'Look Hot While You Fight the Patriarchy'

Feminist art history professor discusses book on how she came to study and participate in a form of bodybuilding called "figure girl" competitions.

March 11, 2015
Photograph by David Ford
Lianne McTavish in competition in 2011

Many scholars debate how much they should become immersed in societies or cultures they study. Lianne McTavish went all in. A professor of the history of art, design and visual culture at the University of Alberta, she decided to study "figure girl" competitions (a form of bodybuilding). She did this by becoming a competitor herself. She tells the story in Feminist Figure Girl: Look Hot While You Fight the Patriarchy, just out from the State University of New York Press. She responded to e-mail questions about her book and her research.

Q: How is a figure girl the same and different from a bodybuilder?

A: Figure became an official category of physique competition in 2001. Figure girls -- there is no such thing as a figure boy -- train like bodybuilders by lifting weights in a methodical fashion for years on end. Then they gradually lose body fat in order to “lean out” and display those muscles on stage. Like bodybuilders, figure contestants are judged on the proportion, symmetry and definition of their muscles. Unlike bodybuilders, figure girls are not striving for hypertrophy, but focus on developing their lats, quads and glutes more than their arms and chests. Figure girls are very muscular but not as muscular as female bodybuilders. Another difference is that figure girls do not pose like bodybuilders on stage, hitting their “most muscular” posture or flexing their biceps. They simply perform four quarter mandatory turns for the judges. In general, then, the figure competitor is more limited than the bodybuilder and is expected to conform more rigidly to conventional definitions of femininity.  

Q: How did you get the idea to become a figure girl?

A: I had begun working out in my early 20s while in graduate school, mostly as a form of stress relief. I did boot camp cardio training sessions for the most part. I started lifting weights in a limited way in my 30s, but finally became a serious weight lifter after moving to Edmonton to become a professor at the University of Alberta in 2007. There I hired a personal trainer named Gillian Kovack; she is a heavyweight bodybuilding pro and has an amazing physique. Gill and I became friends and I started to help her with her shows, applying tanning dye to her body the night before the competitions and cheering loudly in the audience. Through my connection with her, I also saw figure competitions and was initially appalled by them. I thought that the women in shiny bikinis and high heels were meant to counteract the transgressive potential of heavyweight female bodybuilders. Gill disagreed with me, arguing that figure girls were serious athletes. I then decided to challenge my presuppositions by training for and participating in a figure show myself.  

Q: Many feminists might worry about embracing a culture that focuses on the image of bodies. Did that worry you?

A: Producing myself as a visual spectacle was a new experience, but I welcomed the change of pace. It would have been easier for me not to do the show, but then I would have learned nothing about this particular form of display culture. I had initially assumed that the meaning of figure competitions was obvious: they were designed to enforce gender conformity and contain women’s bodybuilding efforts. I was mostly wrong about that. I think that it is too easy to dismiss physique competitions, beauty contests and other forms of bodily display (including gym selfies) without ever having participated in them. I decided to challenge my beliefs and find out why many women are enabled and empowered by figure competitions. While I would never argue that these shows are positive for women in a straightforward manner, I would caution against dismissing them quickly in a way that denigrates the women who enter such shows.  

Q: Why did you decide to do this yourself -- and to use autoethnographic techniques?

A: I decided to enter a figure competition and planned the research without ever having heard of the method called autoethnography. I am a specialist of early modern visual culture and the history of the body and had always worked in historical archives, libraries and museums. A colleague of mine finally told me that I was using autoethnographic techniques, directing me to that fascinating literature. I decided to do the research myself for a number of reasons: 1) much of the vast scholarly discussion of bodybuilding is written by outsiders, people who have never lifted weights, much less competed in a show. They necessarily emphasize posed photographs of professional bodybuilders, which is only one part of physique culture. Focusing on the photographic appearance of bodybuilders misses almost every single thing about the practice and appeal of bodybuilding; 2) I wanted to try new research methods and participate in the ethics protocols at my university so that I could be a better teacher and guide to my students, especially my graduate students; 3) I wanted to write a blog about contemporary body issues, albeit one informed by an historical knowledge of corporeality.

Q: What did you find most surprising about the world you studied and became a part of?

A: I was surprised by how much my academic training had equipped me for the athletic challenges. Figure girls and bodybuilders must work consistently for years in a repetitive and even tedious fashion, moving slowly toward a distant goal with little encouragement or feedback. Training for a competition impacts every facet of your waking life, and writing a doctoral dissertation had prepared me well for this sometimes solitary and relentless lifestyle. At the same time, I joined a supportive and generous bodybuilding community at my gym. I can definitely see how people, especially obsessive, goal-driven, ambitious and independent people, can become addicted to competitive bodybuilding. I was also surprised by the book that ultimately emerged from the Feminist Figure Girl process. Whereas I had expected to write about the visual politics of the gym and the experience of objectification, instead I mostly focused on the phenomenological experience of muscle failure, similarities between bodybuilding and yoga, and performative aspects of physique culture. My entire understanding of bodybuilding was changed by this project. Finally, I was surprised by what a pleasure it was to write the book, including my interactions with the editors and other professionals at SUNY Press.


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