Let the invisible be visible: A Genderfluid Bodybuilder’s Manifesto in Hong Kong
Siufung Law (@siufung_law), Hong Kong
“97..! 98.. where is 98? 98! Please come back to the lineup!... 99! 100!...” The backstage lady relentlessly asked each athlete to queue up at the humid, sweaty, overcrowded backstage.
Women Bodybuilding was the first category of the professional league day, and fifteen muscular and hulky women, muscle-to-muscle, squeezed into the scant backstage area, waiting impatiently for their turns to show off their aura on stage. Embellished with stylistic and idiosyncratic bikinis and makeups, these women made their final polish by pumping their seasoned muscles, reps after reps, hoping to give an ineffaceable impression to the board of judges.
Siufung was number 99, and it was theiri professional debut in women’s bodybuilding. As there were too many people on one lineup, the women were divided into two separate lines to have their first appearance on stage. Siufung was dressed up no different than these muscular women: their tanned physique which showed the musculature of the body; the polished hair by a self-hired professional stylist; the shiny silver bracelets on both of their wrists; and the matching make-up with their lavender bikini to exhibit femininity beneath the hardcore muscles. Now, as they waited in line, Siufung examined these veteran women, sensing a familiar intensity of competition, tension and nervousness. Most of them looked restless, slightly agitated and grumpy. They furtively sized each other up, trying to measure their chance of winning. With their pumped muscles, Siufung looked relatively relaxed, as they stepped on the stage to flex their mandatory poses. Siufung’s bright smile outshined the competitors, and they brought the best conditioned package on stage, representing one of the few Asian women stepping onto the international professional platform in history.
Women Bodybuilding has been regarded by feminists as a sport that challenges the rigid assumptions of gender and body. Women bodybuilders are excellent examples of feminist realities, as they defy conventional notions of “muscles equate to men and masculinity”. By constructing their muscularity, these women redefine the meaning of muscles. “Muscles are genderless”, Siufung said in a media interview. “Men and women have the same muscle anatomy. It resists the stereotypical presumptions of muscles equal to men, and men only.”
Siufung was assigned female at birth. They identified as a lesbian when they was in high school. In Hong Kong, where there was a lack of sports culture and an obsession of academic excellence, their father, a Vice Principal of their school, held the belief that pursuing athletic performance would negatively impacted academic achievement. He also believed that many female athletes in all-girl schools were tomboys, trying to gain female attention by playing sports. Siufung was forbidden to play sports until they went to college. They joined the school’s cross-country and rowing team, and later became a member of the city’s Women Dragon Boat Team. Moving from one sport to another, Siufung finally found home in the sport of bodybuilding.
The fascination of women bodybuilding has inspired Siufung to attempt this interesting but contradicting sport: a sport that both conforms and resists gender hierarchies. Similar to most sports, the bodybuilding culture is largely male-dominated: most bodybuilding shows are promoted by male sponsors and judged by predominantly male officials to entertain male audiences. Women bodybuilders, in particular, are hugely marginalized within and outside the sport. While Women Bodybuilding were the first women category in bodybuilding contests, women bodybuilders are often considered too muscular and monstrous to be featured in fitness magazines. As a result, these women received much less publicity and sponsoring in the bodybuilding industry. New women categories such as Women Physique, Women Figure and Women Bikini were created in recent years which require more muscle toning and less muscularity. Women bodybuilders are further alienated by the bodybuilding community when Women Bodybuilding category was cancelled by the most prestige show The Olympia since 2015 and is only revived in 2020.
To bring back Women Bodybuilding to the average bodybuilding fans, women bodybuilders are repackaged to highlight their femininity alongside with their desires to be muscular.
Heightened femininity codes are observed not only in performing femininity on bodybuilding stage, but it has also extended to offstage mundaneness. On social media, it is not difficult to find women bodybuilders putting on heavy make-ups, wearing polished nails and feminine attires to highlight their femininity at the gym, as if this is to compensate the muscularity that has deemed their bodies “masculine”. While these women are considered resisting the gendered notions of masculinity and femininity by putting up tons of muscles onto their bodies, their heightened femininity nonetheless conforms to the stereotypical ideals of female.
A year before Siufung found their passion in bodybuilding, they realized their desire to be socially identified as a man, and came out as a transgender man in 2013. In the first year of training as a bodybuilder, Siufung did not think of competing on stage. As Siufung was and is still legally female, the mere thought of wearing a bikini on stage was horrifying to them, as they thought of bikini as feminine clothing. Struggling between their gender identity and the passion in bodybuilding, Siufung began pursuing academic research in transgender studies, in hope of finding a solution to their question: “To what extent can a person embody both gender identities within a body?”
It was no easy path to this difficult question. Siufung competed in their first bodybuilding show and won the overall champion in Open Women Physique division in 2015. In 2018, Siufung became an International Federation of Bodybuilding and Fitness professional female bodybuilder. The victory has led to Siufung’s new realization of their body: They did not only overcome the fear of wearing a bikini, but has also enjoyed performing femininity on stage.
Instead of confinement, bodybuilding has provided a platform to constantly learn and unlearn the gendered codes. They loves their femininity as much as their masculinity; and is wished to be identified both as a woman and a man, depending on the context; and they could no longer call themself as a transgender man.
Siufung’s unique experience defies the regulatory control over female bodybuilders in their heightened femininity codes. Their identification as genderfluid and non-binary has led to confusion within the bodybuilding communities, especially when Siufung appeared to be socially more masculine, although their experience has inspired female bodybuilders and transgender athletes to be brave to who they want to be. Meanwhile, Siufung’s persistence in living in their way has motivated meaningful discussions about participation of transgender people in bodybuilding. For instance, Siufung is the only genderfluid sports ambassador of Gay Games Hong Kong 2022, a 9-day international diversity festival with multi-sports, arts and culture events organised by LGBT+ community, hoping to bring a third gender category in bodybuilding and most of the sports. They is also a professional ambassador of Athlete Ally, aiming to end homophobia and transphobia in sports.
On the other hand, Siufung was determined to alter the existing transgender phenomenon in Hong Kong. In Hong Kong and most of the Asian countries, binary trans people dominate the transgender narratives. Binary trans people are those who would prefer surgical and hormonal alternations in order to “pass” in their preferred genderii. Local and national news often focus on reporting their difficulties in daily lives and the stigmatization they face, rendering non-binary trans people invisible. Siufung courageously accepted media interviews to speak for an alternative and advocate on the idea of gender fluidity since 2015iii. As a non-binary feminist, they advocated on the importance of transgender rights and raised social concern about gender equality (especially women equality) in sports. At the beginning, Siufung’s bikini images ignited discussion among local transgender communities, in particular, essentialist transgender people rejected Siufung as a member of the transgender family.
Gradually, when the local media embraced the notion of promoting gender diversity by reporting positively on Siufung’s story, Siufung was finally accepted as part of the LGBT+ community and is now respected as the pioneer of local genderfluid community.
The intersectionality of feminism is embodied in Siufung’s journey. Siufung represents feminist realities in both sports and transgender world. As a female bodybuilder, Siufung does not only exhibit a feminist perspective in deconstructing the hierarchy of gender and body, but they also resists conforming to heightened femininity codes in their social life. Their journey speaks for the possibility for women to embrace a wide spectrum of bodybuilding experiences. As a genderfluid advocate, Siufung destabilizes the binary gender assumptions of transgender subjectivities and provides an alternative gender embodiment that does not need one to choose one side of the gender dichotomy. Siufung’s story creates substantial and meaningful dialogues with both LGBT+ and sports world.
“Live out your true self”, an inked motto on Siufung’s body, shows that Siufung is a living example of how we can reimagine the boundless possibility of gender and sexuality.
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