look.
The two women share their thoughts on treading the thin line between having a masculine and feminine body in the sport of muscularity:
Sibalika: I am Sibalika Saha, from Kolkata. I am a female bodybuilder, representing India since 2011, and my age is 36 years.
Karuna: My name is Karuna Pandurang Waghmare and I’m 39 years old. I am from Mumbai and professionally I am a fitness trainer and right now I’m representing our country in athletic physique, bodybuilding.
Sibalika: I never thought that I would be a bodybuilder. I never even dreamt of it. Arnold Schwarzenegger is my God. He’s the God of bodybuilding. I used to follow him, and all the action movies…like Sylvester Stallone. So I would follow all this and wonder if I could also have such muscles. But then I would think, I am female, how could I? But then I would think, so what if I am female? I can still try. If I like femininity, and muscularity, then I can’t continue my bodybuilding. Either this or that, you have to choose, either femininity or bodybuilding because bodybuilding cannot happen with femininity.
Karuna: I like looking feminine and I love to be a girl and I love getting dressed up nicely, and making my hair and jewellery and all that stuff, and all these things are there in my athletic physique. That’s the major reason I chose that and not bodybuilding because I have seen that once you take that kind of stuff in your body and you start building your muscles in the bigger end, you start looking like…what do you call it…hard…your face becomes hard. And then your femininity goes, which I don’t like basically, and I always don’t like to look big, like a man. That is for boys, not for girls. So that is the reason I like athletic physique.
Sibalika: I am happy with it, what I am right now. People identify me as bhaiyya (brother) – male person, particularly. So I am not going to rectify them and ask them to call me didi (sister) or aunty, because it’s a huge story. They can’t understand all these things, so it’s okay. There are some people in my gym, who are really shocked when they come to know that I am female, because previously they would say, “Sir, please show me”, or would hug me or pat my shoulder. Now those people think twice even before giving me a handshake. In India, this is very normal. If like me, there were 10 other women, then people wouldn’t question – Oh she can be like this too? But since I am the only one and people haven’t seen women like me, they feel uneasy and wonder – Is she actually female? So if they ask me, “Are you a female bodybuilder?” I say, “Yes Sir.” So if people are interested to know about my transformation, why it happened, then I tell them, otherwise I don’t. Now also I don’t think that since people are thinking this way, I have to change, I have to be more feminine…No.
Karuna: I should not give a complex to my man that I look bigger than you and I look more muscular than you. Though I look more muscular than my man, at the same time I should look like a woman. So that’s why I want to keep my weight under control, but at the same time all the muscles should be visible. And at the same time your husband is happy with you. Or your male partner is happy with you.
While sexuality is not explicitly discussed, I understood in continuing to work on the topic, that it is an important component of bodybuilding. It is, after all, a sport where you display your body and flex your muscles. Social norms don’t expect women to look muscular, but if men are muscular, it is considered sexy. Just by choosing to pursue a largely male-dominated sport that glorifies what is accepted as “masculine”, Karuna and Sibalika are pushing the boundaries of these labels. They are re-defining gender expectations, challenging pre-conceived notions of women’s bodies and are, in their own ways deciding how they want to own their identities.
[To hear the full piece “Body Talk”, you can find it at: https://www.zulfiyahamzaki.com/body-talk]