I have been thinking about this project for quite some time, and post here sections from the introduction to my book “Feminist Figure Girl,” written at the end of last year:
It is December 12, 2009, and I am at the gym, feeling euphoric. I am pumping away on the stride machine with the resistance level set at 16 and Nirvana’s Live at Reading pounding in my ears. Since I have already completed an hour-long upper-body session with my personal trainer, my workout is almost done but I don’t want to leave. I close my eyes and savour the intense endorphin rush that washes over me. I am a 42-year-old woman who has achieved many goals—defending a doctoral thesis, writing books, and rising to the level of full professor by age 39. Yet none of them is as satisfying to me as building muscle and losing fat. What in the hell is going on here? Feminist Figure Girl attempts to answer this question, considering why bodybuilding could be more rewarding than other professional or intellectual accomplishments.
After some brainstorming last year, I decided to take a risk. I would train for the local figure competition to be held in the spring of 2011, engaging in every activity necessary to succeed, from extreme dieting to eating meat, ingesting supplements, and tanning—all would be new to me. I guessed that it would take me well over a year to increase my muscle mass and lose most of my body fat. In addition to analyzing the physical transformation of my body in terms of feminist and visual theory, I would have to learn the proper posing techniques, practice walking in four-inch heels, whiten my teeth, grow my fingernails, and do something about my increasingly wrinkled face and sagging neck. Figure competitions are not exactly like the female bodybuilding contests made famous by such films as Pumping Iron II: The Women (1985). Although figure contestants train similarly and are judged on the symmetry, proportion, and definition of their muscles, ‘excessive muscularity’ is considered undesirable. Ideal competitors, colloquially known as figure girls, display shapely ‘feminine’ forms, complete with small waists, curvaceous legs, and beautiful faces. Dressed in form fitting sequined gowns and bathing suits, they are confident and poised while striking four standard, quarter-turn poses: from the front they raise their shoulders and lift their arms to frame their bodies in a strangely awkward manner; from the sides they curve one arm in front and one behind their bodies while pushing their buttocks outward; from the back they raise their shoulders and widen their upper bodies to enhance their already tiny waists. Unlike fitness contests, which require participants to demonstrate strength and flexibility, figure girls simply present themselves for the visual evaluation of an audience. Even as the judges scrutinize the condition of their bodies, they also rate the figure girls’ hair, make-up, skin tone, and costume. In short, figure competitions are like a bodybuilding display and beauty pageant rolled into one.
I was frankly appalled by these competitions, at least at first. Were figure contests designed to counteract the transgressive potential of female heavyweight bodybuilding? Though this interpretation remains a possibility, I found it difficult to sustain once I began meeting figure girls, inevitably women with strong personalities who were dedicated, disciplined, and admirable, making personal and professional sacrifices to reshape their bodies and work for long term goals that would be unattainable by most women. I started to wonder if figure competitions could challenge gender roles as well as reinforce them, sending contradictory messages worth noting and maybe even worth experiencing.
It is now August of 2010 as I sit here digesting well over 100 grams of chicken, recovering from training my chest this morning. My nails are painted in a shade called ‘Aphrodite’s Pink Nightie,’ and I am wearing a shit load of mascara. In short, I am in the thick of it; I still have a long way to go. Every week I will elaborate on this project, considering the embodied process of body building, describing my experiences at various gyms, admitting my food and other obsessions, and whining about the pain of laser hair removal. From now on my entries will be more entertaining and less self-aggrandizing. After all, I am currently engaged in an exercise of choreographed failure.