What Happened in Vegas #1: Gender Dynamics at the Olympia

I am writing this blog in Las Vegas, where I am attending the Olympia Weekend 2010.  Obviously this is a serious research trip for Feminist Figure Girl. I am here with G-Smash, a heavyweight bodybuilder planning to network, and my partner, an enthusiastic poker player who has never been happier. He is able to play in tournaments to his heart’s content, knowing that I will be drinking free vodka sodas at the Alligator bar with G instead of resentfully crying into my pillow back in the hotel room. Ha. Like I have ever done that in my life! Immediately after arriving yesterday, we headed outside to drink cans of Bud Light while swimming in the hotel pool. Fuckin’ A!

The Olympia events started that first night, with G and I taxiing it to the Orleans to ‘meet the athletes’ (my partner went somewhere else, wearing sunglasses and a baseball hat).  At the Orleans, all the competitors were sitting behind tables laden with photographs and posters, alternately signing autographs and standing up to pose for pictures with various devotees and wanabees. Was I one of them? Hell yes. The social event was very crowded, with what seemed like hundreds of people lined up to see Jay Cutler, Mr. Olympia 2009. He did not interest me, though I like his frosted blonde fauxhawk. I like it even more on his poseable action doll, which includes an alternate hairstyle as an accessory (Word of advice to children of the 1970s: do not try to stretch its arms like pull taffy; they will break). I rushed to see my idol, Iris Kyle, Ms. Olympia five (and now six) times running. An image of her back hangs over the desk in my home office, each huge and well proportioned muscle clearly delineated from the other. Strangely there was no one in front of Iris’ table at the Orleans. We walked right up, blurted out awkward statements of our love for her, and then grinned crazily while standing beside her for photos.  I wish I could include some shots—those who know me can check them out on facebook—but at least I have pasted below an image of her on stage during prejudging, so that you can see her wonderfulness for yourself.

Why weren’t throngs of admirers desperate to worship her along with Jay and the other gigantic men? We all know that male bodybuilding has always received more attention than female bodybuilding, with men promoted and funded to a degree rarely experienced by female athletes. But does this bias occur even at the elite level of the Olympia, the World Cup of bodybuilding? The short answer is yes. Consider the prize packages; the winner of the Mr. Olympia received $200,000 whereas Iris got a mere $28,000 pay out for her performance. She and the other female competitors take a back seat to the men. Just look at the cover of the calendar of the Olympia events—the same image used on the promotional poster. The men are pictured in the foreground, in colour, posing and grimacing. And bald. Except for the more handsome and spotlit Mr. Cutler. Four female figures, representing the bikini, figure, fitness and bodybuilding contests, are placed literally behind the men. In keeping with the hierarchical message, the women are much smaller than the men by about half. In washed out black and white, these figures are hard to notice, and at first glance I thought that there were no women at all on the cover photo. Except for Iris—who looks diminutive compared to other photos of her that I have seen—these women do not pose. They are not active, and do not look particularly hard or tight. The message is clear: the female athletes are both secondary and decorative, to be noticed only as a kind of visual distraction from the main he-hulk event.

But that is just a photo, you non-art historians and pop culture buffs might be thinking. Don’t make such a big deal out of it. All I can say is: Wrong. Photos are everything in bodybuilding. It is not possible to have a bodybuilding career, or for the fitness industry to exist, without photography. Consider the role of photos at the meet the Olympians event. Each participant was positioned behind official images of him or herself in top condition, on stage, or in the studio, well lit, defined, potentially even air brushed. These images are primary, dictating how to see the body behind the table, a body that in person may well look smaller, shorter, softer. These images show the reality of the body, a reality that is more important than the actual living body of the competitor, especially if he or she is off-season. Unlike the more reliable photograph, this living body is not frozen in time; it is unstable, liable to suffer injury, or become puffy in reaction to new supplements or a sodium binge. To a large degree, bodybuilding is fundamentally about representation. Photos are key to every stage of training and preparation, with coaches and others examining them, looking for improvement, scrutinizing them for strengths and weaknesses. Photos show things that the naked eye cannot see. Photos fix and capture an impossibly built body. They preserve this body, producing a permanent record that is both more marketable and more desirable to many than is the actual athlete.

It should not have been surprising for me to discover that photographers play a huge role in the fitness industry, and I met a few of them in the Orleans bar after the events. Some were professional and charming; others seemed a little pervy. All were male. None were bodybuilders themselves, or into fitness, at least not in terms of its practice. I am still not sure what to make of this. On one hand these photographers flatter, desire, and support dedicated women with biceps that are much larger than theirs. On the other hand, the snap-happy men potentially objectify these women, and direct the perception of female bodybuilding. Male photographers shape its image, deciding which women are worthy, which ones to highlight, as much as or even more than the judges at competitions. I stood back at the Orleans bar like a kind of ethnographer, observing the wacky master-slave dynamic between skinny-fat male photographers and built female flesh unfolding before me. Though I deliberately positioned myself as an outsider I had to wonder, what is my role here? Am I an enabler, a supporter, or just another exploiter?

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About feministfiguregirl

I am a 51-year-old professor named Lianne McTavish who receives as much satisfaction from working out at the gym as from publishing my academic research. About eight years ago, I decided to combine my two primary identities (scholar/gym rat) to create "Feminist Figure Girl," a fictional character who both analyzes and participates in bodybuilding. I competed in my first figure show in June of 2011, and then wrote a book inspired by the process, published by SUNY Press in February 2015. In this blog I will write about and consider my ongoing research on the body, while regularly making fun of myself. I recommend that you start reading my first post from August 2010 (available on the home page), instead of backwards from the most recent one, in order to get the full FFG effect.

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