Celia Croft’s “Unapologetic” Portraits of Female Bodybuilders

Pin It
Core by Kate Kidney Bishop and Celia Croft
Core by Kate Kidney Bishop and Celia Croft

As her debut photobook Core is released, London-based photographer Celia Croft talks about her subversive, empathetic ode to female bodybuilders

When you think of bodybuilding, female community might not be the first thing that comes to mind. But Core, the debut photobook from London-based photographer Celia Croft and art director Kate Kidney Bishop, is a joyful and empathetic ode to the sport and the unconventional women who love it. “The whole bodybuilding industry is about muscle, strength, power – and these women are redefining femininity and gender and finding a new space within that,” explains Bishop, who co-directed the series of shoots in 2021, following the women throughout the year.  

The book – a textured A4 paperback published by Cherryboy – depicts ten female muscle athletes across divisions, from bikini and figure to bodybuilding. Ages and body type range broadly; some sinewy, some purposefully bulky. The resulting 40 images make an unapologetic statement on physical female strength and femininity, while offering a glimpse of the competitors’ underlying solidarity. Some images depict women striking classic poses under a harsh tungsten light, all taut abs and oil-slicked quads. In others, bodies soft and backs to the camera, they take a selfie together bathed in pale light, or congregate relaxed and smiling on a studio bench. One close-up shows four intertwined sets of bronzed feet in crystal-embellished acrylic heels.

The book draws attention to opposition; the interior lives and exterior appearance of the competitors; not to mention the gendered nature of bodybuilding. An inherently performative activity, success in the sport is defined by ideals of femininity and masculinity. These are juxtapositions that are investigated sympathetically by creative co-directors Croft and Bishop: the duo, who are longtime friends, previously collaborated on projects examining gender identity in sport. They began with figure-skating, a sport similar to bodybuilding in its potential to subvert expectations of gender. “Whether it’s men being hyper femme or women being hyper masc, the long-term aim is to create a space for ‘gender-blended’ sports that feels current,” says Bishop, whose work with Croft persistently seeks to use the heteronormativity of rigidly gender-based sports to open up the discussion. 

For Celia, a 24-year-old graduate of fashion photography at the University of Falmouth, the project was driven by her interest in female counterculture and women’s hobbies outside of metropolitan towns, lending the project its focus on feminine camaraderie. “As a photographer, I’m still very influenced by what was around me when I was growing up in Kent,” she tells AnOther. “People coming from smaller towns and their hobbies. In Kent there were these girls who were obsessed with cars, and I loved them.” Female muscle athletes – women with an all-consuming interest in a male-dominated niche – piqued her interest in the same way. “For men to do these things it’s just the norm, so it’s interesting when women are doing it.”

The images also include creative ideas from the models, with stylistic additions by Bishop. Raw, glamorous and occasionally harsh in presentation, the series occupies a space between documentary and fashion photography. Is it inviting the viewer to admire the allure, but question the artifice? “We wanted the images to be true to their world but to give our personal touch without altering their performances,” Bishop says. “They wore their own clothes and did their own poses, but we wanted a very staged emphasis on hair and makeup to show that on one side, there’s the process of creation,” she explains, referring to the ongoing construction of the body through bodybuilding lifestyles, “and the other side is the varnish, and what’s seen on stage.”

The series also weaves between Amazonian women wielding wooden swords in an echo of a family tableau, where men are prominently absent; two female drivers face-on over the dashboard, their cool glances lit side-on in high contrast; or a competitor crouched and body softly folded, facing away as though collecting herself pre-competition. Alongside the Barbie-doll pageantry of glittering nails and rhinestone-studded bikinis, it’s a series that unerringly challenges the male gaze. Its subjects embody female empowerment through a lifestyle passion, while its makers offer a destabilising lens on gender and the codes of femininity. It’s not just about the spectacle of the body: the book is a radical celebration of non-normative gender expression, and of women’s diverging lifestyles.

Core by Kate Kidney Bishop and Celia Croft is out now, published by Cherryboy.