I don’t know film. I don’t know how to describe why the image quality of a TV show looks different than that of a big budget movie looks different than that of a Hallmark channel miniseries–but I know they all have a different visual quality. I mean, I know HD exists, so there’s that. So when I see a clip of WWE’s former female fighter icon Chyna striding across the screen towards the ring, I recognize that clip as depicting a woman with actual muscle on what looks like an actual major television production. The color, the saturation of it, the sharpness, the frame rate. Something makes seeing Chyna’s broad frame captured forever on film a really big deal for me. And it was, years ago, when I saw clips of her in commercials as a child. That was all the exposure I ever remember getting to the WWE–in my household, we didn’t really “do” that. But I saw her, this not-frail, mean-looking, growling warrior of a woman. And something resonated very deep within me and settled in for a long ride up til yesterday, the day I learned Joanie Laurer had died.
Because the thing is, very rarely are women with appreciable amounts of muscle like Chyna sported in her WWE career on TV or movies–period. In televised sports, maybe, although that is still a rarity because the number of sports where it make sense for a woman to either have an appreciable amount of lean mass or be exposed appreciably while having a lot of lean mass that are actually televised widely are few to none. Having crossed into territory where almost no strength sports classify me as a “lightweight” in the light, middle, or heavyweight scale, the amount I feel my body type or size is represented in media is basically zero. I have realized this before and silenced the realization before I really allowed it to take hold because how dare I suggest that I, a white woman, am underrepresented? Then I remembered–and it would be good for the reader to remember this too–there is a difference between representation and marginalization and discrimination. And I feel like I can make a pretty strong case that women REGARDLESS of ethnicity who have significant amounts of muscle–PARTICULARLY in their upper bodies–are very, very seldom represented much less idealized in media. I mean any media. Indie films? Lol no. Reality TV? No. Soap operas? No. Movies? Also no.
And spare me the “well this one time Jessica Biel got a lot of press for having some muscle” because I remember this because I’m old and I went off on a Google search for this and searching through the “Jessica Biel arms” image bank I pulled really didn’t impress me. Like, if this is what I’m supposed to consider significant amounts of upper body muscle–and I chose this image because it appears to be a more candid/I’m a fan taking a candid picture of this chick while she’s autographing stuff and it’s not photoshopped–then I say we all pack it in with this argument now.
Now, I feel like I shouldn’t have to make this disclaimer–I’M NOT DISPARAGING HOW BIEL LOOKS. Dude, she looks great, yay! Ok! Let’s move on. I’m saying that if this is the best we can do in terms of representing a female body that has SERIOUSLY developed muscle, then it is no wonder women are turning to the phenomenon of the selfie to create their own damned ideals.
That’s right, I said it. I think selfies aren’t always just a sign that the people taking them are vain bored shitheads. My theory on The Selfie, and I think there are actual scholarly theories that champion roughly this same argument, is that a lot of us are just trying to depict ourselves in a way that creates the ideal we don’t see, well, anywhere. Sure, I see it in other selfies. I see women that sort of look like me in supplement advertisements, but not really, because haha I don’t have implants and I am not that lean right now and my shoulders are REALLY wide and my hips are REALLY narrow and I just don’t really ever see anyone who’s posed as an “ideal” who is proportioned like that. Well, I mean, I guess guys are. So I, a female human who definitely identifies as a woman on the gender as well as biological sex side of things, get a lot of feedback that the way my body is shaped aligns me closest to, uh, a guy. And I’m not a guy. I’m a woman and I have enormous shoulders and huge stupid biceps and it’s like I have to make a case for fitting into a female ideal that I don’t fit into by, I guess, shrinking? Or changing my bone lengths? Because I can put a dress on this shit and those things aren’t going to change and it’s just going to look like a woman who has more things going that fit into a male ideal than a popularized female ideal. So…I guess I’m going to take selfies so I can have a tiny little collection of images on my Instagram that show a world where someone other than Gal Gadot gets cast as Wonder Woman.
I have always, always felt like a freak. When I was younger, I had a condition that basically resulted in my bones growing much slower than the rest of my body developed, which meant that for a few years during elementary and middle school I was extremely short. Short to the point where my parents took me to the doctor to see what was wrong with me. People would toss me around for fun on the playground–I remember being unceremoniously dropped on the pavement during more than one of these “Janis is a rag doll, let’s play with her” episodes. In high school, I developed severe anorexia and walked around looking like Golem AKA the freak from Lord of the Rings. I started lifting later in college and transitioned into this brand of freak. I have never not been a freak, I have never seen myself echoed in some ideal in a movie or a show or an album cover or an advertisement–ANYWHERE. Well, actually, there was the time with the one boyfriend where he told deeply anorexic Janis that I had this “eating disorder physique” a lot of girls would kill [themselves] for.” That was a pretty concrete message that I refer back to periodically today.
So sometimes I take selfies and marvel at how I’m the only person who can take a photograph of me that I don’t hate. I used to think this was some sort of sorcery, like I was picking the parts of reality I liked best and pastiching them together into a fragile delusional world where just one ugly image in some party candid would have me facing the actual reality of my looks–and I was at least somewhat right about that. But I now think that selfies might be one of few ways I have of taking how I look and forcing my own ideal into being with it. I own the content. I place the content where I choose. I understand that once an image is online it is there for people to repost, reuse, pick apart, link to, save, jack off to, whatever. But I put it there first. And I PUT IT THERE. That image of broad-shouldered, narrow-hipped, breastless, monster-backed Janis is adding yet another dimension to the overwhelming fray of visual culture. And if I knew that doing so would have the same kind of impact as seeing Chyna, way back at something like eight years old on a television screen and then seeing her again yesterday would have on someone else who feels lack of representation as it had on me, being accused of vanity and narcissism and whatever else would be worth it. RIP Chyna, and here is my fucking huge bicep.