Wednesday, May 13, 2015

Book Review: Feminist Figure Girl by Lianne McTavish

Hey readers! Sorry as always for my long hiatus. I'm back, baby!

I have this book to review but I feel in the interests of full disclosure I need to set it up a little first. When I first started volunteering at the Fredericton Morgentaler Clinic FULLY EIGHT YEARS AGO (!!) the volunteer co-ordinator was the hilarious, sharp, organized and awe-inspiring Dr. Lianne McTavish. A few short months after she left (to move to Alberta - story of the Maritimes), I took over in the scheduling of the volunteers.

I always enjoyed volunteering with Lianne, who had many sage (if sometimes cynical) words of advice on any topic imaginable. She wore many hats in the local feminist scene (kind of a necessity in a small place like Fredericton) and was always a spirited and smart addition to any actions or campaigns. After Lianne left, we kept in touch in the vague, nebulous social media way one does with one's acquaintances/former colleagues/movement comrades. We were also both, at the time, involved with the Abortion Rights Coalition of Canada and taking active roles in advising and encouraging the pro-choice movement back in New Brunswick.

It was with great interest, then, that I began reading Lianne's fledgeling (at the time) blog, Feminist Figure Girl. The project seemed ridiculously extreme to me but I knew Lianne and liked her writing, so I followed it - and have been following it, to various degrees of faithfulness, since the beginning.

I was not surprised, then, to receive this book in the mail - Feminist Figure Girl by Dr. Lianne McTavish. I want you to understand both that I adore the author as a fierce and ridiculously smart feminist, and at times hated her blog/the project. The very tagline - "Look hot while you fight the patriarchy" - grated, even though I knew it must be tongue-in-cheek. The whole concept of it was weird to me and I have never been convinced that it was feminist.

The book changed my mind. I will warn you at the outset that Dr. McTavish is an academic, and this is an academic project, so the language is not always very accessible. However, the advantage it has over other documentation of similar types of projects ("I did everything in the Bible for a year," "I ate fast food for a month," etc.) is that it is by necessity clearly laid out in terms of methodology and the results. It is easy to follow if you can understand the language, and it very clearly spelled out for me the feminist implications of the project.

In brief, the author became a "figure girl" and competed as one, in an attempt to explore the construction of the body within the context of body building, through a feminist lens. The study is autoethnographical, meaning McTavish herself undertook this research on her own body and meticulously recorded the results. She does a thorough examination of photographs and the role of photographic documentation of the process, so there are definitely some interesting visuals (just a head's up for those planning to read this in public - partial nudity abounds).

I did find some parts of the book dry, as can be expected when a non-academic reads a book of this nature. But overall I found it fascinating, even when I wasn't totally on board with McTavish's conclusions. The section on photography was especially interesting, as was a striking description of deliberate dehydration/carbo-loading leading up to the competition, including a ridiculous photograph of the author having her hair and makeup done glamourously while she, dead-eyed and exhausted, mechanically stuffs a piece of meat into her mouth.

It really is astonishing what the author has put herself through in the name of, as far as I can tell, sheer curiosity. For me I found a lot of value in this uncommon examination of the body as a construction, and how much control we can actually physically exert over it. I feel that it fits, however narrowly, under the umbrella of reproductive justice and I do urge you to give it a read. If nothing else it will definitely open one or two topics of discussion at the dinner table.

I am immensely proud and, frankly, awe-struck by Lianne. I hope her next project is equally fascinating but maybe a little less personally taxing.

Friday, January 16, 2015

So Many Things Left

Still here, still angry. Still too cynical to tell y'all my in depth feelings about recent developments. I am currently reading Olivia Chow's memoirs and the message I am taking away is the same that permeated Jack Layton's last letter - hope is better than fear. I am trying to be loving, hopeful and optimistic. I am not always succeeding.

Today the announcement came that a new clinic is opening in Fredericton. I am genuinely happy that underserved populations will be seen - prioritized, in fact - at this clinic.

I am hopeful that those who care about abortion and reproductive health care in New Brunswick - myself, as always, included - can now turn to the real work of organizing for universal access, and for the complete repeal of all anti-choice rules and regulations.

I have a postcard, sent a few years ago by a dear friend, now displayed (perhaps unwisely) in my hall. Last time I wrote, the chant 'The system isn't broken, it was built this way' echoed in my head. Today it is the words on the postcard that I hear - 'There are so many things left to do'.

I am working on making this an optimistic and hopeful message to myself.

Apologies for the vagueness of this post.

Wednesday, November 26, 2014

Boiling Over

This week so far has been like a strange dream that I have floated through. The decision out of Ferguson did not surprise me but it stunned me, and ever since I have been detached and numb. It can't help that I had my IUD removed (more on that in another post!), had a flu shot, went to the Ferguson solidarity rally here in Toronto and screamed my frustration and anger and hopelessness into the cold air. And now this announcement - the newly-elected New Brunswick Liberals have taken a baby step towards improving access to abortion in NB by getting rid of the infamous "two doctor rule". What does this mean?

First, you might wonder why I write on the blog so infrequently these days. I have my reasons, but mostly the frustration of being outside of New Brunswick - but still caring very much what happens there - has made me somewhat cynical. And when I offer my input, being treated as a "from away" who doesn't understand the issues has made me somewhat bitter. Typical Fredericton, of course (love ya New Brunny!). Not entirely unjustified. But still, there it is.

I want to be as hopeful and idealistic as I always was, and failing that, I want to keep my cynicism off this blog. Its home is in my weekly calls with my mum, where we indulge in it together as family tradition dictates.

So anyway, this is big news, and full credit should go to the hardworking activists who have been pushing for years/decades - yes, including me; I may have come from away and left again but I did work hard and still do - and not to the ultimately cynical (glass houses I know) Liberal Party, who did this out of strategy and practicality and nothing more, which, fine, that's how politics works. Let's just try not to pretend it's anything it ain't.

And of course there's more to do, as wisely pointed out in the RJNB press release. This means nothing without more doctors - the two that have been performing abortions in hospitals have been turning people away since they started because the demand is simply too high. And the "only in a hospital" rule needs to go. The Liberals are being dicks even as they give us a victory, blindsiding us with the announcement to elicit the outpouring of unexamined gratitude. Well fuck that. The response is, as it should be, "Thanks - finally! Now what about the rest?"

The words "the system isn't broken, it was built this way" have been echoing through my head since last night at the rally. Here is yet another example. Failing tearing down the whole system, each piecemeal improvement has to be relentlessly fought for, and even then, who does it help? Those on the margins, the rural, poor and the racialized, can no more get to one of the two hospitals than they could to the clinic. For many New Brunswickers those hospitals may as well be on the moon.

A system couldn't be built to be impenetrable, so it had to be built in such a way that each small change, each tiny capitulation, needed to be ripped and squeezed over lifetimes, on the backs of those with the heaviest burdens.

Anyway, I am still angry.

Thursday, October 9, 2014

Vasectomies for some, miniature Canadian flags for others!

Do yourself a favour and go read this excellent piece by Leigha Ariana at the Toast, about how a woman named Norma Ellen Verwey trolled the entire country by proposing mandatory vasectomies to the Royal Commission on the Status of women. An important part of our history.

Everything, according to Norma, went exactly as she’d hoped. After being called onto talk show after talk show – “as expected, the moderators who contacted me were either impolite, chauvinistic and sarcastic, or patronising and full of good-humoured male upmanship,” she writes – she eventually got more than one medical doctor to call in, amidst the vulgar phone calls and personal attacks aplenty, to admit that, even in 1968, vasectomies had 60-70% reversibility. Some men phoned in to admit they’d had a vasectomy, and that they were happier for it, while others phoned in to express a wish to get a vasectomy; and soon, the conversation about vasectomies began to change. 
By the end of it, she says, no matter what else you wanted to say about it, “No listener in the Vancouver area, male or female, could claim that they had never heard of reversible vasectomy.” 
So please, never forget, if you are Canadian or even if you are not, this courageous woman who almost single-handedly changed the landscape of the Canadian birth control story with what began as a social experiment. She endured a great deal of ridicule in order to give this gift to us; the threatening phone calls did not end, though she received several in her support as well, and she was a topic in the papers for years to come.