Art and Design Professor Gets Ripped for Research

Lianne McTavish, a 43-year-old Professor of the History of Art, Design, and Visual Culture recently participated in a bodybuilding competition. She pumped iron, dieted down, and donned a blinged-out bikini in order to analyze the visual culture of bodybuilding as an insider. She blogs about the experience on

12 July 2011

Professor Lianne McTavish had long been a gym rat, and began lifting weights seriously with her
personal trainer Gill Kovack---herself a competitive heavyweight bodybuilder---when she moved to
Edmonton in 2007. As Lianne became more familiar with, and fascinated by, the bodybuilding sub-
culture, she decided to participate in it directly by training for the Northern Alberta Bodybuilding
Championships, held in Edmonton on June 4, 2011. 'I transformed myself into "Feminist Figure Girl,"'
Lianne reported, 'doing everything that figure girls do to prepare for the stage.' Figure is a type of
bodybuilding competition in which women work to develop defined quads, muscular shoulders,
and impressive lat spreads. Unlike traditional contests, they also wear sparkly bikinis, jewelry, long
coiffed hair, make-up, and five-inch heels while performing their four mandatory quarter turns. 'Figure
competitions combine serious bodybuilding techniques with the aesthetics of a beauty pageant. While
initially appalled by these apparently sexist displays, I decided to try one for myself after meeting figure
girls. These women were not pushovers striving to conform; they were strong, smart, driven women
whom I admired. I wondered how such women negotiated the power dynamics of figure contests,
simultaneously playing and thwarting a stereotypically feminine role. I learned that female sociability
and support are key rewards of the contests. I also learned how to walk in heels, apply mascara, and
work my hammies for the judges.'

Lianne explained that her transformation into Feminist Figure Girl was a serious research project
that included a number of goals. Firstly, it let her test new research methods, especially an auto-
ethnographic approach enabling her to analyze her own life experiences, writing about them both for
her blog site, which is meant to be scholarly as well as entertaining, and her forthcoming book, which is
more highly theoretical in nature. 'I went through all the ethics protocols at the University of Alberta,'
Lianne said, 'undertaking participant observation and interviews for the first time in my career. In the

past I had done archival work and research at libraries and museums. This new project pushed me
to expand my range of ways of producing knowledge, encouraging me to be a better teacher. As a
professor, I need to use and understand the kinds of social media that are important to my students.
I need to encourage them to try a range of methods, and to understand the ethical issues raised by
their research. I also need to try new things and challenge myself, so that I continue to learn, and do
not lazily crank out the same old courses year after year. Students at the University of Alberta deserve
to receive the latest research methods from professors who are engaged in new work, taking risks, and
are passionate about their jobs. Though Feminist Figure Girl is not the only project I am working on
right now---I recently had a book called Defining the Modern Museum accepted for publication by the
University of Toronto Press, curated several art exhibitions, and am writing about health and illness in
seventeenth-century France---it is an exciting study that will inform my teaching and research well into

the future. To learn more about this project check out

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