Physical Art Education

Art profoundly influences the way we perceive and value physical forms; and the aesthetic portrayal of male and female bodies can shape and reinforce cultural clichés about gender, beauty and health. Close your eyes and think about what necessitates the perfect physique based upon the prior imagery of bodies you have seen in art and media. The rock solid muscles of Michelangelo’s David and John Singer Sargent’s sensual, soft and provocative painting, Madame X are archetypal examples of what is considered to be the ideal masculine and feminine body images.

Art can also powerfully reject and divert the status quo of body image. Arts writer, Daniel Kunitz, has written a series of articles, describing the ways art has depicted male and female figures and influenced standard mainstream ideals about the form, size and development of a person’s body. In “How Art Has Depicted the Ideal Male Body throughout History” and “What Art History Can Tell Us about Female Beauty Ideals,” Kunitz guides us through an abridged course of global art history, focusing on works of art that formed body image standards and those that challenge conventions set by prior idealistic images.

Muscles were not always seen as a desirable articulation of masculinity. Although popular in ancient Greece and Rome and throughout much of antiquity, muscular depictions of men fell out of favor with subsequent civilizations. Muscles were associated with clumsy and boorish behavior, working class lifestyles (i.e. low wage and undesirable work) and vulgarity. As Kunitz (2017) explains, “The notion of muscularity was reintroduced to the world in the mid-16th century, with the discovery of what came to be known as the Farnese Hercules, a Roman copy of an ancient Greek sculpture. But, it had an extremely limited influence until the current era.”

On the other hand, muscles are still a point of contention when discussing the physical forms of women. Even in the contemporary era, the portrayal of women is prejudiced by the male gaze and chauvinistic ideologies. This objectification of women’s appearance has influenced how women’s bodies are idealized in mass media, art and athletics (to name a few disciplines where women’s bodies are heavily scrutinized and controlled by public opinion). In the book, Ways of Seeing, art critic, John Berger (1972) wrote, “Men survey women before treating them. Consequently how a woman appears to a man can determine how she will be treated.”

While muscles are associated with athleticism, women athletes can be ridiculed if they are perceived as “too muscular.” Black women and trans women athletes have faced extreme forms of bias related to their physique and body identity and are often inequitably compared to their male counterparts. This unjustly negates what they have accomplished in their sport, and is shattering to all individuals who are told they are different, “abnormal” or less-than someone else because of their physical body type.

The aforementioned bias applies to all body types that are not within the range of the status quo for an “ideal” masculine or feminine body. The notion of what is desirable, fit and healthy has been perpetuated throughout popular culture and has been associated with leisure and success. Kunitz (2017) states that: “Today, the cost of access to the highest-quality food and gyms, as well as to the best information about how both ought to be used, has spiked. As a result, privilege is signified by figures with low body-fat percentages that showcase taught muscles, by the leisure to afford long workouts in expensive gyms, by eating regimens crafted by coaches and trainers, by tans that bespeak travel, and by fitted, expensive clothing that accentuates these advantages.”

The absolute truth is that everyone should be respected for their own bodies. We each should have the agency to express our physical identity without fear and the vitriol from bullies, ableists and bigots. A greater understanding about the importance of intersectional body positivity can be achieved through art and visual media education.

Another way that intersectional awareness of body identity is strengthened is through physical education. Physical education (PE) might be one of the more misunderstood disciplines in a school’s curricula. Gym class and PE teachers are often negatively portrayed across popular media outlets. Far from the drill sergeants and body shaming bullies, physical educators provide a differentiated instruction that promotes body positivity, awareness and diversity.

The arts and PE might seem to be at odds within the curricula, but there are many examples of how they are interlocked. Cassils and Shaun Leonardo are both artists who present empowering and provocative portrayals of different body types and notions of identity.

Cassils is a performance artist, bodybuilder and personal trainer. They utilize their physique as an artistic medium as well as a subject for mediating performativity (how “identity is embodied and enacted, rather than a more or less adequate reflection of some underlying bodily reality.” see: McKinlay, 2010 and Fraker, 2018). Through a creative process that includes athletic and weight training, nutrition, photography, video, sound and sculpture, Cassils highlights the visibility of the transgender body. Art historian, David J. Getsy (2018) elaborates: “In some performances and photographs, Cassils has defiantly exposed their body, knowing this will solicit viewers’ intrusive gazes and suffering the voyeuristic objectification that many viewers unquestionably perform. The artist does this to short-circuit the lurid, diagnostic fascination that has historically shadowed the visibility of the transgender body. Cassils’s work incites voyeurism to subvert it.”

Cassils, Alchemic No. 1, 2017 From the series “Alchemized,” 2017.
Image courtesy of Cassils and Robin Black.

Cassils’ photographic series Alchemic, reinterprets iconic photographer Robert Mapplethorpe’s nude photographs of male figures in classical poses, which he often cropped in a manner that highlighted and abstracted the physical forms of his subjects. In the 1980s, Mapplethorpe’s imagery was revelatory for its subversion of masculine tropes in visual culture. Through his work, Mapplethorpe challenged the heteronormative gaze of both male and female bodies. As his friend, poet and musician Patti Smith contends in her 2010 memoir, Just Kids: “He worked without apology, investing the homosexual with grandeur, masculinity and enviable nobility. Without affectation, he created a presence that was wholly male without sacrificing feminine grace. He was not looking to make a political statement or an announcement of his evolving sexual persuasion. He was presenting something new, something not seen or explored as he saw and explored it. Robert sought to elevate aspects of male experience, to imbue homosexuality with mysticism.”

Cassils’ response relays significant messages about how not all bodies are valued within the collective culture. Trans bodies in particular have been subjected to harmful stereotypes, which other them outside of both traditional body norms and heteronormative gazes. Mocking the predominant scope of traditional body and gender idealizations, Cassils’ paints her figure in gold, turning the human being into a trophy. Recognizing that no two bodies or experiences of identity are alike, Cassils avoids being blatant in both narrative and imagery, and “offer works that attempt to open up the complexity of trans experience while calling for visceral identification and political reflection from all viewers” (Getsy, 2018).

Shaun Leonardo, El Conquistador vs The Invisible Man

Leonardo’s performance artwork critically addresses and dismantles traditional notions of gender and race. An overarching theme in his art is a grappling with the idea of manhood. He scrutinizes popular ideas of hyper-masculinity and how stereotypical cultural obsessions with idealized male identities affect the social, emotional and cognitive development of men. Subjects that inspire his performances include professional sports and comic book superheros.

Leonardo, himself a former football player, relives the arduous experiences of performing hyper-masculinity, while also addressing how these stereotypes impact Black and brown bodies. This is exemplified in his physically exhaustive performances like El Conquistador vs The Invisible Man (2006) and Bull in the Ring (2008).

El Conquistador vs The Invisible Man takes its name from a character Leonardo created of a Luchador (an oft-masked professional wrestler) and Ralph Ellison’s 1952 novel, Invisible Man. In the performance, Leonardo wears a Mexican wrestling mask and fights an invisible opponent. Paying homage to Ellison’s novel, the artwork is a metaphor for how race and identity affect ideals of gender and body image. In the novel, the narrator, living in a small Southern town, is awarded a scholarship to an all-black college. However, he must first endure a gauntlet of fights, performed for the entertainment of the town’s affluent white hegemony. In both Ellison and Leonardo’s works of art, a person of color must exert their bodies for spectacle, placing an emphasis on how society stereotypes their physique as a combination of brute strength and aggression.

Leonardo performed Bull in the Ring with a cast of ten semi-professional football players. The artwork’s title comes from a training routine that is banned from high-school and collegiate levels of American football. The activity symbolizes the way a matador toys and taunts a bull. One player is positioned within the center of the field, surrounded by a circle of their teammates. They assume the role of the matador. The coach selects from their teammates at random, one player to charge at them, which often results in the player at the center being caught off-guard and taken down. The concept behind Leonardo’s enactment of this brutal game, is to represent the pressures that men face in having to prove their masculinity.

Being active is not always indicative of a “gym body,” nor should it be the way our society defines what physical fitness entails. As we know in the field of education, not everyone learns the same way, therefore lesson plans need to be differentiated and flexible in order to teach to the whole student. The same goes for physical activity. Planning a fitness routine is not a one-size-fits-all scenario. This is true because everyone’s bodies and overall wellness goals and needs are unique. While working out will certainly provide physical results; the arts can be just as transformative in terms of building strong personal and collective perceptions of body positivity and wellness.


Below are some helpful resources for simple exercises that artists can do in their studio. These exercises are a great way to loosen up one’s body and mind. Perhaps they will even spur creativity (the brain is a muscle too!).

References, Notes, Suggested Reading:

Berger, John. (1972).Ways of Seeing. London: Penguin Books.

Fraker, Will. “Gender is dead, long live gender: just what is ‘performativity’?” Aeon, 24 January 2018.

Getsy, David J. “Cassils,” Artforum, February 2018.

Kunitz, Daniel. “What Art History Can Tell Us about Female Beauty Ideals,” Artsy, 2 January 2017.

Kunitz, Daniel. “How Art Has Depicted the Ideal Male Body throughout History,” Artsy, 5 April 2017.

Kunitz, Daniel. “Why Exercise Makes You More Creative.” Artsy, 24 November 2017.

McKinlay, Alan. “Performativity and the Politics of Identity: Putting Butler to Work”, Critical Perspectives on Accounting, vol. 21, no. 3, March 2010. pp. 232-242.

1 Comment

  1. This is a topic that’s long been fascinating to me — the history of the way we as humans view our own bodies as well as the physicality of others. Mapplethorpe was truly a ground breaking artist. Thanks for the education.

    Liked by 1 person

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