Thu. Apr 25th, 2024

We chat to co-directors Celia Croft and Kate Kidney-Bishop about gender norms, thrashing stereotypes and the intriguing world of muscle athletes.

Bodybuilding has long been a typically male-dominated sport. Historically, it would have been a taboo for women to compete as a bodybuilder, with the first (and eagerly awaited) legitimate competition taking place in Canton, Ohio in 1978. In 1980, female bodybuilding competitions were sanctioned and named by the National Physique Committee; Ms. Olympia made its debut the same year while, in comparison, Mr. Olympia had been running since 1963. It’s this very topic that’s now explored in a new publication released by Cherryboy, a publisher and studio founded by Phia Bowden. Titled Core, the book – co-directed by photographer Celia Croft and stylist Kate Kidney-Bishop – presents a series of vibrant and empowering imagery that follows female muscle athletes who are competing in divisions such as bikini girls, figure models, physique and bodybuilding.

“I’ve always been interested in these counter cultures around the UK, especially ones which are women-oriented,” Celia tells It’s Nice That. Born in Kent, Celia met Kate around four years ago – Kate’s originally from Sydney and moved to London aged ten. It was a partnership of fate and alignment, where the duo’s shared interests and goals matched succinctly in unison. Celia, for instance, has always been fascinated by car girls who go to “car meets”, she says, and pageants where Miss Faversham and Miss Sittingbourne would “go around our town on a float waving at everyone”. Kate, on the other hand, studied figure skating as a form of performance art during her dissertation and final degree piece. “I got to know different figure skaters from different countries and backgrounds and listen to their experiences,” she explains. “I was looking at how figure skating is a sport that has gender bending characteristics and the potential to be a gender fluid sport, but remains so disciplined by binaries and tradition.” This sparked an interest in other sports of a similar vein, especially those where athletes are pushing against gender norms and constructs “and making something new of them”.

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This is where bodybuilding comes into play. Intrigued by the ways in which female athletes are striving to combat traditional gender norms “in the extreme”, she adds, Kate kickstarted the shoot and asked Celia to photograph it. “We needed to do a series to sufficiently capture the world.” As a result, the pair reached out to women on bodybuilding Facebook groups across the UK in order to locate their subjects – these groups allows women to source competitions, ask questions, advice and generally build a sense of community. “It’s quite a tight knit community and, most of the time, the women we were shooting all knew each other from competitions or online,” says Celia. One of the bodybuilders named Louise Plumb, for example, put the pair in touch with her friends who they continued to work with on the project.

The finished outcome is a wonderfully positive survey of muscle builders, documenting those who compete in various divisions for different body types in sepia tones and considered (almost theatrical) lighting. Vicci Lee, who features on the cover, competed in Bikini Girl divisions: “She’’s a dancer and is muscular, but has a slimmer physique than someone like Louise Plumb, a bodybuilder with a much heavier form,” says Celia. “I find it fascinating how much autonomy one can have over their physique.” Many of the women have children and jobs outside of bodybuilding, so the sport is a pure extension of their passion and interests. “It has to be a lifestyle,” continues Celia, “because it takes a lot of consistent work throughout the year to be ready for a competition season.”

Other women include Louise, “a highly successful body builder and mother”, says Kate; Jemma, a figure girl early in her career; Justine, also a figure girl and mother; and Andrea, a figure girl with a full-time job. All of them are close friends. The determination and power of these women is unmissable. Through the book’s exposing and caring imagery, the audience bear witness to the sense of achievement they feel through their sport – and, more specifically, what it feels like to thrash gender stereotypes. “Our main goal is to capture this still relatively unknown word and how these women are courageous athletes,” says Kate. “We also want to try and create a discussion about making space or creating a genre of gender fluid sports.”

“The women we worked with seemed really happy that female bodybuilding was getting more interest from outside their community,” Celia concludes. “I guess we just wanted to celebrate these women and their autonomy over their bodies.”

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