The Eye Of The Beholder
Reflections and musings from a weekend on the road with the Rockets Power Dancers
HOUSTON - Conflict smells like too many hair products.
It’s 9 AM on a Thursday and instead of sitting at my desk firing up Twitter and reading the latest news from the sports world, I’m in a large room in Louisiana filled with high heels, hair stylists, makeup artists, bikinis and Rockets Power Dancers. It’s as if someone hand-selected certain parts of teen fantasies, of both the male and female variety, then rolled them all into one. Adele is playing in the background while the morning sun softly filters in through the windows. Breakfast has not yet been served but there are Cokes and candy bars aplenty. In other words, youth is having a field day right now.
And perhaps that’s how it should be. This is, after all, the beginning of a three-day photo shoot for the 2011-2012 RPD calendar, which is itself nothing if not a celebration of youth and beauty. It’s my job to help out however I can and cover the proceedings in some form or fashion. That is not, however, where the conflict comes into play. Yes, the vast majority of my job entails writing and talking basketball, but I’ve spent enough time waxing poetic about judging RPD auditions and making shameless videos with our cheerleaders over the last few years that what I’ve volunteered to do during the next 72 hours can’t really be considered a fish-out-of-water experience for me anymore.
Instead, the current conflict is more a minor crisis of conscience. From as far back as I can recall, I’ve had a powerful and positive female influence in my life. I have two moms, four sisters, two young nieces and an unusually large number of female friends – each of whom is beyond incredible in her own unique way. Additionally, the women who have been temporarily deluded enough to spend time dating me have been, by and large, extraordinary and a credit to their gender as well. As a result, I feel a certain sensitivity to many of the fears and insecurities that are largely unique to the fairer sex. Body image is a big one; perhaps even the biggest and certainly the most ubiquitous. So even though I, like millions of other men my age, can vividly and excitedly recall classic Sports Illustrated swimsuit covers featuring the jaw-dropping curves of Elle Macpherson and Kathy Ireland, and despite the fact, two decades later, I’m still probably no less susceptible to such heart-accelerating imagery, there also exists within me a not insignificant amount of trepidation concerning the physical standard our society demands its women live up to. All of which is to say, tagging along and taking part in something that might play a role in perpetuating that standard makes me a tad uneasy.
I know, I know. Nothing like a heavy-handed, holier-than-thou morality message from on high to spoil something that is undeniably fun and possibly harmless in the grand scheme of things. Yawn. I get it. But that’s not the point of my current contemplation, I swear.
Here’s the thing: We’re all familiar with the cheerleader stereotype, so I don’t feel the need to spell it out for you. What is necessary, however, is to share the fact that this year’s RPD squad is replete with stereotype busters; young women who are teachers, students, project managers and PR mavens – there’s even a biology grad currently working as an environmental specialist. These are the women who will be donning swimsuits and gracing the pages of the forthcoming calendar. What fascinates me then are not my thoughts but theirs. How do these obviously intelligent and empowered women tackle the topic of female objectification while taking part in an act that is itself inherently objectifying?
The ensuing answers to that question are not terribly surprising. One after the other, the dancers say the photos from this shoot make them feel beautiful, not objectified – even as heads turn en masse at their bikini-clad bodies every time they emerge from the prep room; though bear in mind that this year’s shoot is taking place at the Coushatta Casino Resort Koasati Pines golf course so it’s probably a safe bet the locals aren’t accustomed to seeing young women posing in a bunker on No. 17 while wearing nothing but a bathing suit. All the same, it occurs to me that the dancers approach to this exercise is not terribly dissimilar to the mindset possessed by many a bride-to-be on the day wedding pictures are taken: significant effort is made beforehand in terms of diet and working out; professional stylists and photographers are hired; and the perfect backdrop is chosen – all in order to ensure that, when the big day finally arrives, she is made to look as lovely as possible, forever captured in full bloom, creating a keepsake that can be repeatedly revisited with pride. To them, this project is about art, not arousal.
And there is artistry aplenty on hand, to be sure. The golf course is beautiful, the weather is perfect, and that combination allows Rockets team photographer Bill Baptist the ideal canvas on which to create some spectacular shots over the course of our three-day extravaganza. It’s always fascinating to see the world through the eyes of someone with an innate gift for imagining the potential of certain visuals before they actually take shape: the way a seemingly simple brick wall can come to life with the right lighting and model; how a subtle shift in shadow can transform an image from average to ethereal. Even my presence is somehow turned into a positive as I am frequently tasked with the very prestigious responsibility of holding a reflector above the dancers whenever the sun starts to wreak havoc with certain shots. Turns out I have elite measurables (height, length, endurance) for the job, which is a bonus since I’ll have that to fall back on when killjoy columns such as these inevitably force me into a different line of work.
When I’m not on reflector duty, however, I’m busy snapping off plenty of pictures of my own to post on the Rockets’ Facebook page. The second the photos are uploaded, the response from the fans is enormous. And you’re not going to believe this, but some of the ensuing comments are highly inappropriate, ranging from the lascivious to downright lewd. OK, so it’s not a newsflash that online commenters aren’t always going to be on their best behavior; something about being able to hide behind a computer screen just brings out the worst in people. I’ve lost track of the number of times I’ve posted a story about Yao Ming – just one of the nicest, most likeable athletes there is – only to have the comments section devolve into the realm of eye-rolling tastelessness. But that’s life in the online world. The trolls will find you anywhere and everywhere. You just have to learn to laugh them off or simply ignore them. But for whatever reason, I find it harder to disregard this particular brand of demeaning comment than I do the others. Perhaps it’s because I know the dancers are noticing them, too. Some just find the remarks amusing; others, however, are unable to hide their disgust.
And so once more the conversation is steered back to the subject that has been a Bermuda’s Triangle of sorts for me this entire trip. I have no idea if an event like this calendar shoot – which, I should add, was conducted in the most tasteful way imaginable – promotes the objectification of women, but there is no question that it most definitely provokes it. The second those pictures hit Facebook, a highly unsavory segment of our society reared its ugly head and that’s to say nothing of the other part of this equation: the fear that young girls, teens and women of all ages will be blitzed for the umpteenth time with imagery of the supposed ideal female form; one forever worming its way into their consciousness and forcing them to never endingly question whether they will ever measure up. Though on that point at least there exists a reasonable rebuttal: the Power Dancers are athletic, strong and fit – we’re not talking about wafer-thin, anorexic-looking women here – so in that sense the body image they promote is one of supreme health and fitness; no different than the way NBA players, with their lean, long and muscular physiques, put forth what some believe to be the physical image of the ideal man.
Still, there’s little use denying that the worship and pursuit of beauty frequently assumes a deeper, darker guise for women than it does for men. It says something about our society that even dancers, in all their youthful, optimally fit glory, are not immune from body issues, does it not? But such is the premium placed on feminine physical perfection these days and though the price exacted may vary person to person, rest assured every woman eventually feels its effects one way or the other.
What’s the solution and does it have anything to do with swimsuit calendar photo shoots? I don’t have an answer and I doubt any of the dancers do either. If we did, surely we’d lay claim to much loftier titles than we do now – something along the lines of Almighty Grand Ruler of the Universe sounds about right – since we’re dealing with a problem that’s been an issue for, oh, only the last million years or so. The fact of the matter is that we all have conflicts and contradictions, some of which we resolve and some we don’t. As the legendary Canadian rockers The Tragically Hip sing in “Springtime in Vienna:” We live to survive our paradoxes.
This is not my way of spending 1,600 words addressing a topic only to walk away with a helpless shoulder shrug at the end. Of course all the standard bromides and maxims apply: more awareness; increased responsibility and accountability; a healthy dose of perspective; perhaps even a complete restructuring of the prioritization of our value system. Or maybe I just need to lighten up, be less of a buzz kill, and stop taking myself – and life – so seriously.
All worthwhile things to ponder on the drive home, heading back to Houston beneath the sort of azure sky and breathtaking cloud formations that never get old no matter how many times you see them. This is where conflict goes to die; right here, staring at the only truly timeless beauty man has ever known.