The Chronicle Review

Muscling Into Theory

David Ford

The author in a competition. The professor at the U. of Alberta decided to enter bodybuilding culture so that she could write about it.
November 20, 2011

Why would a 43-year-old full professor lift weights, lose 25 pounds, slather herself in orange tanning dye, and prance around in a crystal-encrusted bikini? To undertake research as a competitive bodybuilder, of course.

 After pumping iron seriously for three years, I found myself with seemingly separate identities as an academic specializing in 17th-century French visual culture, the history of the body, and critical museum theory, and a fitness enthusiast able to bench-press her own body weight. At a certain point, I realized I got more satisfaction from being a gym rat than from publishing scholarly research, so I decided to combine my identities and create a character called Feminist Figure Girl, with which to enter the world of bodybuilding and write about it.

I began my Feminist Figure Girl project by entering a bodybuilding contest in a category called "Figure," which favors muscular physiques with wide shoulders, broad upper backs, and well-defined legs, but requires a softer appearance than traditional forms of bodybuilding. Adopting a beauty-pageant aesthetic, the exclusively female participants in Figure—known colloquially as "Figure girls"—wear blinged-out bikinis and high heels as they perform mandatory four-quarter turns, displaying every angle of their bodies to a panel of judges.

Accustomed as I was to pursuing historical research in libraries, archives, and museums, this new study obliged me to apply for ethical clearance at my university before becoming a participant-observer at the gym and interviewing other Figure girls. I wanted to both communicate the physicality of my own endeavors and analyze them theoretically. 

 Excited by the prospect of researching contemporary bodies instead of early-modern ones, I read about feminist phenomenology and engaged with the expansive feminist scholarship on bodybuilding. I found that much of that literature was produced by authors who had never participated in the sport and thus necessarily focused on the images of bodybuilders in films and magazines. Some scholars had entered competitions, but had done so as heavyweight bodybuilders, not Figure girls, and still tended to emphasize body image rather than physical experience.

In contrast, I wanted to discover what it felt like to train for and participate in a show. So in January, I hired a professional diet coach (requiring me to eat meat for the first time in 17 years), took posing lessons, devised a new program with my personal trainer, increased my daily cardio workouts, and purchased a membership at a tanning salon. I finally hit the stage on June 4, competing at the Northern Alberta Bodybuilding Championships in Edmonton.

My onstage performance was the most painful part of the project. Achieving a lean frame with only 6-percent fat stressed my body, but no more than my longstanding professional career, which had already saddled me with tendonitis in both wrists and an upper-back injury caused by being continually hunching over a keyboard. The pre-competition dehydration ritual, designed to make my body look "tight" on stage, was exacerbated by a migraine headache resulting from shifting barometric pressure. I could not take ibuprofen for relief in case it caused water retention. While standing under the bright stage lights, able to hear but not see the 700-member audience, my feet were throbbing, since I have fused bones in both ankles, an unusual birth defect.

In agony, I prayed for the competition to be over, knowing that my partner was waiting outside with a bag of my favorite snacks. Those organic yogurt-covered almonds were foremost in my mind as I flared my back and tried to smile without a drop of moisture in my mouth.

The 20 weeks leading up to the contest had nevertheless produced rewarding insights about writing, my body, and the culture of bodybuilding. I had started a blog called, hoping to write funny yet informative posts that would disseminate feminist ideas in a slightly subversive manner. I was pleased to attract a loyal following, receiving several hundred hits per day, a number that skyrocketed in June after I was interviewed for newspaper articles and radio programs across Canada.

Knowing that thousands of people from all walks of life were engaging with my academic research was gratifying, and it encouraged me to try different writing styles and strategies. While dieting, I continued to produce traditional kinds of academic writing and began a book about my Feminist Figure Girl adventure. More overtly theoretical than the blog, chapters in the manuscript compare bodybuilding with Weight Watchers and yoga; draw on feminist phenomenology to analyze the empowering sensation of muscle failure; consider the simultaneous reassertion and defiance of gender roles by Figure girls; analyze the backstage interactions at bodybuilding shows; and focus on my inevitable "bounce back" after the competition, when water rehydrated my exhausted frame, rendering me both softer and rounder.

Instead of viewing my body as a stable form to be manipulated at will or a superficial image to be presented to the world, I came to understand it as a process, similar to historical conceptions of corporeality. During the early-modern period in Europe (roughly 1500 to 1800), for example, there was no body type that was considered normal or standard. Every body was different, continually responding to changes in climate, food, and physical activity. Early-modern individuals were largely responsible for knowing and treating their own bodies, sharing that information with health-care practitioners.

Contemporary bodybuilders observe their bodies in a similar way, noting how they respond to supplements, utilize carbohydrates, and store fat, for example. Like the early-modern body, this built body is always in flux—bulking up before dieting down, absorbing water before shedding it, bloating with carbs before leaning out.

While engaging in those cyclical activities, I realized that I could never achieve the ideal Figure-girl form, but could instead both adjust and challenge my body, ultimately realizing its strengths and limitations. Belying my initial fears that the discipline required to produce a "stage-worthy" body would encourage me to detest my flesh, and possibly even develop an eating disorder, I instead came to appreciate my physical strengths and weaknesses.

My foray into the bodybuilding subculture was equally rewarding. I quickly realized that respect was earned by hard work, diligence, and the sheer willpower required to get on stage. As I gradually became more visibly ripped, my status at the gym changed. Fellow patrons regularly inquired about my progress, encouraging me. Male and female bodybuilders, as well as fellow Figure girls, accepted me as one of them, often remarking that it was impossible for anyone to understand the challenges of preparing for a competition without having experienced it firsthand.

At no point did I feel like an academic interloper, voyeuristically gazing at a culture that was exotically other than my own. I was and remain more comfortable at the gym than at the university, likely because I refuse to disguise or reject my working-class background. Unlike the teaching, publishing, and administrative work that my career requires, bodybuilding is rooted in physical labor that is visible for all to see. According to the sociologist Pierre Bourdieu, bodybuilding is thus a working-class sport that privileges strength, endurance, and the spirit of sacrifice, whereas such bourgeois activities as golf and horse riding typically require early training and emphasize grace rather than muscularity. Whereas those arguably more upper-class sports ideally appear to be natural or effortless, I contend that bodybuilding is entirely unnatural and thrives on the display of effort.

That is part of why I love bodybuilding, and why I will continue to wear tank tops that show off my sculpted guns while delivering academic conference papers well into the future.

Lianne McTavish is a professor of art history at the University of Alberta. Her blog is