Finding feminist ideals in the most unlikely of places
(Edmonton) At 43, and having published several books and articles on the history of early modern visual culture, medicine and the body, University of Alberta art and design researcher Lianne McTavish had what she describes as a “crazy” research idea relating to pop culture.
The thought, as it turned out, culminated with McTavish, a self-described feminist, taking to a stage not often tread by university professors. The idea was to combine her love of weight training with academic work to become what she called “Feminist Figure Girl,” a character who would participate in a figure contest, a type of bodybuilding competition that emphasizes muscle tone over size.
“I pondered it for a few months before telling anyone because I thought it was a crazy idea. I did not tell my partner because I was afraid of his reaction,” said McTavish. “Training for a bodybuilding contest is an extreme thing to do. I’m 43, and I thought that my body might refuse to cooperate. What if I have cellulite? I thought this could be the worst thing I’ve ever done.”
The idea that she might fail ultimately challenged McTavish to enter the completion. For six months, she adhered to a strict diet of chicken, bison, sweet potatoes, egg whites, protein powder, oatmeal and Brussels sprouts, and trained two hours, twice daily.
Heading into the competition, McTavish’s lean body mass was in the top one percentile for women her age and she was stronger than the average 20-year-old man. However, figure girls are expected to do more than develop their muscles; they must also present a particular image of beauty, the type of which repulsed McTavish the first time she witnessed a figure competition.
Despite the blatant inconsistencies with her feminist ideals, McTavish decided to conform to the rules of the competition and took posing lessons, added fingernail extensions and paid $700 for a custom-fit bikini. “I did not do this to please the judges, but to have the full figure-girl experience, which authorized me to write about it." She adds that it’s difficult to see figure contests as a form of feminist expression, but she believes they are. “The feminist aspect was the female sociability that went with both the preparation and performance, along with the experience of suffering and challenge that brings women together.”
It’s that connection that made McTavish decide to become a certified personal trainer and volunteer with abused women in shelters who can’t afford trainers but want to focus on strengthening their bodies and minds. McTavish is also writing a book that may contribute to changing theories about how women both engage with and resist contemporary norms of beauty.
“Feminist theories tend to address the objectification of the female body but it’s empowering to be looked at,” she said. “For me, it was not always empowering to be looked at but it was more rewarding than I had thought it would be. My ongoing research will focus on different kinds of looking, and deal with the complexities of being looked at.”
McTavish documented these thoughts and her experience using a blog, where she only recently revealed her identity as a professor. “When you hear about feminism on TV it’s always the extreme and is often described in negative terms. Most people would at least say they believe in the equality of men and women, yet feminism is misunderstood,” she said. “I wanted to put up an image of a feminist who was not fitting the stereotype at all.”
McTavish says she will never compete again but says the experience left her with a great sense of accomplishment. "I felt very proud of myself."
To visit McTavish's blog, click here.