You are correct to think that this poster shows a male rather than female body, and not a very sexy one at that. Created by the Parisian advertising agency Leg, it encourages French attendance at the upcoming summer Olympic Games in London by poking fun at the stereotypical British physique; this softly beer-gutted man is more likely to throw darts than a javelin. Here is another image from the recent campaign, which portrays a rotund Roman patriarch shooting pool:
These clever ads are targeted at a select train-boarding French audience—ABT confirms that none are on view within London itself—combining references to the antique foundations of the Olympic tradition and the collections at the British Museum with allusions to the legendary non-athleticism of the British population. Funny as these posters may be—and I like them a lot—they are obviously far from accurate, for the Brits are especially skilled in cycling and running this year, with many competitive athletes, including such women as Jessica Ennis and, I believe, Paula Radcliffe, on the current UK team.
‘Wait a minute,’ you might be asking yourself: ‘Given the diversity of the British population, why are white men exclusively subject to this ridicule? Isn’t it only fair to be inclusive, casting aspersions on men of colour and/or various women at the same time? Could this be yet another case of reverse racism or, even worse, political correctness? Oh the poor oppressed white man of the modern era,’ you sigh in disgust. [Aside: I actually doubt that any FFG fans would be so foolish, but I am in need of a straw reader so please indulge me for a moment]. All I would say to such a mythical response is: Wrong! First of all, racism is based on historical power dynamics, which cannot simply be ‘reversed’ in a superficial way. Secondly, I am baffled by the offhand use of the confusing term ‘political correctness.’ What is meant by it? It seems to be either an aggressive enforcement of ‘conservative correctness’ and conservative values, or else a way of saying ‘shut the fuck up as I refuse to think in general, and certainly not about the point you raise.’ Well, unfortunately I am a big fan of thinking. Here you should picture me adopting a pompous tone and mounting a podium [aside: no, not like that you dirty buggers]. The problem with stereotypes is not that they exist—of course they do—but that some groups are blessed with manifold options and others with few. How many differing images of white men in popular culture can you currently imagine? Now how many representations of Aboriginal peoples? About 10,000 versus 10? Yeah, that’s the problem. Such images impact how people live in the world, creating both possibilities and limitations; we do not think ‘freely’ per se but necessarily within the structures that enable thought, including language, images, and culturally mediated sensations.
It would furthermore be redundant, and thus far from amusing, to ridicule black or female athletes, highlighting stereotypes to cast doubt on their abilities. Such negative and narrow representations are already abundant and are too familiar to have any traction in an advertising campaign. It occurs to me that showing fluffy white boys as the norm in relation to the Olympics depends upon the structuring absence of the image of the ‘naturally’ fit black man, who beats whitey because of his racial advantage, one arising from an accident of birth rather than extensive training. At the same time, the references to pudgy Romans link white men with the supposed foundations of European civilization, indicating that the Leg advertising campaign is hardly entirely negative toward your average football thug. But I digress. Instead of pursuing the politics of whiteness, I must turn to the primary topic of concern, the sexualization of female athletes. An FFG reader recently asked me to blog about why serious female bodybuilders regularly pose in a sexy way, drawing attention to forms of femininity that suggest vulnerability and weakness, rather than hard-earned strength. Good question. Here goes: Despite all of that self-help clap-trap about the power of positive thinking, we do not and cannot simply choose who we are and what we will become. I say this without malice, as a sickeningly upbeat person blessed with loads of energy and visions of a happy future. Yet it is difficult to challenge norms, and not particularly effective or rewarding if everyone refuses to acknowledge those challenges. There remains little wiggle room for women in terms of representation. Just take a look around to see what I mean. North-American mass culture narrowly promotes images of women as malleable young things who always say go, and never say no. Those women who do not fit this category are either exceptions that prove the rule, or else older divas who somehow conform to that same ideal, clinging to it for their dear lives. One aspect of the European media that I have appreciated since landing in Rome over 50 days ago is its more respectful portrayal of older women: women who are not always slender and even have wrinkles around their eyes and mouths are still considered sexy. Do I like that? Hells yeah. Am I grasping at any straw, any slightly different image of a woman because they are so rare? Well, yeah. Back to female athletes: If these women want to be looked at and taken seriously, and obviously they do—this is not meant as a criticism for we do not exist without the visual recognition of an-other—they must adopt comprehensible poses. According to Professor Cahn at the University of Buffalo, female athletes inherently express strength and independence, qualities which are not traditionally feminine, leading them to be characterized as masculine and lesbian. Since women who play sports or bodybuild have little earning potential, many assert their femininity and embrace the media’s sexualization of their bodies, thereby obtaining exposure and endorsements. Women benefit financially from sexualization, making it difficult to resist.
What can be done to make this situation better? Here is my advice, which you can take or leave as you see fit: 1) be aware of the complex ways in which images signify. They do not powerfully force people to have eating disorders or body dysmorphia per se. But too much of the same thing can be overwhelming and limiting. That is why you could 2) respond to and support non-traditional images in any way you can, and 3) experiment with the creation of non-stereotypical representations, realizing that you cannot control what they will ultimately mean to a range of different audiences. Shout out to female power lifters or other athletes of any sexuality or gender who might like to try this approach, publishing the results on this site! I have engaged with all three responses, and will now share with you some of my efforts to create alternative views of the female body. As you probably know, for me the FFG project was an experiment in conformity to a feminine ideal, something that I had never deliberately pursued before. In 2011, I dieted, donned a bikini, and tried to walk like a girl. I also posed for many photographs, a practice analyzed more fully in the final chapter of my FFG book, which will be submitted to SUNY Press in a few months. Some of these images are typical and thus relatively uninteresting; they show me on-stage smiling, hand on hip, gut sucked in, and butt pushed out. Luckily I also had DAD, that fabulous artist and photographer, shoot other kinds of images of me as he saw fit, based on my trust in his skill and understanding of my project. Among the results is a picture of my veiny arm hovering over cooking food, emphasizing a non-sexualized part of my body instead of ‘the whole package.’ Take a look below to see pre-competition pictures that highlight material corporeality, revealing the disciplined practices that produced my body instead of offering up my on-stage image as some kind of mirage that could easily be maintained. I like DAD’s portrayals of me working out and learning how to pose, which often include my interlocutors, mostly women who helped me, taking away the usual false emphasis on individual achievement.
My delightful designer also took some shots of me essentially naked, while being ‘painted’ with tanning goop by G-Smash [now IFBB Pro G-Smash] and I include a few of the close-ups here. I considered posting some of the full-body photos but have decided against it, although I do not find them particularly sexual and enjoy their emphasis on community. Much to my delight, I look like ass in them, entirely drained of energy the night before the show. Still, given the wider world and my inability to control it, I have decided that I cannot make public in this venue such consumable portrayals of the female body, which would probably be appraised against the current fantasy ideals…or worse. Guess you cheap asses will just have to buy the book!