For thirty years David Chapman has collected images of muscular women – cartoons, old travelling vaudeville troupe and circus ads, photographs of body builders. In contrast to the image of a typical woman (be it from years in which curves dominate the popular aesthetic or years in which long and lithe is the way to look) the rare images contained within David Chapman and Patricia Vertinsky’s book Venus With Biceps: A Pictorial History of Muscular Women may make you second guess your impressions of the strong woman.
“There is something profoundly upsetting about a proud, confident, unrepentantly muscular woman,” writes Chapman in the book’s introduction. “She risks being seen by her viewers as dangerous, alluring, odd, beautiful or, at worst, a sort of raree show. She is, in fact, a smorgasbord of mixed messages.”
With an introduction by Chapman followed by a more academic analysis from UBC professor Patricia Vertinsky, the opening text provides all the tools needed to truly appreciate the images in the context of the society within which they were created. While the ever charming vaudeville and ‘freak show’ ads contained within have an old-school charm in which the context of external societal pressures dissolve, the book chronicles the history of women’s fitness and even the culture of body builders, starting with Muscle Beach in California in the 1950s. By contrast (and without ever saying or showing modern ads) it highlights that these days, women are almost expected to be sleek running machines, clad in Nike sneakers, Lululemon pants, sweating Gatorade.
With over 200 full-colour and black and white illustrations, many of which have never before been published, Venus with Biceps is a compelling and impactful book about expectations, assumptions, image, and the ever impressive ability of some women to pursue whatever they want despite external pressures. It’s a book I’ll be happily sharing with friends for years to come.