In June 2011, I competed in a figure/bodybuilding competition as a form of embodied research.
This photograph shows me standing onstage during the Northern Alberta Bodybuilding Championships, wearing a tiny blue velvet bikini and high heeled plastic shoes while covered in tanning dye.
Figure is a category of physique competition in which women train like bodybuilders to increase their muscle mass, focusing on growing a wide back and strong legs. They then gradually lose fat to reveal those muscles, ideally displaying small waists to create a desired “X” shape.
As a specialist in the early modern body in France (1550-1750), I had written books and articles about the history of childbirth, illness, health and medical portraiture. And I had worked for decades inside libraries, archives and museums.
At age 45, however, I needed a new challenge and decided to use my own body and my own life as sites for learning. I wanted to try what was for me a new approach to producing knowledge.
I decided to undertake an auto-ethnographic project, analyzing my own experiences within broader cultural frameworks to interrogate the gendered dynamics of fitness culture and assumptions about the practice of bodybuilding.
I was exploring popular topics such as body image, fat phobia and feminism, which are misrepresented in much popular culture. I started to write about these topics for broader audiences in a blog.
Figure competitions can help women reject gender norms
At first I thought that becoming a figure girl was at odds with my feminist identity and politics. I was not interested in being objectified and judged in terms of my appearance instead of my intelligence. Yet I discovered that figure competitions can benefit women, helping them to be strong, independent, and to reject gender norms.
The successful figure girl is, after all, larger and more muscular than your typical fashion model. She also eats a lot of chicken and sweet potatoes, without apology.
Want more? Try: “Today I got on the scales. Things didn’t go well…”
For me, feminism involves a commitment to expanding opportunities and diminishing restrictions in the lives of girls and women (which in turn improves the lives of boys and men). It does not involve producing or enforcing rules for living, but encourages everyone to think critically about sexism and gender roles, starting with their everyday experiences.
My posing and walking lessons were informative – I was awkward and simply could not convey the proper form of femininity. In this process, I made connections with many amazing women and men, who taught me how to appreciate my physical strengths.
I strove for an impossible ideal
Like many figure girls (and women in general), I strove to embody an impossible ideal. In the end, my failure to conform was a liberating experience.