I’ve been intrigued and inspired by those identities which defy conventions. Those pretty boys in tight jeans, those muscular girls with shaven heads, those individuals who think even being considered male or female is b*******. I have been focusing on fashion and clothing in relation to gender identity but the naked body is just as potent. In previous research I explored the physical and biological differences between men and women (here) as well as masculine and feminine “ideals” within mainstream visual media (here).
In short, men are tall, large, muscular, V shaped, strong, domineering and are often depicted wearing fitted suits whilst women are small, rounded, petite, soft, submissive and wear heels. These are the “norms” for men and women. However, men and women can easily express attributes we would usually associate with someone of the opposite sex thus, proving the “performative” nature and fluidity of gender. Gender is not fixed, rather free-floating.
For example, drag queens like RuPaul (here) through the additions of immaculate make-up, gracious gestures and killer heels can look every inch like the beautiful females which grace the covers of everyday women magazines. The act of drag shows how femininity has the capacity to be reduced to artificial parts: a look or item and makes a laugh at how fictictious hegemonic norms are. It says: “This is a man with a penis in make-up and heels who is so much more feminine then you!” However, the drag appearance relies heavily on imitation and artificial modifications like clothing and wigs. Female body builders on the other hand, who also challenge the gender binary similarly to drag queens, rely on their naked body as opposed to items. However, years of training and diet may be considered modifications. Nonetheless, the appearance of a female body builder attests to the idea that the naked human body itself can express or challenge the gender binary. Thus, the naked body, without dress or clothing, can be an object of construction and tool for gender-bending. Something I may want to keep in mind when photographing my very own gender-benders!
Naked or semi-naked bodies that break with cultural conventions, especially conventions of gender, are potentially subversive and treated with hostility. Competitive female body builders are frequently seen as “monstrous” or “masculine”, as their muscles challenge deeply held cultural assumptions and beg the questions: “What is a woman’s body? Is there a point at which a woman’s body becomes something else?”
Photographer Martin Schoeller’s series entitled, “Female Body Builders” captures every ripple of the world’s strongest women. The female body builders show off their incredible physiques which challenge not only the binary nature of gender but what it means to be a woman. Visual media has for a long time bombarded us with one narrow minded image of an “ideal” woman: white, thin, beautiful and submissive. However, with images like Schoeller’s it proves that in reality this “ideal” is completely ridiculous but what’s more that women are a force not to be reckoned with!
These images exude strength and power, breaking away from the usual images of women within visual media. It is refreshing and intriguingly enticing. These women are strong, muscular with domineering qualities usually associated to men: big rippled muscles and large frames. However, elements of femininity still exude and Schoeller’s stays true to the rules of this regimented world. Female competitors must wear a two-piece costume when competing and although prints, fringes, lace and sparkle are all allowed, bodybuilders are restricted from hiking up the suits to better show off their physiques.
Jewellery is banned until the final stages when earrings are permitted- although decorative hair pieces are out. Glasses, props or chewing gum are also prohibited.
Schoeller said of his work: ‘I am trying to show the vulnerability that I see and feel in the subjects when I am with them, to get to the complex emotions behind a mask of extreme physical expression. ‘This statement resonated with me in relation to my own project. Trans* individuals have to go through so many trials and tribulations, despite their successes; they remain vulnerable individuals as they are still on the cusp of “normal” society similarly to female body builders. They are challenging society’s expectations and “ideals”; they are pushing the gender binary and are beautiful in doing this.
I particularly like “Female Body Builders” not only because it highlights the fluidity of gender and a social minority that is often unseen but because of its silence. Whilst the women captured appear strong, powerful and masculine, unlike the usual representations of women in other visual media, they are captured in a straight forward and gentle way. This is them and this is how it is. There are no mimics or distractions. Schoeller has shot them very simply and a brute honesty and beauty exude as an outcome. I want to emulate such aspects within my own images. I want my subjects to appear somewhat vulnerable, not aggressive in order to get through to the audience the very essence of that individual being captured as opposed to their genitalia or gender. I think what could have made Schoeller’s images even more poignant would have been if the female body builders were looking away from the camera. By acknowledging the camera I’m unsure as to whether the women are being empowered or aggressive. When photographing my subjects I want them to mainly look off camera to reinforce their identity as natural, to give off a sort of “so what” attitude.
White Zine (15th March 2012) Martin Schoeller Female Body Builder [online] available from<http://www.whitezine.com/en/photography/martin-schoeller-female-body-builder.html> (5th May 2014)
Mail Online (5th March 2012) Talk about flex appeal! Incredible pictures capture every ripple of the world’s strongest women as female bodybuilders show the extraordinary results of years sculpting the ‘perfect’ physique[online] available from<http://www.dailymail.co.uk/news/article-2110301/Female-bodybuilders-captured-photographer-Martin-Schoeller-results-years-sculpting-perfect-physique.html#ixzz33bZhyGE2> (5th May 2014)