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Core (2022)
Kate Kidney Bishop and Celia Croft, Core (2022), published by Cherryboy

Powerful portraits of women bodybuilders

Core by Kate Kidney Bishop and Celia Croft is a celebration of the glamour and formidable athleticism of women competing as bodybuilders

Stylist Kate Kidney Bishop and photographer Celia Croft bonded over their mutual fascination with the world of women’s bodybuilding. As outsiders, the pair were intrigued by the sports’ more-is-more aesthetic and the appeal of what Croft describes as “glamour mixed in with the extremity of a really challenging sport.” Bishop was also interested in “the combination of art and athleticism and how this interacts with identity and gender”. 

They contacted female muscle athletes via social media and, after what was intended to be a one-off shoot, the pair decided to expand the scope of their collaboration and create a more in-depth series depicting the community of women competing as bikini models. Their portraits exploring this unique subculture have now been gathered together as Core (published by Cherryboy Publishing). 

Alongside the straightforward “glitzy and visually rich” allure of female bodybuilding, the book also touches on the link between the performance of gender and athletics as performance. Bishop elaborates on the concept: “The idea of thinking about sports as a form of performance created a path of accessibility into this unknown world for me, and a way to do something with the beauty I see in these little powerful worlds.”

They began perceiving the potential of bodybuilding as a means of subverting expectations of gender in traditionally gender-normative spaces. “This led me to think about how sports are very inhospitable to the gender spectrum. I became interested in sports that had what I saw as gender norm-bending qualities. This led me to bodybuilding – women excelling in the traditionally considered hyper-masc area of strength.” She continues: “I’m now really interested in any sports that have characteristics of redefining gender norms or bending them. I think these sports could maybe, hopefully, be a starting point for a whole new approach to gender in sport that is hospitable to the whole spectrum of gender identity.”

“I’m now really interested in any sports that have characteristics of redefining gender norms or bending them” – Kate Kidney Bishop

The pair’s enduring memories from the shoots are connected to the sense of community they encountered and the camaraderie they experienced on set. Bishop recalls: “Really all of the best moments were when we got to just talk or catch up with the athletes and hear what was going on with them. Like, during the first shoot, we heard that one of the women, Louise, had been invited onto a McBang dating show. I think these conversations were when we really got to learn the most… just kind of getting to know each other.” Croft adds: “I really enjoyed hearing their stories of how they got into bodybuilding and their plans for the future. I think I realised also how it's actually a fairly small community throughout the UK, most of the girls we shot all knew each other from competitions and online.” 

The empowering portraits that feature in Core are very much the product of collaboration with the athletes. Croft tells us, “We wanted to accentuate the aesthetic they already have, with bigger hair and longer nails.” But their interventions were kept to a minimum and the images retain the integrity of genuinely capturing the spirit and style of each subject. “Styling-wise, I really didn’t want to interfere too much. We wanted the images to be true to the athlete,” recalls Bishop. “I would always ask them to bring any show bikinis they had and then also bring some other alternatives for them, but the show bikinis are so amazing we mostly photographed them. If the shoot was to focus on their performance persona then the show bikinis were perfect because that’s what they perform in. I wanted the identity that their outfits facilitated to be left alone.”

Take a look at the gallery above for a glimpse of the portraits in Core.

Core by Kate Kidney Bishop and Celia Croft is published by Cherryboy Publishing