Wednesday, May 30, 2007

Professor feeds the mind and body

David Hutton, The StarPhoenix

Published: Tuesday, May 29, 2007

Maureen Connolly and her Brock University colleague, Georgann Watson, begin their presentation with a detailed description from behind the scenes at a women's bodybuilding competition. They talk about the intense dieting, the heavy use of tanning spray and body paint and even the sometimes vulgar smells backstage.

Images of flexing females forcing smiles flash on the screen behind them until it settles on one woman in particular.

"That's me," Connolly says

Although she looks unassuming in casual wear, the renowned academic and award-winning teacher is also a professional bodybuilder who analyzes the sport from an insider's perspective.

"I'm an insider and I like to think that allows me to look at the culture in a way that a spectator or a more removed academic wouldn't see," she said in an interview after her presentation.

Although much of what has taken place this week at Congress has been about bridging the gap between the conventions of academe and "the real world," researchers like Connolly have taken it one step further -- they participate in their research in order to come to a more complete understanding.

Connolly, who gave the presentation as part of a women's and gender studies panel titled Fire, Fat and Fitness, has been a bodybuilder for more than 20 years, eventually winning enough at the amateur level to turn professional.

She got into the sport after battling an eating disorder and says it has allowed her to get the disorder under control.

"I've read a lot of cultural studies work on competitive body building and I think, 'No, you didn't get it.' . . .

This is a diverse group of women who aren't all Barbies exposing ourselves to the male gaze.

"Bodybuilding can be empowering and many women in it are coming to terms with things like an eating disorder in their past, like myself, and it's a way to get it under control." Her experience has allowed her to make insider observations in her research -- observations she says a more removed theorist wouldn't necessarily be able to gather.

"In my own field, kinesiology, this kind of stuff isn't seen as serious research," Connolly said. "If I was writing about the type of training I did to get ready, or the way I manipulated my body, sure, but the culture isn't what kinesiology researchers do." On the same panel as Connolly, Stephanie Ross, a recent graduate of Lakehead University, talked about her own experience as a female forest fire- fighter in northern Ontario, where she worked for seven summers.

"After seven years of waking up at 5 a.m. to put on wet boots, working for 19 days at a time and sleeping in tents with three other people, I was daily aware that I occupied a tired, sore and extremely filthy body," Ross told the small audience gathered in the basement of the Lutheran Theological Seminary on campus.

Removing herself from firefighting, Ross channelled her negative experiences into a university study, which relies on her own first-hand experience.

To drive her point home, she interviewed 15 female firefighters in Thunder Bay, Ont., about their experiences in the same culture.

What Ross and her interviewees observed isn't pleasant -- she relayed anecdotes about male firefighters "freely" passing around pornographic magazines displaying 13- and 14-yearold girls and about female genitalia carved into hard hats, and spoke of a culture where there's only two kinds of women.

"The roles are very narrowly defined," Ross said. "You're either a fire slut or a lesbian. A female fire- fighter will receive the derogatory name, especially when she parts company with a man." Not all men are bad, Ross said, just as not all women are helpful.

"There are a lot of men in fire that are fabulous to work with," she said.

"But there are certain members of the subculture that set the tone for the social interaction." In many ways, participatory research such as that of Connolly and Ross helps debunk the ivory tower reputation that often plagues universities without abandoning the specialization that distinguishes them. Both researchers admit, however, that sometimes distance is necessary.

Watson, Connolly's co-presenter, went along to a body-building competition in 2006 as a slightly more removed observer, "grooming" Connolly before she went on stage but taking notes on what she saw. She observed the absurdities of the culture -- the reliance on drama and ritual and how none of the competitors questioned the more cartoonish elements of the sport.

"It becomes highly normalized," Watson said. "Blondes usually win."

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