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.