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Can bodybuilding be a feminist act? This professor thinks so

As she waits in the courtyard of a Toronto café, Lianne McTavish holds a slim, black book up in front of her face, primly, as if it's a hand mirror. Legs are crossed; back is straight. She looks like a schoolgirl, engrossed in her studies. For a minute, anyway.

She puts down the book and extends an arm. Popeye muscles.

Tanned, with long, loose blond hair, she wears a black, sleeveless dress that shows off a taut body. Meet Figure Girl, a 43-year-old who competed earlier this summer in a pageant-style show featuring ripped women strutting around, posing in bikinis (hers, custom-made, cost $800) and high heels at the North Alberta Bodybuilding Championships. She came 10th out of 23.

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Make that Feminist Figure Girl.

"It's the notion of the body as culturally constructed and how it differs over time and cultures," she explains, the meaty content of the sentence served lightly with a smile. And also "the notion of what the body is and how you should treat it, mixed with identity, history of medicine, the beauty culture."

Intimidating muscles; steely brain.

She's a professor of art history and visual culture at the University of Alberta. The title of the book Dr. McTavish is reading? The Culture of Cleanliness in Renaissance Italy. She used her experience in the bodybuilding world to write a blog, Look Hot While You Fight the Patriarchy, on her website A book, aimed at both an academic and mainstream audience, is forthcoming.

But if she's using herself as her own experimental (gym) rat for academic pursuits – a highly provocative sort of third-wave feminist performance art – she's also playing head games with herself.

Before she started training for the bodybuilding championships a year ago, she was a self-described "dowdy kick-ass feminist" with short, mousy-brown hair, comfortable in loose clothing and picket lines in support of abortion rights.

"I was so identified with my intellect, I had a lot of confidence and it just didn't matter what I looked like," she explains, adding that her stable relationship with a boyfriend from her high school years added to her complacency. The transformation since then, which included a weight loss of nearly 30 pounds, has changed her life.

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"It's very rewarding … I get attention from men that I enjoy," she says dispassionately as though delivering research results on the social impact of Dadaism. "I think it's about physically conforming to conventional feminine norms – long hair, blond hair, make-up and clothes that show off your body."

Her appearance is not the only experimentation. With her blog, she's a study in candour. One posting described having all her body hair removed by laser for the competition. "When I wrote about my labia, I hesitated. ... But I did. I can write about anything now," she says with an expression of pleasant surprise.

Peel away more layers to reveal her psychological musculature, and the decision to compete in a body-building contest – her first and last, she says – takes on more meaning. It's a cheeky protest against academic life, an unapologetic expression of her roots and an arrogant statement about her ability to accomplish anything she wants. Some of her academic colleagues were in the audience as she paraded out with full makeup, hair extensions, a fake tan and false fingernails.

"I'm thumbing my nose at my doctorate title, although I'm very proud of it. It's very paradoxical," she muses. "It is me saying, 'Yeah, this is me. I'm from a working-class background.' Academia can be very elitist."

Born in London, Ont., the second of four children, she was determined to have a different life than her parents. Her father worked in a post office, and her mother stayed at home. In high school, her goal became a career that would allow her to travel. Then she focused on good marks. For her undergraduate degree at the University of Western Ontario and postgraduate work at the University of Rochester, N.Y., she was fully funded by scholarships.

A 10-year job at the University of New Brunswick led to a tenured position at the University of Alberta in 2007. Working out had been a way to relieve stress, she explains, rhyming off accomplishments: scholarly articles; a book on museums; a book on health and illness in 17th-century France; curator of art exhibitions.

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Then she was inspired by the physique of a female bodybuilder at her gym. "It's about strength. It's so difficult for women to look like that ... and it thwarts every feminine expectation." She started to attend bodybuilding contests and became interested in the subculture. "I saw the Figure Girls. I thought, 'Why would anyone do this?' And they kicked ass. They were smart." Figure Girls is a category of bodybuilding that is more about the "ideal" feminine form rather than the heavyweight one.

On sabbatical that year, she decided to prepare for a competition. "I really thought I might fail, and I liked that," she avows. And she liked that her hard work had a highly visible manifestation, unlike the untold hours in academic life. The project also changed her appreciation for the body. "My body is always changing. ... How I looked onstage lasted only for a few hours." And it gave her a new idea. Now qualified as a personal trainer, she plans to work with abused women to see whether fitness and weightlifting can help them feel empowered.

But with all her brazen confidence, there's one chink in her intellectual armour as she returns to teaching this fall. "I'm worried my students will think they know me," she says, wincing. "I've never tried to be a professor students like. I like to be respected and obeyed. I like to be a bit of a hard ass."

Or, as they say in Figure Girl world, a sculpted butt.

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About the Author
Life columnist

Sarah Hampson is an award-winning journalist whose work started appearing in The Globe and Mail in 1998, when she was invited to write a column. Since 1993, when she began her career in journalism, she had been writing for all of Canada's major magazines, including Toronto Life, Saturday Night (now defunct), Chatelaine, Report on Business and Canadian Art, among others. More

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