Exactly five years ago, I was standing on stage during an amateur figure competition, dehydrated and feeling like crap. It seems like a lifetime has passed since then. I rarely think about those days anymore, though I sometimes consider the book I wrote afterwards, inspired by the embodied experience of prepping for and analyzing the process of becoming a figure girl. The book was published by a university press in 2015 and has been out for just over a year. It is a little early for reviews to be published; everything takes a long time in the academy, mainly because texts are sent out to experts in the field, critiqued, and revised before they wait in a long line for eventual printing. Any writing that does not go through the rigorous process of being “refereed” will not count as a publication in my line of work. This blog, for instance, registers a big 0 on my annual report. Typing something and then pushing a button that says “publish,” which I will soon do with this post, is not considered scholarly, regardless of the audience. In my academic world, self-published pages gathered together and sold online as “books” are not books, and those who write them are not authors. Producing refereed texts is the only thing that counts, with reviews of those refereed works having some value as well, as long as they appear in respected venues.
I recently looked around online and in databases to see if anyone has reviewed any of my books because I am producing my 2015-2016 annual report of productivity. I found a few reviews, including one of my 2013 museums book, written by someone with an axe to grind. It was a vengeance review. Oh well. The academic world is not immune to pettiness and even seems to encourage it. At the same time, I tracked down a few critiques of the Feminist Figure Girl book and thought, what the hell, why not respond to a number of them while flying to Montreal to attend the Critical Heritage Studies Conference? Perhaps this material will also divert those loyal readers with time to kill while standing in line at Starbucks, no wait, make that Iconoclast Koffiehuis (http://www.iconoclastcoffee.com).
“I was disappointed that the author did not include more images of the process.”
This exclusion was not an oversight. I deliberately avoided images of my body changing over time. I did not want to reproduce the visual imagery of the diet industry, which documents and praises the bodies of (mostly) women who become smaller and more disciplined, making “progress” over weeks and months. Losing weight was one part of my Feminist Figure Girl project, but not the most important one. The weight loss aspect was actually quite easy for me, except towards the end when I began to feel light headed. Once I had decided to comply with the diet prescribed to me by a professional diet coach, I simply complied with it. It was not torture and I was not hungry. I ate substantial quantities of high protein food because my diet coach was a professional, not a “Biggest Loser” maniac insisting on instant results. I did not drink a “delicious shake for breakfast, a delicious shake for lunch” because that is crazy bullshit and no one should ever do it. Instead, I lived an incredibly measured lifestyle for five months, losing about 1 pound per week until I looked the way my coach thought I should look on stage. I did not have a “goal weight” per se. Every week, I sent her a photograph of me posing in a bikini, but reproduced only a few of them in the book, neglecting to present a series. As a professor of visual culture, I thought long and hard about what kinds of images to include in the book. I decided to focus mostly on images of my body at work, during training sessions. Gaining muscle is much harder to do than is losing fat. It took me about five years to build my muscle, not a mere five months. Losing the weight made visible my musculature, and the same thing would happen if I lost weight right now. In parts of my book, I highlighted images that were banal or else made me look awkward and “ugly,” trying to evade conventional poses and beauty standards even as I was in many ways complying with them while actually on stage. I was on stage for about 15 minutes, so that was another minor part of the project. Posing on stage was not the goal of my project; it was an unpleasant necessity.
“I don’t understand why the author would do something so extreme, apparently out of simple curiosity.”
To a large degree, everything I do is driven by curiosity. The pursuit of curiosity is worthy and often results in the production of new knowledge. How else would innovation of any kind occur? I am a curious person, interested in almost everything, always looking and learning and wanting more. I am currently laying a path for the next twenty years of research, which will see me working more closely with scientists, physicians, and clinicians. Why? Because that is a foreign world to me and it is fucking fascinating! I can make important social contributions as well, as a side bonus. My volunteer work elsewhere will help to balance the fact that I do my academic work for myself, for my pleasure and I do not apologize for that. The kind of autonomy I have as a full tenured professor—after investing 25 years of learning and doing a lot of shit work in the meantime—is part of the reason why some people dislike professors and take up an anti-intellectual stance. Research driven by curiosity often includes pleasure and delight and a certain self-involvement that is prohibited elsewhere.
I do not consider the Feminist Figure Girl Project to have been extreme in any way. Going to university for ten years to get my degrees might be considered extreme. Having a baby at the age of 46—primarily because I was curious about the physical process and how it would permanently transform my life—is pretty extreme. No one has ever called me extreme for going to graduate school or becoming a mom, but they should. Those choices were risky and not predictable. In contrast, building muscle and losing weight for a research project that took about a year to complete (not including the time it took to write my book) are not radical acts. Maybe for other people the process would have higher stakes. I am not risk averse, at least not according to the survey administered by my financial advisor. My greatest fear is taking the easy route, avoiding change, and refusing to question my beliefs and practices on a continual basis. I am also easily bored.
“Look Hot While You Fight the Patriarchy? WTF is up with that tag line? That is not feminist.”
Exactly. How can feminism and the pursuit of compliance to beauty standards go hand in hand? They probably cannot, which was one of the underlying challenges of the project. As a longstanding feminist with “street cred,” including decades of activism and lobbying, not to mention shouting into bull horns, I decided to take a step back and try something new. Once a belief system seems like common sense, it is time to challenge it. I temporarily became a figure girl in order to force myself out of my feminist comfort zone. It was an awesome experience and I am a “better” or at least fuller feminist now because I have had a wider range of experiences.
I chose the tag line at the beginning of the project, to be provocative and provide a sense of my light hearted yet challenging approach to the research. Humour and feminism go hand in hand historically, though it is currently more acceptable to be a feminist killjoy (and crucially important to do that as well). I was sure that the title of my book would be criticized. Since I am not risk averse, I decided to maintain the phrase, signaling the seemingly impossible tension in my project while invoking humour. As a professor, I have learned the hard way that humour and sarcasm never work in the classroom. All the same, I kept the tag line because I believe that it is a little defiant. It defies my conventional feminist past as well as my position as a middle aged professor who would proudly proclaim herself to be “hot” as if that appellation was somehow desirable.
I am not a fan of the feminist police. I think that Beyonce is awesome! How great that a pop star diva would embrace feminism, however defined. She does not have to read Judith Butler or make reports about inter-sectional identity. Feminism is a multifaceted, longstanding, array of political movements that have changed the world. I am not worried about the commodification of feminism, or of dumbing it down. Feminism is strong, not vulnerable. Then again, I don’t watch Fox News or pay any attention to internet trolls. Haters will not control my actions or limit my experiences. I won’t defensively protect feminism from them because they are nothing and I have more productive things to do.
I found the author annoying.
Yes, that is correct. I am also rather pompous.
Your comments made me both think and laugh – thank you! I think I probably mentioned to you already that I used one chapter from the book – about the intersections between the bodily performances of volunteering at an abortion clinic and the figure girl performances – as part of my undergrad feminist research methods course. Students had lots to chew on and think about (and they all love Beyonce, too!
Thanks so much for letting me know that you use my book in one of your courses. Others have told me that they use specific blog posts too, including the one on selfies. This is reassuring and motivating. I am using a chapter from your book in my bodies, sex and death in early modern Italy course this summer. I am having the students write their own consultation letter to a physician.
Thank you for sharing these responses, particularly the thinking behind your book title; I laugh every time I see it.
I am not sure why I didn’t read this when you published it, but I want to tell you, Thank-you. Thank you for being so honest and authentic. I will always have a tight bond with you over bodybuilding and it’s crazy culture.
Thanks Fitbabe. This blog site was inspired by activities and interests that are no longer dominant for me, though I still love lifting at the gym and work out 6 days a week (though I no longer watch my diet). I keep the site active because people still read it and I hope that it is useful or interesting to them in some way. I am flattered that you liked my post!