A few days ago, I shared a link to an article written about the “Cyclepassion 2015” calendar on my Facebook page. I figured it would stir up some controversy- and indeed it did. It interests me that so many people, both men and women, immediately default to the “objectification of women” and “sexy photos are demeaning” opinions when faced with a bold picture of a beautiful female body. With the rise of attention to women’s equality in “extreme” sports, such as mountain biking and skiing, also comes the rise of many opinions regarding various aspects of women in sport. The strong opinion of many that female athletes should only be portrayed and celebrated while displaying their athletic prowess has become a hot topic of late.
From what I've seen and heard, my opinion is different than most. I agree that many women are not given enough credit for their athleticism, and that inequality in women's sports is still a major problem that we all need to rise above and remedy. But I think the overwhelming negativity towards non-sport photography of female athletes has gone a little too far.
My thought on the objectification of female athletes is: It’s only as “objectifying” as YOU want it to be. By you, I mean you the model, you the photographer, you the viewer, you the thinker of thoughts. Personally? I LOVE the human body, female or male. I think it is fascinating, incredible, and beautiful. I think it is capable of amazing feats of power and grace, especially when well-nourished and well-cared for by an equally as fascinating and beautiful mind and soul. I think the human body and its qualities is not shameful and should be celebrated, not hidden. I, like everyone else, have my opinions and preferences about how this “should” be done, but when it comes down to it, it’s all just opinions and preferences. One person may not be comfortable with seeing or being part of an artistic painting that even insinuates a nude person. Another person may be completely comfortable with blatantly sexual images. Most of us likely fall somewhere in the middle.
For all of you athletic women (and there are SO many of you) who think that any portrayal of a female athlete doing anything that might showcase her body instead of her skills in playing her sport is objectifying, consider this: What if the model, or the photographer, or the viewer, takes part in it or views it with the intention of celebrating the beauty, strength, and power of the human body? Especially a body of a person who cares for him/herself and values health and wellness? Also, consider this: Would it still be seen as negative and objectifying if the woman in the picture was anything but a professional athlete? If she was a “regular,” strong and beautiful woman, would it still be seen as objectification?
In my mid-twenties, I posed as a model for a few different artist photographers. Yes, I was nude for the majority of the photos. I didn’t feel exploited or demeaned at all; the photographers I worked with portrayed a very respectful admiration of the human body. Why did I do it? Not because I needed money. Not because I was a professional athlete seeking exposure or sponsorship (I was not a professional athlete at the time- not even close). Not because I wanted to seem appealing to men or use it to validate my “sexiness.” I did it because I was proud of my body; not because of the way I looked, but because of the way that I value and care for my health. I felt healthy, whole, strong, and beautiful- and yes, sexy. I didn’t do it because I wanted or needed to feel these things. I did it because I already felt them. To me, sexiness is about your attitude and your presence in the world, whether you’re a man or a woman. It is living in respect for who you are by caring for your self and your life- and yes, that includes your body. It is having passion for what drives you and the confidence to pursue that passion, whether it is athletics, career, or raising your family. If you are a woman or a man who is psyched on your self and your life, even though you may not be perfect, you are going to look, feel, and exude sexy. And there is nothing “objectifying” about that.
So where do we draw the line? Is there a line to be drawn between what is considered celebrating the strength and beauty of athletic women, and what is considered objectification? Are there some works of art, photographs, or publications that are acceptable, and some that are not? I will argue that the line to be drawn is in your own mind. If you are the model or the photographer contemplating taking part in a project, what is your gut feeling about the theme of the project? Does it look and feel objectifying and demeaning to you, or does it look and feel like a celebration of feminine and masculine strength and beauty? What is your intention for taking part in the project, and do your actions align with your intentions? Are you comfortable with the way your actions will outwardly portray your intentions? Are you making your choices knowing the way you choose to portray yourself may affect other women in sport- notably the younger generation? Every athlete-model needs to have awareness of her own boundaries, and the integrity to uphold them.
If you are the viewer, what are your thoughts and where do they come from? What parts of your life have a profound impact on your opinions? How open is your own mind to perspectives different from yours? How does your relationship with your own body feel to you, and how does that relationship appear from the outside?
I challenge you to challenge your own opinions and assumptions. I challenge you, when viewing a project that portrays the stripped-down side of a woman who has made a very public commitment to exemplary health and wellness, to not let your minds immediately jump to the conclusion of “that woman is allowing herself to be objectified” or “that woman is making it okay to be demeaning towards all women” or “that woman is trying to get ahead in life by taking advantage of her looks.” Take a step back, and consider the possibility that maybe, just maybe, the woman has chosen to participate in this project because she is not ashamed of her body, because she is proud of the lifestyle she has chosen, because she sees the human form as a beautiful work of art. Consider the possibility that what the woman is showing you in her photograph is exactly where she has chosen to draw the line for herself and what she is comfortable portraying. Consider how or if your thoughts might be different if the person in the picture was a man. Would it still be demeaning?
I am not intent on changing anyone’s opinion. I am simply suggesting that there may be another way. The same photo will mean something different to each pair of eyes. I am not sure what the “right” answer is, or even if there is one. But I do know this: assumptions can be dangerous. They can ruin relationships and reputations. We cannot pretend to know another’s intentions; we can only assume based on their actions. But we also must keep in mind that our assumptions are in part based on our own personal experience, and that they are just that- assumptions. Interpretations. Opinions. We all have them, each one of us, often as intimate and personal as our own life experiences. But let’s not forget that our opinions are not absolute truth. Maybe the female athletes who are posing in “sexy” photos are “letting” themselves be objectified. Maybe they are “selling” themselves based on sex. But maybe- just maybe- they aren’t. Perhaps it is all in the perception, and perspective, that lives in your head.
"What spirit is so empty and blind, that it cannot recognize the fact that the foot is more noble than the shoe, and skin more beautiful that the garment with which it is clothed?" ~Michelangelo