Form and Function and Sex: The Killer Butt
Women’s bodies occupy a strange cross-section of form and function in the world of athletics. This is not to say that male bodies do not hold complex positions as well, but for many reasons the female form – due to its “natural” softness appealing to femininity and musculature of athleticism “naturally” signaling masculinity, leaving a razor-thin line between an athletic female body and a masculine female body – gets caught in the turbulent waters of looking good while performing well.
Anyone who has followed my blog for a while (or who knows me personally) has come in contact with my own difficulties with how my body looks in contrast to what it does. In the US I worked in a bar, which is a sexual space, and I received a lot of comments from both men and women regarding the look of my arms. Women were enthusiastically asking me what I do to make them look like that in an inspired sense, and men often assumed I spent hours in the gym trying to get that look and therefore must be looking for comments regarding their particular aesthetic. I was caught off guard by both sides because my body looks the way it does because of what I use it for, so the function of my muscles is what concerns me and the assumption that I spend a lot of conscious effort sculpting out their particular shape wasn’t one I could really speak to. Now, in Thailand, when a rival coach makes a big to-do about how strong I look (and therefore must be “too big” for his fighter) or the gamblers want to squeeze my arms to determine how much they’re going to bet on me it feels pretty well in context to how form and function come together in my intentions.
The other day I came across this article, written by Roxy Richardson on her blog that is described as covering “Muay Thai. Wellness. Fitness.” In the article, “6 Sprint Workouts to Help You Burn Fat & Firm Your Boot-ay” [edit: link now broken] Roxy extols the virtues of High Intensity Interval Training (HITT), which is a big buzz word in the Crossfit lexicon. Basically, short bursts of high intensity cardio burn more fat than long, steady stretches of cardio. “Also,” she adds, “sprinting gives you a killer butt.”
If you read through the article it is very informal and probably intended to be a little tongue-in-cheek, motivating women (primarily) to use these exercises to get the kind of body that will make them feel sexy and confident. The intended audience is likely L.A. clients who are looking to work out for weight loss, health, wellness and confidence, all of which are wonderful reasons to work out and looking hot is a good way to motivate people. In short, Roxy is not writing an article for performance athletes who might happen to want to shape up their glutes. What bothered me – greatly – was that Roxy decided to use two images of high performance athletes to illustrate the difference between long, steady cardio and HITT tactics. Namely, she used the women’s world-record holder in the marathon Paula Radcliff as the distance runner and 100 and 200 meter runner Ivet Lalova as the sprinter. That’s fine, but she used the images of these athletes bodies in comparison to one another as final results of these tactics with the question: “Which butt do you want????”
I am offended by the comparison of these two women’s bodies to illustrate how one is aesthetically superior to the other when these women, as high performance Olympic athletes look the way they do because of their dedication to the passions which drive them. The countless hours that both women have spent on the track, on the road, in the rain, at the expense of an in incredible number of sacrifices and the unquantifiable joy and self-love that comes from pursuing these passions has absolutely nothing to do with whether or not their butts will look good. They’re not fitness models, their end goal is not how well their asses round out for a camera.
This is not to say that it’s bad, or even uncommon, to look at athletic bodies for motivation. Obviously this is what Roxy intended with her post and it is very likely that women look at images of women’s bodies for motivation toward non-world-record-breaking goals. But it’s an offensive way to motivate, especially with the follow up line:
Look at the butt on the right it’s like 100 times more awesome than the one one the left! By the way, it was REALLY hard to find a picture of a marathon runner’s butt, even from this side angle. Something tells me they are not trying to advertise their ASSets (sorry I couldn’t help myself).
Again, I know Roxy is being cute (or something) here, but maybe the reason it’s hard to Google a picture of Paula Radcliff’s butt is because she’s an internationally recognized top-level athlete who is renowned for her many accomplishments as a runner. When I entered her name into a Pinterest search, for example, four images showed up (three, actually, as one was a duplicate). On the left is a Nike ad depicting Radcliff running, in full form. The second is of Radcliff holding her daughter at the end of a 10k race which she just completed while pregnant. One comment under a photo from a Pinterest user read, “I cry every time I see Paula Radcliff run.”
I used Pinterest as my search tool for a reason. When I first became incensed by Roxy’s choice to use those images in her blog post I was reminded of other times I get incensed by the use of athletic female bodies as motivation with a strong undercurrent of look-at-that-ass and it happens a lot on Pinterest. The platform of Pinterest is, quite notably, heavily used by women. (As of June of this year 80% of Pinterest users were women.) This is worth noting because all images are either “pinned” (sourced from the internet) from other sites or uploaded by users. So, if I’m seeing a bunch of photos of women’s super-fit butts it’s because women are putting them on the platform as their motivation.
Pinspiration and Perspiration
If you go to the “Health and Fitness” filter on Pinterest you’ll be taken to a page that is a few non-image cells with motivational words on them scattered between dozens of images of fitness model bodies kind of stretching or posing with words overlaying them to the affect of “Strong is the new skinny,” (what the hell is that?!) and “This is why I wake up at 6 AM” and things like this. I scrolled down twice in order to find these images (there are no first and second “pages” on Pinterest the way there might be on a Google search) so all these are within the first 100 images:
And in order to show contrast between how women’s bodies are depicted in order to motivate versus how male bodies are used, I include here an image from the same search and indeed from the same style of listing (the reason with a motivational phrase) showing why men run. Astoundingly, it’s not to shun the body nature (genes) gave him or to release stress, or even to excite sexual viewership, but rather it’s to run, you know, as a function of athleticism:
The men are covered nearly head to toe – this is not a body ogling motivator. The only other images of men I saw on the first search were big, muscled trainers aiding women through a weight-lifting exercise. But I need to say something here before I come off as being critical of motivations: exercise relieves stress, it changes how your body looks, it makes you feel good and it’s awesome to have a body that you want to stare at in the mirror and show off to other people. All of these motivations are legitimate and I’m not dismissing any of them. And again, the images on Pinterest are chosen and disseminated largely by women, so this is what motivates those women – very normal women. So Roxy Richardson writing about how to get a great looking butt is speaking to the ears of women who are listening for this kind of motivation. What I’m trying to pick at here is the complicated – and at times unfortunate – ways in which the athletic female body is used to express these messages.
I don’t get inspired by these pictures. I find the bodies attractive and beautiful and I applaud the effort that goes into disciplining them to look that way. I absolutely care about the way my body looks – when I watch my fight video and my shorts make me look short or fat or whatever they get stricken from the list of optional fight shorts. I’m not one of these, “my body is a temple” folks and while I very truly mean it when I say that my body looks the way it does because of what I do with it, I am also happy that it looks this way. Living in Thailand, the female aesthetic is definitely not the hard bodied athletic type but is rather the thin, willowy soft type. My muscled arms do not go unnoticed – ever – and my muscled shoulders don’t fit into clothes that are otherwise made for my smaller frame; at times I am incredibly self-conscious about it. But my passion for Muay Thai, my love for it and the stamp it leaves on my body – the fact that people stare at my muscles but know immediately that I am a boxer – make me love those same things.
What motivates me are women like fighter Amy “‘Lil Dynamite” Davis (above), who is proud of how hard she works and works hard enough that you she will never have someone ask her “do you work out?” You won’t see pictures of Amy in lip-gloss gently pretending to hit a bag for a glamor picture showing that she’s beautiful and she fights – there aren’t photos of her wearing a dress and heels with boxing gloves kind of somewhere near her to indicate that she’s somehow associated with fighting – she’s an athlete who puts up pictures of herself being an athlete. Her beauty and sexiness is not in contrast to her athleticism but is right there in context with it. Every strength is visible.
Gina Carano is a perfect example of how female athletes can be separated from their performance or order to fill the “sexy,” motivational roll. To be perfectly fair this (below) is from a photo-shoot for a men’s magazine and the intended audience is the “male gaze.” But having Gina Carano who is a skilled and accomplished fighter who helped bring female MMA to the stage lying supine on the mat in a wet T-shirt is to me far less inspiring, sexy, or motivational than an image of her actually doing her sport.
What bothered me about Roxy Richardson’s blog post was not that she’s trying to inspire women to work hard, to work a certain way or even to work in order to look a certain way. What bothered me was her use of top-level female athletes’ bodies in contrast to one another with the take away message that the value of these two women’s bodies is an assessment of whose butt looks better rather than that both bodies are a result of incredible determination. Again, I know that her readers are not looking to be world-record breaking athletes in distance running versus sprinting, they probably just want to look good in jeans. But I know that Roxy knows what real athletic passion is and it saddens me that the form her motivational writing took was what you see above rather than what she has to offer from her personal experience as Muay Thai fighter, as written on her blog below:
From Roxy’s Blog: What I love About Muay Thai and Hope Will Never Change
Muay Thai challenges me to be a better person. Getting good at Muay Thai is not easy. The hours of training, bumps, bruises and sacrifices are just the beginning. What takes real strength is the ability to take ownership of all your weaknesses and channel them into strengths. Anyone can lie to themselves and tell themselves they are good enough at something. In many other hobbies and occupations you can go your whole life and never have anyone really challenge you to do better. [emphasis mine] … Through training and fighting I have had to look deep within myself at what I fear and what I lack, and find out what I’m really made of. Muay Thai taught me that I always have more inside of me; more strength, more power, more speed, more skill. I just have to believe it, train for it and want it badly enough. I never knew what I was truly capable of until Muay Thai challenged me to find out.
To finish I’ll include a quote from Roxy’s “favorite quotes” on her Facebook page, which encourages those seeking a fit appearance to follow suit of performance athletes.
Your appearance when fit is almost entirely a function of your genetics, which are expressed at their best only when training is at its highest level, and the [highest] level is only obtainable from a program based on an improvement in your performance in the gym or on the field. And the best improvements in the gym occur when participating in a program that looks more like performance athletics– the kind of training done by competitive athletes – than one that looks like waving your arms and legs around on a machine or slowly rolling around on the floor. – Mark Rippetoe
Surely this is what message Roxy intended to convey to her readers, that in order to get a “great butt” one should train like performance athlete Ivet Lalova. What was not intended – I hope – was the secondary message that the body resulting from a different form of high performance athletics is of less value because it doesn’t fill out a pair of Daisy Dukes. Hopefully women will find motivation in pushing toward improvement of athletic ability and take joy and satisfaction in the forms which come from the function of their performances.