So why has CrossFit been posting all of these candid photos of women in compromising situations? Oliver Lee Bateman examines the company’s problem with women, and our own.
CrossFit trainer Patrick McCarty recently took aim at some rather low-hanging fruit: the tendency of the “Main Site,” likely exacerbated as the fitness methodology has won more adherents, to post titillating photographs of female “athletes” (“athletes,” you see, because CrossFit is the “sport of exercise”). McCarty’s aim was true enough; the piece sparked outrage within the CrossFit community as well as among participants in the wider social justice blogosphere. But I remain equivocal in my reaction to to this story. To this long-term “fitness mark” and weekend warrior, CrossFit, whatever the unstated motivations of its corporate hierarchy, seems to offer a more inclusive environment for women than the humid, roach-infested basements in which I and other men (always other men) heft barbells, atlas stones, and the like.
This photo, posted to the official CF Facebook page, proved a bridge too far for McCarty:
So yes, note well that profound leg gape. And yes, as McCarty himself writes, “nothing in marketing happens by accident.” But here’s the fascinating part: on the Main Site itself, which remains among the most ungainly and awkward-to-navigate sites even as its companion CrossFit Games page has been improved immensely, a similar photo was posted on August 14.
The legs aren’t splayed out quite like in the other photo, mind you. This image is more stage-y, more “look at me I’m a badass”-y…the rope climbers are here presented as powerful actors (I assume, since I can’t peer into the minds of whoever uploads the Main Site photographs), correct? But here’s the thing: how are these subjects any different than the unfortunate subject in the first photograph? I mean, they’re both ascending the rope. The angle in photo 1 is regrettable, to be sure, as are the scads of misogynistic comments beneath it. McCarty is right in stating that this was deliberate, because sex is clearly the item that’s on sale there.
But let’s shift the context for photo 2. Slap that .jpeg on a gay-only or gay-friendly website, and similar comments might appear. The Main Site isn’t an entrepôt for gay pornography (not primarily, anyway, though there are certainly some choice cutlets on display there); we can safely assume that the posters of these images knew the difference. Photo 1, they’ve got to be thinking at least subconsciously, is for the “spank bank,” while photo 2 is merely intended as some grrreat fitspirtation.
And this is very, very problematic. But the problem goes deeper than McCarty’s necessary but superficial critique. Because CrossFit, which is at least somewhat inclusive when it comes to women and n00bz (although nonetheless a worthy subject of ridicule in so many ways, as CrossFit parodist nonpareil Drywall et al. have shown us), isn’t the real culprit here. In fact, it’s a red herring. The bigger fish, to stretch this labored metaphor even further, is a conjunction of the following:
- Historically and culturally constructed attitudes about gender that, due to the inability of the Flynn Effect to lift all ships, are likely to remain with us in myriad nagging ways for at least a few more decades.
- Capitalism, because pushing the buttons that trigger these knee-jerk attitudinal reactions = big $$$ for all involved. And even if the CrossFit bros aren’t among them, some extremely bright, extremely amoral folks are getting their rocks off while doing the pushing.
Take the example of women’s tennis. Women’s tennis players, as studies have shown over and over again, are nowhere near being able to defeat the top male professionals in anything resembling a fair fight. Yet women’s tennis has achieved a level of popularity that’s at least commensurate with the men’s game. And while I can’t speak for all of Roger Federer’s photo shoots, I’m not sure he’s ever done anything like this:
Now, I’m not taking anything away from Serena Williams. She’s a physical marvel, one of the greatest female athletes of our age. As such, it pains me to see her in this position. Even if you put Roger Federer in a two-piece swimsuit, I doubt that viewers who haven’t given so much as a nickel’s worth of thought to the historical and cultural construction of gender roles would read those images the same way.
And yes, I understand that a) Williams, unlike the anonymous woman in picture 1, elected to be photographed this way. But her free will only goes so far. For a host of purposes (chiefly $$$), her choices are every bit as constrained as mine. She won’t, at least not without heavy PED usage and gene therapy, beat Federer in a straight one-on-one match. She’s in the women’s tier of tennis competition. So she’s selling out, to a certain extent, by allowing herself to be willfully objectified in exchange for prolonging and expanding her fame.
But this is way too easy for her to do. Way too easy for her, and way too hard for me. Consider the other photo that McCarty mentions in his CrossFit article.
This is a woman’s rear end…or, to be more specific, a woman reduced to a rear end. The comments on the post are predictably horrifying. But let’s imagine, arguendo, that the image below was posted on the page with a precisely similar purpose:
This my rear end, and it’s likely that only a tiny percentage of the viewing audience will respond to it as they did to the other photo (although, should they respond that way, they will be doing so for exactly the same reasons). But no man, not even a People “Most Beautiful Man” such as Channing Tatum, is able to strike a pose that is as fraught with connotations of submissiveness and subjection as these women can. Even when playing a sex slave, as in the summer semi-laughfest This is the End, Tatum can’t conjure up hundreds of years of misguided thinking about gender to add gravitas to his performance.
Then there’s another point: these two women, even photographed out of context, are in some sense proud of the bodies they’ve created. Why else would they, like Serena Williams, don such suggestive outfits? I’m not in any way intimating that they’re “asking for it” by doing so, only that they must on some level be aware that their sartorial performances are embedded within these selfsame centuries of misguided gender thinking. I too often dress in a loud or exaggerated manner, in the subconscious hope of being objectified, but as I discussed in an earlier essay, it just doesn’t seem to work that same way for men.
“Men make their own history,” goes the old Karl Marx chestnut, “but they do not make it as they please; they do not make it under self-selected circumstances, but under circumstances existing already, given and transmitted from the past. The tradition of all dead generations weighs like a nightmare on the brains of the living.” Terrifying, no? All of this gender malarkey, which is so outrageous and stupid and undoubtedly unfair, is part of the inheritance our forefathers bequeathed upon us, along with penicillin and iPads and various other elixirs and doodads. As the cultural turn in the humanities and social sciences has made clear, capitalism is only part of the problem…and yet it’s without doubt the largest part. These conflicts over identity, then, are mere skirmishes in a greater and much higher-stakes conflict. Elsewhere Marx tells us that “the philosophers have only interpreted the world, in various ways; the point is to change it.” A changed and better world would be one in which the CrossFit bros have no pecuniary incentive to score points by posting these lurid candids, a world in which Serena Williams feels no pressure to fatten her bank account by reminding us that she’s a sex symbol as well as an athlete, a world in which my ass and the ass in the photo and your ass are all admired not for their a$$-ne$$ but for their ass-ness. Such a world may never come to exist, but isn’t it pretty to think that it could?