Martin Schoeller‘s larger-than-life female bodybuilder photos have been exhibited in art galleries and featured in fine arts magazines. They feature women in two-piece body-building costumes from the waist up, under bright lights that invite scrutiny to their muscles and faces. But Schoeller’s point isn’t just to show off their bodies; he wants to analyze our culture’s obsession with being big and setting outsized beauty ideals for women. But the Daily Mail, true to form, treats the women more like a circus act than art.
Schoeller first started the female bodybuilders series to explore why the women would go to such extremes with their bodies. In Pond Press’ description of the photos, they use Schoeller’s words:
“with Female Bodybuilders, I am trying to show the vulnerability that I see and feel in the subjects when I am with them, to get to the complex emotions behind a mask of extreme physical expression. These women mirror our modern cultural hunger for size, aggression, and attention at any cost. We are in the age of Bigness.”
But the Daily Mail‘s reaction to the photos is mostly to gawk at their bodies and discuss their extreme regimens. Just look at their headline:
Talk about flex appeal! Incredible pictures capture every ripple of the world’s strongest women as female bodybuilders show the extraordinary results of years sculpting the ‘perfect’ physique
Their article mostly outlines what female bodybuilders have to do to compete, focusing on their physiques with a couple of quotes from Schoeller about how the women look—they completely omit any discussion of what the portraits say about society or culture at large.
But then Schoeller himself is a fashion photographer famous for his portraits of celebrities, so he’s hardly unaware of how to exploit subjects to get attention. But at least he’s starting a conversation about what that all means:
…they challenge the boundaries of not only the shifting, maddening, and ruthless standards of the female beauty industry, but of what consitutes ‘(un)natural.
Photos like Schoeller’s can be empowering—for the women in the photos, as well as those who view them—but without any conversation about what the photos say about our bodies or culture, they’re not.