X Close

Who’s afraid of a big girl? Women fantasise about freedom through strength

'Waifish fragility is no longer a status symbol.’ Credit: Love Lies Bleeding

'Waifish fragility is no longer a status symbol.’ Credit: Love Lies Bleeding


May 9, 2024   6 mins

Like a lot of vintage B movies, Attack of the 50 Foot Woman is a bad product with a fantastic campaign. I would bet that, since its 1958 release, thousands have owned the poster without ever watching the film: a painting by artist Reynold Brown showing lead actress Allison Hayes as Nancy Archer, straddling a flyover, dressed in nothing but a bikini made of bedsheets, indolently smashing vehicles (and their drivers) onto the tarmac.

There was something titillatingly horrible about a gigantic woman for Fifties audiences. If King Kong had tapped into America’s racial angst, Attack of the 50 Foot Woman was about fear of the uncontrollable woman. The film came out at the high-water mark of the American nuclear family, but the gender settlement was more fragile than it appeared. The same women being urged to smilingly embrace the apron had, not very long ago, been encouraged to pull on overalls in support of the WW2 effort.

Not all of them were happy about the return to domesticity: in 1963, Betty Friedan would formalise this simmering discontent in The Feminine Mystique. Before that, though, Nancy Archer was the problem that had no name personified at superhuman scale. For men, she was a warning about what could happen if you let the women run out of control; for women, she was a threat. “Once a normally voluptuous woman”, says the trailer, Nancy grows “incredibly huge with incredible desires for love and vengeance”. Get too needy, take up too much space, and you too could become “the most grotesque monstrosity of all”.

Size is a feminine phobia: in the kitchen cupboard of my family home, there was a jumble sale copy of a diet book that promised to “trim away unwanted inches” if you followed its directions. On the back pages, there was a helpful set of tables to record your measurements — so, in theory, you could track your glorious shrinking. A previous owner had filled out the first column, and every time I looked at it, I imagined the lonely self-reproach of this unknown woman and her tape measure, taking the circumference of each thigh, knowing that whatever the number, it would be too big.

But the other side of that phobia is a fantasy where impossible stature translates into impossible power. The fact of women’s size relative to men is what makes us vulnerable: what would it mean to be so huge you were untouchable? Which is the question brilliantly asked by the film Love Lies Bleeding, directed by Rose Glass. Set in the world of Eighties bodybuilding, it’s about an intense, obsessive relationship between two women: Kristen Stewart as gym manager Lou, and Katy O’Brian as body builder Jackie who blows in from out of town.

“Entering the weights room meant overcoming a deep horror of getting big.”

Jackie’s size and strength makes her seem freakish to other people. One of Lou’s sometime-lovers refers derisively to Jackie as “that big girl”. But big is what Lou likes about Jackie, and she introduces her to steroids to help her get even bigger. The doping turns Jackie into “the most grotesque monstrosity of all”. Ripped and ’roided, she is capable of murdering a man with her bare hands. The film drops us inside of her burgeoning drug-induced psychosis, first subtly, by showing her muscles popping and rippling superhumanly; then more fantastically, till the film ends in an all-out homage to Nancy Archer.

But Attack of the 50 Foot Woman had to end with Nancy put in her place: avenged on her cheating husband, yes, but also dead herself. Love Lies Bleeding lets its women have their gargantuan proportions and their revenge on scummy men, without needing to punish them for it. In Glass’s movie, there’s still something deliciously freakish about women who choose size over slightness, but the audience is no longer expected to root for their destruction. In the two generations since the Fifties, “female desire” has ceased to be seen in strictly pathological terms.

It’s not the first time the 50 Foot Woman has been rewritten as a heroine — PJ Harvey’s song “50ft Queenie” is written from the perspective of the giant woman, and has her glorying in her own size. “Come on and measure me,” she commands, and the figures go up through the verses. Here, bigger is better. In 1993, the same year that song came out, the experimental novelist Kathy Acker published an essay called “Against Ordinary Language: The Language of the Body” about her own real-life efforts at hypertrophy.

Acker was a bodybuilder, and had been for about 10 years when she wrote “Against Language”, making her part of the same cohort as Jackie and Lou. Acker describes the discipline like this:

“Muscles will grow only if they are, not exercised or moved, but actually broken down. The general law behind bodybuilding is that muscle, if broken down in a controlled fashion and then provided with the proper growth factors such as nutrients and rest, will grow back larger than before. In order to break down specific areas of muscles, whatever areas one wants to enlarge, it is necessary to work these areas in isolation up to failure.”

This is painful, purposeful work in pursuit of the exact thing the diet book told me to strive against: size. The strict body builder does not live a freer life than the fanatical reducer. As Love Lies Bleeding shows in its relentless montages of egg white omelettes being assembled, achieving a competition-standard physique demands the strictest physical discipline. But the bodybuilder — the big girl — represents a different kind of ideal, one that rejects the ostentatious display of waifish fragility as a status symbol.

It took me decades to go from a fascinated interest in the process Acker writes about, to participating in it myself. Entering the weights room meant breaking two of the taboos that lay heaviest on me: firstly, it meant crossing the invisible gender line around the squat racks and moving into traditionally masculine territory; secondly, it meant overcoming a deep horror of getting big. All my interest in exercise up to that point had been motivated by a desire to shrink myself by torching calories — the voice of the diet book absorbed into my own internal monologue. When I finally came to weights, it was only because I needed to remedy my injuries from running, and I had to reassure myself that female genetics meant I was very unlikely to get big before I felt OK about learning to handle a barbell.

But having overcome that fear, today I find that I am very interested indeed in getting big. It pleases me to see my muscles grow, and to know that this is a consequence of work I’ve done. I’ve got a friend who thinks of bodybuilding as the epitome of individualistic self-improvement, and maybe he’s got a point, but I think of my own strength work differently.  My body, which I experienced as a disappointment for most of my adult life, turns out to be a perfectly adapted organism when I use it this way.

And I’m no longer an outlier as a woman in the weights section. The shift in beauty standards, from size zero to Kardashian curves, pushed many women towards bodybuilding as a way of developing the figure they want: if you want a bigger bum, the only way to achieve that without surgery is to build your glutes. A few years ago, I interviewed the author of that diet book (she was lovely, so I feel bad naming her as one of the origins of my neuroses), and asked her about the rise of the butt. She looked simply perplexed by it. She understood that this was what women now wanted, but for someone raised in — and indelibly associated with — the cult of small, it was hard to comprehend.

Still, things have not changed so much. The standards may have shifted, but they have not been destroyed. Bodybuilding for women no longer has the countercultural significance it had for Acker. She saw it as an escape from language into pre-verbal physicality; look around the gym, and you’ll see most exercisers (including me) are skimming Instagram between sets. The big girl is still trapped inside beauty culture, however much she tries to flex her way out of it; still thinking about what her body signifies.

Efforts to theorise the meanings of women’s bodies can be irksome, and the implications of changing trends often contradictory. In her book All the Rage, Virginia Nicholson points out that, while the demise of the rigid corset maps neatly onto the establishment of political freedoms for women, the loose-fitting, limb-baring styles of the Twenties may well have felt more exposing than emancipatory for women. Rising hemlines and less restrictive foundation garments put the body itself on display and under scrutiny, and drove the preference for lean, lithe figures that dominated the 20th century. Gamine silhouettes were associated with freedom, but squint a little and they could look like backlash.

The same goes for the embrace of big. It’s a personal relief to be free of the anxiety to stay tiny, but the pressure to be the correct shape can just mean swapping one set of fixations for another. The fantasy of freedom through strength is, for women, never going to be wholly realised: a strong woman is still weaker than an average man. In the fiction of Love Lies Bleeding, it’s plausible that Jackie can demolish abusive men with her bare fists because we’ve been tipped off that this is part-fantasy. And anyway, without the fantastical element, the revenge she takes would simply be swapping one kind of tyranny for another.

If the pleasure of Love Lies Bleeding is in its hypertrophied excess, for me the pleasure of getting big is in something closer to Acker’s description of the bodybuilding process: the intimacy it creates with failure. To grow strong is to be continually confronted with the fact of your own weakness. Which is as good a metaphor as any for political work women have done to get from the Fifties that made a monster of Nancy Archer, to the present day where supersized Lou and Jackie can be creatures of wonder and desire.


Sarah Ditum is a columnist, critic and feature writer.

sarahditum

Join the discussion


Join like minded readers that support our journalism by becoming a paid subscriber


To join the discussion in the comments, become a paid subscriber.

Join like minded readers that support our journalism, read unlimited articles and enjoy other subscriber-only benefits.

Subscribe
Subscribe
Notify of
guest

36 Comments
Most Voted
Newest Oldest
Inline Feedbacks
View all comments
Allison Barrows
Allison Barrows
5 days ago

King Kong was about racial angst??? I thought it was a fun movie about a giant gorilla. What does race have to do with it?

Right-Wing Hippie
Right-Wing Hippie
5 days ago

You know you’re a modern Leftist when you see an ape or a monkey and the first thing you think of is how it reflects the conditions of black people.

Samir Iker
Samir Iker
5 days ago

I suspect neither of these movies had much politics in mind, just mindless fun for the audience.

J Dunne
J Dunne
5 days ago
Reply to  Samir Iker

Guardianistas like Dittum have no understanding of mindless fun. Everything is hand-wringingly serious – and political.

David Morley
David Morley
5 days ago

And Godzilla?

Right-Wing Hippie
Right-Wing Hippie
5 days ago
Reply to  David Morley

Godzilla is about trans rights.

ChilblainEdwardOlmos
ChilblainEdwardOlmos
3 days ago
Reply to  David Morley

The Atom Bomb obviously. But I’m probably responding to a facetious question…

Brendan O'Leary
Brendan O'Leary
6 days ago

It’s a good idea for most people to exercise, including lifting weights, as they get older. It helps prevent or delay bodily degeneration. There are plenty of women lifting heavy weights at my gym.
Often heavier weights than I’m lifting, since I’m older and have spinal issues.
They’re not “getting big” in some bizarre culture war, they’re just keeping fit, or trying to get there.

Allison Barrows
Allison Barrows
5 days ago

Absolutely. I’ve been working out with free weights and machines since 1983. I’m 5’1’, 109 pounds. Staying fit and limber has always been my only goal.

David Morley
David Morley
6 days ago

Actually I would say that female gym culture has gone from all round fit, strong and athletic to overemphasis on butt exercises. Some women do nothing else. Hip thrusts, supplemented with other glute focussed exercises.

The change happened quite suddenly, as if someone had flicked a switch linked to all women’s brains. I guess that switch is social media. As a man, that instant on tap herd like behaviour is far more frightening than women being 50 feet tall. It’s the hashtags, not the muscles, that are more worrying.

R Wright
R Wright
5 days ago
Reply to  David Morley

I conjecture that the west’s movement from aesthetic appreciation for a thin waist and larger breasts towards oversized posteriors came about due to the cultural prestige associated with ethnic minorities reaching fever pitch in the 2010s. Rock music and waifish, slim models were replaced by RnB and twerking 150 pound mystery meat. Young women are becoming ‘gym bunnies’ en-masse because it is the Current Thing.

Point of Information
Point of Information
6 days ago

Weight training is now recommended as more important than cardio for women (and men) over 40 by many councils and NHS trusts in the UK to stave off old age fragility and its associated cost to the taxpayer.

Lancashire Lad
Lancashire Lad
6 days ago

The sexiest organ is the brain.
Exercise that more often whilst just staying fit and healthy, and you’ll go much farther and lead a more interesting life, whilst saving money spent on excruciatingly boring gym time (as illustrated in this article).

John Murray
John Murray
6 days ago

The steroids and the acne and assorted other health problems make bodybuilding a bit off-putting to me. However, if you’re a grown adult and it’s what you want to do fair enough if that’s your poison.
As I get older I do think I should probably do a bit of weights to keep muscle. Always found working with weights dead boring though.

Billy Bob
Billy Bob
6 days ago
Reply to  John Murray

Does lifting a pint count?

David Morley
David Morley
6 days ago
Reply to  Billy Bob

How many reps?

Alex Lekas
Alex Lekas
5 days ago
Reply to  John Murray

There is also natural, drug-free bodybuilding, and not everyone who engages in it does so to compete. Lift for your own satisfaction and self-improvement. The drugs are not worth the tradeoffs.

Richard Calhoun
Richard Calhoun
5 days ago
Reply to  John Murray

Try doing some planks John, they strengthen the core and take at most 5 to 10 minutes per day.

Stephen Sheridan
Stephen Sheridan
6 days ago

Obsessing about being big and muscular or a thin x-ray or a Kardashian bum-n-b**b freak show are all narcissistic body obsessions. They won’t bring peace of mind, they won’t bring happiness and they won’t make you a better person. One can delve into the feminist issues of Attack of the Fifty Foot Woman, but the main reason people display the poster is because it looks ridiculous and the title sounds ridiculous.

Martin Goodfellow
Martin Goodfellow
5 days ago

Feminist paranoia latches onto anything and everything it can to maintain its dogma of male oppression and female victimisation, using every acrobatic form of logic to assert its points. There is no recognition that male-female relations ever functioned because of agreement and compromise, or that men ever had things other than their own way. Natural influences are likewise ignored, lest they contradict the narrative. Even a silly film from the 1950’s (that mythically historical hotbed of male cruelty to women) can be distorted to appear as patriarchal propaganda that ‘proves’ womens’ virtual enslavement. I often like Sarah Ditum’s comments, but this article is full of disappointing nonesense.

Katharine Eyre
Katharine Eyre
6 days ago

I’ve also had to overcome this silly fear of “getting big”. I got a slight running injury to my right knee and need to keep my leg muscles strong to make sure the joint stays well-supported. I am now the backwards lunge queen and quite like how my figure has changed! I get some odd looks in the park on leg day when I’m running through my routine but who cares.
Weights in the gym…naaaaah, no thanks. Bouldering is my muscle builder. This is such an amazing sport, great for body and mind…and your upper body gets ripped. On the pro side – the women are amazing and the best competition climber there is at the moment is Janja Garnbret of Slovenia. Never mind the 50ft woman, this is the flying woman. Just incredible to watch.
Flick to 38:50 on this video to watch one of the most insane sends: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=s60x8SOIbko&t=2372s

Richard Calhoun
Richard Calhoun
5 days ago
Reply to  Katharine Eyre

Thanks for the video, bouldering is some sport, what strength and agility

Steve Jolly
Steve Jolly
5 days ago
Reply to  Katharine Eyre

Well that’s just ridiculous. My initial thought when looking at the setup was that this climbing wall has half as many grips as it should and they’re way too far apart. I was trying to decide if the goal was to climb it or maybe one started at the top and repelled down the side or something. Hollywood should enlist this woman to star in the next Spiderman movie. Don’t know if she’s got the acting chops to be Spiderman but she could be the stunt double.

David Morley
David Morley
6 days ago

Attack of the 50 Foot Woman was about fear of the uncontrollable woman. 

There is actually a male sexual fetish around giant women, as of course there is about powerful women generally. I’d always assumed this was the appeal of the film.

Not sure many people walk around in fear of uncontrollable women – though a fifty foot one having an emotional strop might be unnerving.

Daniel P
Daniel P
5 days ago

I dunno, I just find healthy attractive to look at.

Then, I find a good wit and strong character something I want to stay with.

Then, I try to be who it is that I would want to be with knowing I will never be perfect.

William Shaw
William Shaw
5 days ago

More and more women are trying to copy the attributes of men. Everything associated with masculinity, women are taking on. The way men interact socially, male competitiveness and combativeness, male sexual promiscuity, male independence… women are emulating men and claiming they can compete with men and beat them at their own game.
Even feminists seem to believe that women behaving like women are losers, that women are inferior, but mask this belief by claiming traditional male attributes are now feminist qualities.

David Morley
David Morley
5 days ago
Reply to  William Shaw

Maybe – but at the same time men are criticised for not being more like women. It’s almost as if none of us are any good 🙂

Alex Lekas
Alex Lekas
5 days ago

Absent chemical help, the average person has a ceiling on “big.” Genetics help, of course; some people are more predisposed to building muscle than others, but no woman – or man, for that matter – is going to look like a magazine cover without special help, an insanely rigorous diet, and body fat levels that are not healthy. That’s the irony of the sport – the aesthetic picture of health hides the reality beneath it, that of a dehydrated person with dangerously low body fat. But that’s what it takes to make the muscles pop.
Competition aside, strength training should be a must for everyone and for practical reasons, especially as we get older: being able to get off the couch or floor by yourself, being able to pick up the grandkids or carry the groceries inside, and the quality of life that comes from having the day to day strength needed for independence. Some muscle will be gained and that’s a good thing. Things will tighten up, your clothes will fit better – you might even have to buy some new things, and your metabolism will get a boost. Just remember, ‘big’ is a relative term as is ‘heavy’ when it comes to weights.

Mister Smith
Mister Smith
5 days ago

I do weight-lifting regularly in a gym. I would agree with another commenter here. The women I see spent 90% of their time doing buttocks exercises. Due to this phenomenon, it’s near impossible to get a turn on some equipment!

Richard Calhoun
Richard Calhoun
5 days ago

The upper body strength of average males is said to be 90% greater than average females, no contest.
It is a bit weird to fantasise about your body and it’s muscles, surely all we need are light weights, 5 to 10 minutes of planks and 5/10,000 steps a day and job done.
Obsession with the body is different to looking after it, more people should look after their bodies

Steve Jolly
Steve Jolly
5 days ago

Honestly one of the best parodies of the 50 foot woman genre is the animated movie Monsters vs. Aliens. It didn’t do so well at the box office, but it embraces female empowerment without being overly preachy about it. The giant woman joins a kind of team of other freakish individuals used by the government to, well, fight aliens. She has to overcome her own angst about being abnormal, the loss of her old life and the betrayal of her fiance who left her when she ‘got big’. The feminist theme doesn’t completely dominate the movie and it’s genuinely funny.

Heidi M
Heidi M
5 days ago

One of my favourite comeback stories is Natalie Abberfield. The once wife of the that slug of a man Barnaby Joyce, after his lurid affair with a much younger woman and subsequent divorce she took up bodybuilding, and my word did she look a great for a 50 year old woman. As good as Diana’s little black dress.

UnHerd Reader
UnHerd Reader
4 days ago

Not a word about the essential ingredient for building muscle: testosterone.

Daniel Lee
Daniel Lee
3 days ago

“‘Once a normally voluptuous woman,’ says the trailer, Nancy grows ‘incredibly huge with incredible desires for love and vengeance.’”
Newp. This was about pure sex, not fear of feminine power.

Tyler Durden
Tyler Durden
6 days ago

Extreme female gym fanatics model beachware as well as enter bodybuilding competitions so they have a place in the rather dubious wrestling-oriented entertainment industry. And if there is a lesbian subculture involved; well, the presentation of the body in a hyperreal state is far preferable to permissiveness over obesity.
Nevertheless, this rather seedy neo-noir (I streamed it the other day) is clear about the risk of steroid use. The carciogenic risks are clear but, as in the movie, these illegal drugs can risk sending the user into a state of crazed violence.

El Uro
El Uro
4 days ago

I’m not at all sure that anyone here is familiar with the fact that female athletes stop menstruating during intense training. This is even more applicable to weight lifting exercises, but if you add testosterone to this, things get really bad.
.
It is also known from biology that intercourse brings maximum pleasure to a woman at the moment when she can become pregnant, and for men she is most attractive at this time.
.
These are all reliably established facts.
.
However, if the lady is an angry feminist, let her lift weights. It will be better for everyone.