Bodybuilding: Athletes to Objects

Pretty to Pageant

I invited Sabian Ransome to my studio immediately after her first competitive experience in the :”Bikini Fitness Division”, her spray tan was already starting to get patchy but her memories were fresh. I wanted to understand how the practice worked and what she had put into it.

The pageant: Athletes and judges...

The pageant: Athletes and judges…

I can’t help but see the sport as being yet another example of how medias portrayal of women as polished, perfected, sexualised objects has effects on what we choose to do with our own bodies and feelings of self identity which in turn we portray back to society.

I recently came across women’s bodybuilding here when I noticed two of my previous models from Playboy South Africa competing and posting pics to their Facebook pages. Both were at that stage competing in NABBA (National Amateur Body-Builders’ Association) competitions, and I stalked their backstage and onstage photos intrigued by how transformed they appeared from my own recent documentation of them both. I had not identified them with my notion of the practice and although my Amazonian-strong-women-in-mini-kinis image is outdated its not altogether lost in the world both Sabian and Alexis chose to compete in.

That pic I found on facebook: Sabian Ransome posing backstage with other competitor’s at NABBA 2013. Love the rollers!

That pic I found on facebook: Sabian Ransome posing backstage with other competitor’s at NABBA 2013. Love the rollers!

I would separate Bodybuilding into parts: there’s the ultra-dedicated body work, training and diet, then there’s how the contestants choose to present their bodies when on stage and lastly they are judged for how they look since it is a competition.

Sabian showing me "the moves" while I set up the studio for her portrait photo shoot.

Sabian showing me “the moves” while I set up the studio for her portrait photo shoot.

What is confusing is that it is not an athletic competition to watch since competitors present their bodies like objects on stage only. The competitors choose to present their bodies in an over-feminized way, yes this is my opinion and I wonder if it has to do with possibly counter balancing the masculinity perceived in muscularity? The onstage “look” these contestants simulate is definitely quite plasticised, that of a Barbie-doll in quite a few aspects. Anyhow, Sabian agreed to come in so that I could document the look in the  nondescrpit-ness of the studio environment. Below is an interview with her which I found insightful as well as the completed images I created from our meeting.

An Interview: Fitness Contestants first experiences

Sabian unpacked her competition costume from her Western Provence tog-bag and dressed  while chatting openly to me about her first experiences. I asked her to start by telling me about the preparation stages…

Sabian playing and posing before we start really shooting. I set up the studio environment to create a very classical portrait feel in the final pics.

Sabian playing and posing before we start really shooting. I set up the studio environment to create a very classical portrait feel in the final pics.

Before competing, I had no idea diuretics existed. Most of the competitors use them to completely dehydrate their bodies, making ones skin more taught, and providing for a ‘harder’, leaner look. Many competitors do a complete carbohydrate drop a few weeks before, and will carbo-load the day before they are on stage, this makes the muscles fuller and also provides for a ‘harder’ appearance. On the day “Spray ‘n Cook” provides the ultimate ‘beach glow’ and deep heat, Bar Ones and wine makes you more vascular.

How do you think competing with your body in fitness pageants will effect how people see you or treat you now?

Unfortunately there is an insane amount of pressure from the public (through praise) as well as individuals like my manager, to stay in ‘beach bikini shape’. I started to sound a lot like the girl with the eating problem that was self absorbed every time I went out. ‘Do you have fat free milk?’. ‘Please hold the burger bun, and I don’t want any chips.’ I didn’t like that, as it’s a far cry from who I am. 

 I started to find myself wanting to get leaner or more ripped, not because I wanted to feel good about my body, but because that’s the way I HAD too look. The obsession with ‘ticking all the boxes’ takes over, and you become pretty much indifferent to any compliments. Nothing anyone says can change the fact that you know you’re not lean or hard enough. You stop enjoying your body, and begin to live outside of it.

A portrait from our shoot together after Sabian completed her first competition.

A portrait from our shoot together after Sabian completed her first competition.

The bodily preparation through your diet of measured portions and fitness regime was extreme. It says a lot about both proving things,- to yourself or others I don’t know… I also find the juxtaposition between “contestants” at a “pageant” to fitness/sporting competition very unusual, what are your thoughts on this? Basically fitness presented as bedazzled…?

 The more bedazzled the more attention. I think one of the reasons for the ‘over doing’ is to have a more feminine appeal, in what is perceived to be very manly industry. Secondly, every athletes main intention is to stand out on stage. I myself have decided to go for a more ‘natural’ look next year (no padded bikini and a lot less sparkle). When I look at Images of myself on competition day, I’ll admit I think I look great, however, I don’t look like myself. I feel the sparkle detracts from what I have to show, and I feel I look too much like a Barbie, rather than a real person.

A portrait of Sabian Ransome documented during our interview in my studio.

A portrait of Sabian Ransome documented during our interview in my studio.

The irony is probably defined in this last statement Sabian made. When women compete on this athletic platform they transform themselves from athlete to object, this is how I see it. The outcome in this particular sub-culture (can I call it that?) is of a very visual nature and so its easy to correlate the over-feminized presentation style of bodybuilding competitors with mass-medias polished version of a “perfect” women.

The focus on women by mass media and the nature of the imagery has effects on how we present ourselves. For me, Sabians natural beauty, and there’s lots of it, is lost at the competition stage and I wanted to try to express this paradox in the portrait sitting I did with her in my studio.

I feel as if many actions around me by women are in fact just responses to recurrent sexualization of all things feminine. John Berger comes to mind while I was processing these ideas, he wrote that “men act and women appear. Men look at women. Women watch themselves being looked at. This determines not only most relations between men and women but also the relation of women to themselves”.

Sabian is currently in the second year of her Sports Science degree and is probably one of the most dedicated and passionate women in fitness that I know, Sabs, thank you for sharing your experience so openly and with your usual big beautiful smile!

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