Lexington, Virginia • August 2, 2009
At 5-feet-0 and 107 pounds, Melina Bell looks more like, say, a college philosophy professor than a champion bodybuilder.
As it happens, she's both. And to prove it, Bell just won a major bodybuilding title to go along with the several scholarly papers she has written on the philosophy of women's bodybuilding.
An assistant professor of philosophy at Washington and Lee University, Bell just won both the Open Lightweight and Open Overall titles at the 30th Annual IART (International Association of Resistance Trainers) Hercules Bodybuilding Championships Pro-Qualifier. This qualified her as a WNBF (World Natural Bodybuilding Federation) pro bodybuilder.
"It felt really good to win," said Bell. "I was really surprised because it seemed like forever that I'd been placing second. This is my first time back in competition since 2004, and when I picked this contest I thought maybe I was getting in over my head. It's a large well-known contest and organization. When I saw the winner from last year I hoped I wouldn't embarrass myself against the tough competition."
Bell doesn't just compete in bodybuilding contests; she also researches and writes about it.
Her career in bodybuilding began in 1999 when she was a graduate student at the University of Pennsylvania and competed in an annual bodybuilding contest held as a fundraiser for the women's track team. "The first two years I won. After that, I began coaching the other competitors and guest posing in the contest. Then I began competing in regional contests, one or two per year, in Pennsylvania, New Jersey, New York and Connecticut," she said.
After finishing second in her first two regional contests, Bell asked the judges what she needed to improve on for the next contest. "They told me certain areas to work on with my physique. So I worked on those areas and made great progress. Then after the third contest, again coming in second, I asked the judges for more input, and they said ‘You should really consider putting some pads in your top to give yourself a more feminine figure. And have someone help you with your hair as we really don't like the way you've done it.'"
Bell explained that the judges are overwhelmingly male and have a certain idea about how women should look. "This attitude carries over to female bodybuilders," she said.
"You are supposed to arrange your hair in a fancy style, sometimes using hair extensions to make it look longer. You should wear makeup and have long painted nails. Breast implants are very common."
Bell said that as she began bodybuilding, she also started to become aware of feminist philosophy and the construction of gender. "I was beginning to understand how even female bodybuilders are expected to behave in a feminine way in order to draw the sting away from the threat that they pose-to disempower them, even as they are doing something that is very empowering," she said.
So Bell decided to start researching the scholarship on women's bodybuilding.
"I was surprised at how much research had already been done. I was also surprised to find that a lot of female academics compete in bodybuilding and other muscle-building sports and have written about it," she said, adding her supposition that this is probably because more educated women tend to be more open to transgressing gender norms by building their bodies.
She started writing a paper on the aesthetics of women's bodybuilding in 2002 and worked on it for several years. The Journal of the Philosophy of Sport published it in 2008 under the title "Strength in Muscle and Beauty in Integrity: Building a Body for Her."
That was followed by an invitation to write an essay on gender norms and women's bodybuilding, titled "Is Women's Bodybuilding Unfeminine?," for the forthcoming book Strength and Philosophy
Bell will also be featured in one of the next two issues (August or November) of Natural Bodybuilding and Fitness Magazine.
Her scholarship has focused on social justice, and has dealt in particular with inequalities of opportunity based on sex, sexual orientation, race, and income class. As a faculty affiliate of the Women and Gender Studies Program at W&L, she has studied the way women's role in families and underrepresentation in socially powerful domains have played a role in creating a social gender hierarchy that constrains women's opportunities.
"I sometimes discuss my bodybuilding experiences with the students, but mostly we discuss women's experience in sports such as soccer, field hockey and basketball. We look at the feminine apologetic - the idea that because you are encroaching on a masculine domain, you have to make yourself even more feminine in order to apologize for being there," she said. "Female athletes are expected not only to be great performers like male athletes, but they are also expected to be pretty and feminine. Those who conform to this stereotype definitely have an easier time getting sponsorships. This attitude prevails in all different kinds of sports."
Bell said she thinks it's important for more women to become judges in bodybuilding competition and not hold other women to these standards. "Sometimes it seems that even women have the same attitude," she said. "I also think that if we could get more women into positions of power - promoting contests and running them - they may not continue to impose these standards."
Bell's latest win may be in bodybuilding, but she also claims some other impressive credentials. She won first place in the women's division of Washington and Lee's intramural powerlifting competition in both years (2007 and 2008) that event was staged. In March 2008, she lifted a total of 515 pounds (175 squat, 130 bench press, 210 deadlift) at 125 pounds.