Guest Post by Lianne McTavish — University of Alberta
(aka Feminist Figure Girl)
While working out at the gym yesterday—something I do on a daily basis—I felt a strangely familiar pressure in my lower abdomen and noticed that it was protruding, despite the strong elastic of my Lululemon pants. ‘Oh I know what is going on,’ I said to my fit workout partner. ‘I am getting my period!’ She too was bloated and crampy, and we wondered if our cycles had synchronized during strenuous sets of wide grip chin ups and heavy dead lifts. Deciding that we were probably romanticizing our ovarian activity, we stopped talking and returned to our tabata-inspired drills, grunting out 50 burpees. Life was good.
I was pleased with my body and its potential fertility, which made me feel younger than my 44 years. Just a few months ago I thought I might have entered menopause, though without any accompanying symptoms, except for amenorrhea. I had stopped menstruating while training and dieting for a bodybuilding competition. After being promoted to full professor at the University of Alberta, writing a couple of books, and publishing numerous articles, I needed a new challenge. Already a dedicated gym rat, I decided to enter a bodybuilding competition, doing so as a form of research. I began reading feminist theories of embodiment and cultural accounts of weight lifting, hired an established diet coach, took posing lessons, and learned how to walk in high heels. I entered a local contest in the category called ‘Figure,’ which favours muscular physiques with wide, capped shoulders, broad upper backs, and well defined quads, 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 four-inch high plastic shoes while performing mandatory four-quarter turns to display every angle of their bodies to a panel of judges. I wanted to know why women found such contests empowering, even though these events might initially seem both oppressive and sexist. I also wanted to experience what it felt like to compete.
One physical result was the loss of my period. Six months before my show I had weighed 145 pounds and had my body fat carefully measured at 17%, but when I hit the stage at the Northern Alberta Bodybuilding Championships on June 4, 2011, I was 118 pounds and had only about 6% body fat. During that diet-down phase I had ceased taking birth control pills because the estrogen could soften my body, at odds with my goals. Although I used alternative forms of contraception, I feared that they would be less effective and began taking monthly pregnancy tests. The single blue line on the plastic stick was a relief to me, replacing the role of menstrual blood by providing visual evidence of my non-pregnant state.
My period had not returned three months after my competition, though I had gained about 15 pounds by eating larger amounts of healthy, high protein food. I was training just as hard at the gym; indeed I was lifting much heavier weights. During a routine physical in September, I reluctantly told my sensible-shoes doctor that I had not had a period in quite some time. ‘If I have already gone through menopause,’ I exclaimed, ‘it’s the bomb and I say bring it!’ ‘Oh no,’ she chuckled, ‘most of my athletic female patients no longer menstruate. Plus, you are only 44 and can probably squeeze out a few more eggs.’ Horrified by this news I cried out: ‘No, no more eggs!’ I had been hoping to wear the crown of sterility for the rest of my life.
Still, I was happy when my period finally returned a few months ago. In part, this response was related to my fear of aging, or ‘drying up.’ This conception of growing older stems from the early modern period (1350–1750), when blood was the most important bodily humour and its fluid movement was valued. As a specialist in seventeenth-century French visual culture and medical history, I knew that during the early modern period menstruation had been considered integral to being a woman, and to sexual desire. It was positively linked with fecundity, health, and youth. Periodic bleeding was understood as a necessary expulsion of corrupted blood, providing women with health benefits that men sadly lacked. Male bodies had to resort to random nose bleeds or swollen hemorrhoids to achieve cleanliness. The overwhelmingly negative connotations of les règles are modern, but the early modern response to menstrual blood was in fact ambivalent, with the womb sometimes described as a sewer that collected and expelled dirt.
Such ambivalence continues in contemporary western culture, and is certainly present in the bodybuilding subculture. The absence of menstruation is an accomplishment for some competitors, proving that a low level of body fat has been reached. Its return marks the off-season, proving that muscular dedicated women are still ‘female’ after all. The menstrual cycling that occurs in bodybuilding is thus open to interpretation, potentially linked with gendered identity, but also a sign of having overcome supposedly feminine weaknesses. In the end, I learned a lot about my body and the contemporary performance of gendered identity by entering a Figure competition. I also learned that menstruation is a cultural performance linked with gender and sexuality and that it can be simultaneously desired and dreaded.
Lianne McTavish is a Professor in the Department of Art and Design at University of Alberta. She blogs at FeministFigureGirl.com.