Swimming in the Lake of Me

Rita defends her decision to retire from the sweet shop and take a cruise around the world by exclaiming ‘I’m going to spend more time swimming in the lake of me.’ Sing it, you red-headed vixen. There is just so much to be learned from watching Coronation Street. I am not ashamed to admit that I rely on this British soap opera as a substitute lifestyle coach. Just yesterday I took careful note of the following phrase: ‘I once made a lame donkey walk again,’ said by the free-loading alcoholic Teresa as she was giving Lloyd an impromptu back massage. Ugh. But still helpful I think.

Feminist Figure Girl is a self-centred project. I fear that I will swim in the lake of me and then drown while others happily watch, pleased that they will no longer be subjected to the boring minutiae of my life. Joining Phil Collins, they will be glad simply to stand there and avoid partaking in what might simply be my version of a mid-life crisis. Sorry Latina Diva I know that you forbade me from using the term ‘mid-life crisis,’ and I will never do it again. ‘Why not just have an affair like everyone else?’ a certain male acquaintance asked me before generously suggesting that I have the affair with him. No thanks. I would rather do 10,000 concentration curls every day than look at that guy naked.   

My mid-life re-evaluation (is that better, you little hot tamale?) will instead involve producing an autoethnographic study of my training and experiences as I strive to become a figure girl. I like the word strive. I usually have to word search all my articles to ensure that I have not used it too many times. That will be my epitaph ‘She Strove’ (and will not really be missed). According to social scientist Heewon Chang, autoethnography is ‘a research method that utilizes the researchers’ autobiographical data to analyze and interpret their cultural assumptions’ (Autoethnography, 2008, 9). In their definition of autoethnography, Jacquelyn Allen Collinson and John Hockey emphasize self-consciousness, arguing that ‘autoethnographers often seek to communicate not only the immediacy, the physicality and emotionality of the experience, but also … the internal dialogue of the writer with her/himself’ (‘Autoethnography: Self-indulgence or Rigorous Methodology?’ 2005, 193). This is basically what I am going to do, though I understand the ‘self’ as an historical and cultural invention (time to get excited about the poststructuralist blog that is coming your way later). I wish to emphasize embodied experience, giving voice to contradiction, and embrace what is for me a new approach to research. But maybe it is not so new, as I often write stories to paste on facebook or send to my friends while I am travelling. When I was living in Paris in June of 2009 I produced and circulated, for instance, the following story:

 So I Tried the French Gym…

Today I decided to try the “Fitness Price” gym on rue Louis Braille in Paris right beside the “Leader Price” grocery store. I reluctantly paid for a single day after being reassured that I would have access to all of the classes, including the cardio and Body Pump classes scheduled for that evening. Being early, I headed toward the weight machines. They were the overstuffed pink kind that you sometimes find in old Holiday Inns, right beside a small, overly-chlorinated swimming pool. A few men were working out, so I worked in, and though I needed to change the weights–to make them heavier!–I dared not move anything, fearing that the machines would fall apart. The squat machine weight was heavy enough, however, mainly because it was so sticky with dirt and lack of care that I hard a hard time getting the bar up and down.

Thankfully the cardio class was starting, and I joined the slim French ladies in the mirrored area. That is when I entered a time warp which catapulted me back to the early 1980s when Jane Fonda taught Jazzercize. In this case, it was a long-haired delicate Italian man leading us through what appeared to be salsa steps, with occasional knee lifts. We were directed to spin around almost continually, not moving our arms–in a Lord of the Dance posture–and barely moving our legs. I actually started to laugh, and mouthed “C’est trop facile Monsieur.” He reassured me that the class would soon get harder. He lied.

I finally left and went upstairs to use the relatively ancient rowing and elliptical machines, managing to work up a sweat while watching the zombie-like class continue below. I was feeling rather smug as I returned to the weight area, and decided to do some chest presses. I miscalculated, however, and after lowering the barbell to my chest, I could not lift it again and remained pinned like a bug until two young French men rescued me. I had forgotten that the weight numbers indicated kilograms, not pounds, and was unaware that the bar itself weighed 12 kilos. One nice young man then spotted me while I continued my work out, and I think he even hit on me, asking such things as “Vous-êtes sportive?” I was so surprised that I did not respond, for these days I am hit on only by old men with stains on their pants, not 19-year old Parisians who might have a thing for sweaty middle-aged white ladies. Anyway, my superior attitude was squashed and I left the gym rather humbled, deciding that I would never return.

This account is not really autoethnographic for it is not self-reflexive; nor does it analyze the situation in terms of social and cultural assumptions. I could potentially transform it into a more academic pursuit by considering, for example, the racial politics of the encounter—the young man who assisted me was black—or my class status, or my initial feelings of superiority with regard to the French men and women at the gym. These people were ‘skinny fat,’ a term of derision used by seriously fit people to describe those who are slender but also weak, their small frames covered in lard rather than developed musculature. It is much worse to be skinny fat than to be strong and solidly fat. Clearly, I was already thinking like a figure girl back then, using concepts that I had learned at the gym to evaluate the bodies around me.

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About feministfiguregirl

I am a 51-year-old professor named Lianne McTavish who receives as much satisfaction from working out at the gym as from publishing my academic research. About eight years ago, I decided to combine my two primary identities (scholar/gym rat) to create "Feminist Figure Girl," a fictional character who both analyzes and participates in bodybuilding. I competed in my first figure show in June of 2011, and then wrote a book inspired by the process, published by SUNY Press in February 2015. In this blog I will write about and consider my ongoing research on the body, while regularly making fun of myself. I recommend that you start reading my first post from August 2010 (available on the home page), instead of backwards from the most recent one, in order to get the full FFG effect.

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