It has been a long haul for this assignment as I have suffered from lack of motivation and any desire to complete the task in hand. I admit that I have not been clear enough in deciding which aspect to cover, mirror or window, and actually I feel that I am not any nearer as I complete the shooting for the assignment at this stage. I had to start it early and started shooting a series of images in late September after my initial thoughts. It was always going to be gym based because that is what I do with a lot of my time, but there was an opportunity to see a different side to one aspect of training in the gym. I go to a Pilates class regularly and the instructor competes in bodybuilding competitions, and in 2017 was the current holder of the trophy for her class for the British National Bodybuilding Federation, Masters Physique category. At the qualifier for the finals, she came in 3rd place. She also competed for the Natural Physique Association, winning the Masters Physique for the qualifying round and went on to come third in the national championship. I went to watch both shows and took cameras with me as I was aware that this was a once a year opportunity and if I decided to go forward with this then I needed action shots on stage. I went to the first show on my own and it was a massive culture shock to me. It was loud, noisy and bright. The audience were encouraged to support their family or friends competing by clapping, whistling, shouting out and cheering. Then there are the tans and the outfits. The deep fake tan varied between competitors from deep and even to patchy and streaky, while one man had done his whole body except for his face. His pale skin and blond hair looked odd on top of a deeply tanned body. Even competitors with black skins put on fake tan to enhance the definition in the muscles. The female competitors reminded me of the child beauty pageants that you see in America, with the tan, the nails, the hair and the sparkle. The men were all about show of strength so that when it came to them using extra time to have a ‘pose down’, there was loud music and they all clustered at the front of the stage by the judges in a competitive manner, jostling for the best position. Meanwhile, the same request of the females meant that they shuffled awkwardly a little then struck more feminine poses and smiled brightly. An interesting observation.
I was surprised by my reaction to the show. There are two parts to each competition: the compulsory posing section where they go through a range of poses, seen from all sides so that the muscles definition can be seen clearly. There can be several rounds of this as they move competitors around in order for the judges to see all of them. The second section is the routine. It depends on the federation as to what they do, and how they judge it. There is a definite difference for male and female competitors. At the BNBF, the females had to do a T-walk: enter the stage in the middle at the back, walk forward then go left and back, right and back to the middle, all set to music. In high heels. Part of the judging is on how elegantly they complete this walk and is in addition to the posing at each stop. Males do a routine of their choice of poses to music, and can come on and go off stage in any manner. It seemed rather sexist to insist on the females wearing high heels and judging them on elegance. It reinforced the stereotypical response of female bodybuilders having to be feminine as well as well defined. One of the rules can be that women are required to be muscular, lean and hard yet feminine, attractive and ‘soft’. Therefore they have to be both ‘athlete’ and ‘woman’, whereas it appears that males only have to be athletes. This was stated by B.Christine Shea in the paper The Paradox of Pumping Iron: Female Bodybuilding as Resistance and Compliance. The constant display of muscles became overwhelming at times, and the jockeying for position among the male competitors on ‘pose down’ more amusing as they pulled faces along with poses. The females in comparison showed each other respect and space but that in itself made me think that they were taking it all very seriously, perhaps a little too seriously. I don’t really know how it would be possible to level the field and make male and female competitions more universal.
I had several conversations with Kelley about her motivations for doing bodybuilding which is an extension of the kind of gym programme that I follow myself, albeit to an extreme extent. She is very driven to succeed and her life focusses on the outcome which is placing in the top three of the heats and then going on to compete in the final with a view to winning. The diet seems to be the overriding factor in her training as she carefully control her intake to maximise the good food to fuel her exercise. She trains with heavy weights and does a lot of cardiovascular work such as steady state workout on a treadmill for 30 minutes or more. Diet is paramount and if she succumbs to a craving for something not on her plan, that can affect her attitude to how well she is doing. While she is very proud of her achievements, there is also a reluctance to relax and switch off after the show in case she loses her physique. It appears to be a double edged sword. I admit that I was fascinated by what makes people do this sort of thing and imagined that it requires a lot of confidence to get up on stage wearing very little. My perception was of very muscled women to the point that they are more like men, and that is where I think I followed a ‘safe’ path in choosing to focus on Kelley who competes in a Physique class rather than heavyweight classes. At both shows that I attended, there were a lot of male competitors and after a while I became detached from the people that they could be and saw only the time spent training in the gym, eating different diets to their families and practising aggressive poses. This is not something that will make them money, it is something that they do outside of work and families. But then again, is it any different to other pastimes that require a lot of time and energy to do it to competitive levels? It does seem an extreme way to control your body.
I am glad to be moving on now and away from this as I have been thinking about it and living with it for months now. I am not going down the route of bodybuilding as I like my food too much and I don’t like routine so it really isn’t for me, but I have admiration for those who do commit time and effort to do it and for getting up on a stage and showing off the months of hard work. No different to an Olympic athlete or professional cyclist say, although without the same recognition.