Baking as a Political Strategy

I spent all weekend baking and cooking. And I mean ALL weekend; I went organic food shopping on Friday night, and then to the local markets and specialty shops on Saturday. I think I was in the kitchen for about 8 hours on Saturday, watching the fourth season of Dexter–so good despite the family theme–while recreating some of the dishes I had eaten in France: ratatouille, wine-soaked fennel, crespeou, and cassis creme brulee, to name only a few. I loved using that mini-blow torch to melt the vergeoise sugar while shouting ‘fire!,’ ‘fire!’ like Beavis on Beavis and Butthead, a show I used to enjoy watching (aside: I remember hearing someone argue that Beavis and Butthead was so overtly sexist and ridiculous that it in fact offered a critique of sexism). I suppose that I am an obsessed foodie, though according to Josee Johnston and Shyon Baumann in Foodies: Democracy and Distinction in the Gourmet Foodscape (2010) a real foodie would instantly reject this label. I am in the midst of this sociological analysis and am finding it both obvious and repetitive, having read only the first 60 pages so far. 

My enthusiasm for good-quality and sometimes complicated food is at odds with the Feminist Figure Girl project, a contradiction that will become clearer once I begin to diet-down for the competition, eating only egg whites, chicken and protein powder. During those months, I will likely continue to bake, dispersing the results amongst friends and even acquaintances. People in my condo building will find tins of kumquat scones and almond-orange biscotti resting outside their doors in the morning. This will no doubt disturb them. I actually don’t prepare food to eat it; I make it as a gift for others. Sometimes the recipients are willing, like when I served both cranberry-lemon and chocolate chip scones to my partner as he lay on the couch–his favourite position–watching the British Open with the cat happily tucked up in his armpit. I considered the chocolate chips a tacky addition but he insisted. This type of baking is not political; it is either weird or just my way of showing affection.

At first I was ashamed of this apparently servile and traditionally feminine behaviour but then I learned that baking can be a political strategy, and that it was used as such by women in the past. During the nineteenth century, middle-class North American women often made cakes, pies, and cookies, selling them at bake sales to raise money for churches, museums, and other organizations. In this way, they participated in a kind of entrepreneurship and became active in public organizations, gaining some power in the process. These women made hefty financial contributions to local charities and art galleries, helping to build them. And they did so while appearing to remain within the strict boundaries of acceptable female behaviour, offering gifts that could hardly be refused. I now celebrate this baked-good gift heritage, dispersing cookies and muffins wherever I go, at various social events but also at work. I like to disrupt relatively formal or otherwise academic events with a frosted pound cake. Seriously that is what I do, and I consider it an historically-based feminist intervention without really caring how it is interpreted by others.

Maybe figure competitions are another venue for subversive female behaviour that at first glance appears to be conformist. That is one possiblity that I will explore and I definitely want it to be true. I am having my doubts, however, after reading more about how these events are described and judged. From, a site giving instructions to figure girls participating in an upcoming contest: ‘when judging a figure competition the judges shall assess the athleticism of the physique. This is not a bodybuilding contest. A SMALL DEGREE OF MUSCULARITY WITH SEPARATION IS DESIRED, WITH NO VISIBLE STRIATIONS. The muscle tone should appear firm and round with a small amount of body fat over the muscle, and no excessive leanness.’ …. ‘The more finished and feminine you appear, the better your overall presentation is. Keep in mind your face makeup should be dark enough to match your body makeup. The judges are looking for the best package of symmetry, stage presence, overall skin tone and femininity.’

Yikes that is some scary shit. Not as scary as the story I once heard at the gym, recounted by someone who was learning how to evaluate these competitions. One male figure judge declared ‘Just line them up in the order in which you want to fuck them the most!’ I have probably corrected his grammar in my retelling, but that is a bit disturbing. Yet maybe figure competitions are like Beavis and Butthead, so blatantly sexist that they backfire, disrupting the gendered status quo. I still hope there is some wiggle room and that I can find it, even as wiggling is so forbidden that it deserves bold text: ‘No matter how well a suit fits it will move. There are a variety of different products which will temporarily glue your suit to your body.’ Uhhhh… That sucks.

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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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