Dawn Whitmore has been a professional photographer for ten years, but her training in photography arguably goes back to when she was eight years old, when her grandfather gave her a Vivitar point-and-shoot for her birthday. She took to the art immediately. “I think it’s because I was so shy, and it was my way of being part of the world,” she says. She filled her first dozen rolls of 110 film with images carefully composed so that her subjects’ heads were cut off by the top of the frame—that is, until her mother, exasperated by this flagrant waste of money, threatened to stop developing the film altogether.
The missing heads in those early pictures may have been a preface to Whitmore’s more recent work. Two and a half decades after those days with the Vivitar, Whitmore has built a portfolio that explores the idea of masking—its uses and effects. On a recent summer afternoon, we talked about this theme while she gave me a tour of her studio in Arlington, Virginia, where she is fulfilling a hard-won six-year artist residency at the Arlington Arts Center. In addition to practicing photography and videography, Whitmore is learning to sculpt, making ice masks and contemplating such questions of identity as, What self do we put forward and what self do we keep back, and what are the differences?
These questions inform one of her current projects, a visual chronicle of two teams of female bodybuilders. Whitmore has been following the athletes for the past eighteen months in their quest to earn their pro cards—certifications that allow them to compete professionally. Photographing these women in black and white—“it acts as a subtraction tool, so you really see what’s important”—allowed Whitmore to reduce visual distractions that would otherwise be introduced by bad lighting in the gym. Observing their exercise, diet, and aesthetic regimens during training and competitions, she came to appreciate the degree of discipline required to achieve the so-called perfect body—one that “goes against the societal norm of what it means to be a woman.”
Bodybuilding can be a lonely sport, but it’s almost impossible to do alone. In addition to the support of their trainers, these women stayed in close contact throughout the day, so that even when they couldn’t train together, their motivation through text messages and Facebook lent their efforts an aspect of community. Team-building meetings early in the season were occasions to boost morale and share tips on anything from diet to supplements to how to wear a Squeem—the compression band that amateur bodybuilders wear as often as possible, in the gym and out, to shape their midsections.
A bodybuilder’s lifestyle is relentless. They spend up to five hours a day in the gym, usually split into two sessions. Often, the emotional toll is just as great as the physical transformation, documented through “progress shots” along the way. Many of Whitmore’s subjects went through painful breakups while in training; they experienced mood swings and self-doubt, which were exacerbated by the extreme physiological changes that resulted from training. As the date of competition nears, the feeding schedule intensifies—as does the workout schedule—and a competitor can find herself waking every two hours to eat lean meats, such as chicken and whitefish, with a small portion of greens (every few days, steak might be an option). The only carbs allowed are eaten in the morning. In advance of competition, diuretics are used to help the body dehydrate, so that the skin shrink-wraps to the muscle, emphasizing the striations and definition the competitor has worked so hard to acquire.
On the day of a show, competitors are up at 3 a.m. to begin transforming themselves for the stage—applying makeup, spray tans, and sometimes hair extensions. (It isn’t unusual for competitors to hire hairstylists and makeup artists.) Women’s bodybuilding has been trending feminine since the nineties, when the International Federation of Bodybuilding rewrote the requirements for female bodybuilding to emphasize “womanliness” over muscle mass. There are now five categories: bikini, figure, physique, fitness, and bodybuilding—Whitmore’s subjects competed in the first two. The suits worn in the bikini category alone are custom-made and cost hundreds of dollars, often sporting Swarovski crystals—the blingier the better—all in service of the fragile construct that is contemporary female bodybuilding.
For Whitmore, the challenge was to capture that human fragility within the muscle mass, to give weight to the journey.