by Julia Bursten
Friends, I am here today to speak to you as a feminist, a philosopher, a power lifter, and moreover as a concerned citizen. I am calling on you to join me in considering the bicep-heart-vaguterus in the “I bicep-heart-vaguterus Girls Who Power Lift” t-shirt pictured here. This image, created by the team behind the website www.girlswhopowerlift.com, encapsulates the mystifying world of modern meathead feminism so thoroughly that I cannot stay silent about it any longer.
First, let’s contemplate the layout of the bicep-heart-vaguterus. It is utterly Escher-esque in its use of positive and negative space, coaxing anatomically-puzzling imagery of the female sexual organs out of the mash-up of familiar icons of strength and love with a deftness to rival the mathematical achievement of Penrose tiles. The spandrels of the San Marcos would be hard-pressed to call themselves happier accidents of artistic achievement.
The heart, fuller and rounder in its outline than the standard representation of romantic affection, is, nonetheless, more angled than normal at its lateral inflexions. It is almost ovoid if you squint, evoking not only the symbol of romantic love but also that of avian fertility. Is it asking us to reconsider our attachment to outdated and subtly oppressive gestures of fondness? Should we make our loved ones gifts of eggs, full of protein and omega-3s, instead of offering up commercialized tins of chocolates shaped like no one’s anatomic heart? Are our hearts not yet full enough for feminism?
The biceps, stylized beyond even the caricature found in standard Emoji alphabets, might be those of the patriarchy, attempting to confine within their mighty flexion the female spirit. Or they might be subtle calls for a newly unrealistic standard of feminine arm beauty, hearkening back to recent years’ concern over “strong is the new skinny” campaigns and the United States’ problematic—or is it inspirational?—love affair with its first lady’s upper limbs.
But really, it is the negatively-defined vaguterus in the center of the figure that requires our most fervent and reflective study. The vaguterus exists in the negative space of the twin biceps in the same way that women may find themselves existing in the negative space between socially-pressured bra burning and the embrace of makeup as a healthy form of creative expression. It is wanting to wear a short skirt and knowing that you look good doing it, and knowing that it is society’s fault and not yours if you get catcalled or worse while wearing it, even if you’re drunk in your child-bearing years, and yet feeling so exhausted at the thought of trying to explain feminism to men or decide whether to be offended, pleased, or just impressed at the accuracy of a stranger shouting, “Hey girl, looks like you’ve been hitting the squat rack,” or having to check your bag for pepper spray, that you whip your hair into a no-nonsense bun and throw on slacks cut for someone without lifter’s quads instead. It is the space between the world as it is and the world as it should be. It is the abstinence-only movement’s insidious hope of shaming orgasms into oblivion by hiding from young women the mechanisms and potential pleasures of the embodied female experience. It is the setting of Ursula K. Le Guin’s next short story.
We might wonder, in idle moments, whether the vaguterus was an intentional or accidental inclusion. But intent is ultimately irrelevant. The vaguterus is, and it is the essential tension between the empowerment and objectification of girlswomen who power lift. It is there as we silently count the number of times “pussy” and “little girl” are shouted at our friends as they try to pick up heavier and heavier things. It is there as we thank our breasts for shortening the distance between the beginning and end of a rep on the bench press. It is there as we swap war stories about titrating birth control to maximize performance at a meet and using Kegels and menstrual pads during heavy deadlifts to keep the platform dry.
There may come a day when we’ve figured out what to do about the problem of the female body as a power-lifting body: when to differentiate training programs from male-bodied lifting bodies, whether to redesign competition singlets with padding around the pelvic floor region, how to make weightlifting belts that respond to the narrower-waist-wider-hip proportionality of Y-chromosome-non-havers. But until then, the bicep-heart-vaguterus may not be the iconography we want, but it is the iconography we deserve. Perhaps it is best to simply stare intently into its depths, searching for answers to a question that can only be asked in a language we don’t yet possess, and imagine the vaguterus happy.
 Actual catcall directed at the author last year.
Julia Bursten is an assistant professor of philosophy, USAPL power lifter, lapsed yoga teacher, and sometime horse archer living in San Francisco, and she recently deadlifted twice her bodyweight. She was wearing a maxipad at the time.
3 thoughts on “On the Semiotics of the “I Bicep-Heart-Vaguterus GWPL” Shirt (Guest Post)”
Okay what is a horse archer? And I love this. . .
Maybe relevant to your guest post, Susan! You sit on a horse, holding a bow, and shoot arrows at targets. Every now and then you hit something. It is the most magical thing I’ve ever done.
Where do I do this thing?!!!!
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