Five Things You Don’t Know About Terry Fox: May 27, 6:30pm

You know he’s a national hero, but what did he add to the national conversation? As he became a hero Canadians were inspired by Terry Fox in ways you might not expect.

Come see me talk at the Danforth Coxwell branch of the Toronto Public Library,May 27, 6:30-8:00pm in the Program Room (upstairs). This event is part of the History Matters lecture series.

The talks will expand upon (yes, there’s more) my recent blog posts for Active History. I’ll talk upon some unknown aspects of the runner’s life story and how he fits into the story of Canada in the 1980s.

You can find my April 2015 ActiveHistory.ca series on Terry Fox, marking the 35th anniversary of the Marathon of Hope, here:

Terry Fox Was an Activist
Terry Fox: A Unifying Influence on Our Nation?
Terry Fox was a Rock Star
Terry Fox Mania

I hope to see you May 27!

Debating Femininity with Nancy Greene

Fifteen for 15 #8

Eight years ago I was seeking permission to use an advertising image of Nancy Greene for an article. Getting permission to use old ads and images is sometimes hard. After getting the run-around from the brand I decided to contact Nancy Greene’s “people” to see if they could help. I found a number and dialed. Greene answered the phone.

I was caught off guard and impressed that Nancy Greene answered her own calls. This was before she was Senator Nancy Greene. But still. Greene was named Canada’s “athlete of the century” by the Canadian Press in 1999 because of her gold and silver medals at the 1968 Olympics, World Cup wins in 1967 and 1968 and numerous Canadian titles. She also operates a ski resort in the B.C. interior, Cahilty Lodge, with her husband Al Raine. Greene didn’t seem like someone who would have the time to be answering public inquiries.

True to one of her nicknames, “Nice Nancy,” Greene was down to earth and chatty. I explained that I was looking for permission to use an ad that appeared in Chatelaine for an article on female athletes and femininity. I’m paraphrasing here, but her immediate reaction was a chipper but firm “no, no, no, you’ve got it all wrong.” Greene told me that there wasn’t any need to debate athlete’s femininity or feminization, it was a non-issue and people shouldn’t make a bit deal out of such stuff. She “was what she was” and there was no need for analysis.

The ad in question is one of my favourites from my study of images of female athletes in advertising. It shows three images of Greene, posed in her ski gear, beside a vase of flowers, and in a kicky, striped sleeveless dress. The copy compares two women “Mrs. Raine” and Nancy Greene, and the challenges of keeping their skin hydrated and soft. In the end we learn that Nancy Greene is Mrs. Raine! It employs a common trope of pre-2000s images of athletes: comparing their sport with other more stereotypically feminine activities. You can see and read more about these ads here.

Nancy Greene at Sun Peaks in 2000. Public Domain.
Nancy Greene (2000). Public Domain.

I was taken aback when Greene told me flat-out that I was wrong to study female athletes and femininity. I can’t remember what I said in response to her challenge, other than stammering out a meek defense of my research. Looking back I can see this as the first time one of my research participants challenged the academic process. I now know this is a common experience when writing about living people. They talk back.

Greene chuckled at my reply and then agreed to let me use the image. Cool, right?

Last week I was in Banff, Alberta and saw a panel about Greene in a display about Canada’s best skiers. She was one of only a few women featured. It made me think back to our phone conversation. At the time I felt charmed by Greene but unsettled that she didn’t want to talk about the gender dynamics of sport. Since I hadn’t expected to talk to Greene I had not thought about what she might say if she learned I was analyzing her public image. After reading Silken Laumann’s biography I can see that such inquiries probably hit a bit too close to home or are perceived to take away from an athlete’s accomplishments.

Off the ski hill Greene was known as “Nice Nancy,” but on the slopes she was called “Tiger” because of her aggressive skiing style. That this all happened in the late-1960s and early 1970s when femininity as subject for public debate is interesting. This was the era of the Royal Commission on the Status of Women and a time when female athletes successfully lobbied for a women’s program within Sport Canada. Greene didn’t see herself as a sports feminist and didn’t join other female athletes in attempting to reform Canada’s sport system. But she still helped advance women’s sport in Canada because of what she achieved. So in this sense, Greene was right, she “was who she was,” and it worked.

Still, I think the question of femininity is an important part of Nancy Greene’s legacy. The ad was sexist and a relic of the 1970s. It is a lens we can use to understand the past and think about gender representation in the present.

Fifteen for 15 is a series of blog posts I’ve been doing since 2013 about women’s sport in Canada. Inspired by ESPN’s “30 for 30” and “Nine for IX” television documentaries, I’m thinking about athletes, teams and watershed moments in Canadian women’s sport history.

Hayley Wickenheiser: Flag Bearer, Standard-Bearer

Fifteen for 15 #6

This morning Hayley Wickenheiser will carry the Canadian flag into Fisht Stadium in the opening ceremonies of the 2014 Olympic Games. My first thought on hearing Wickenheiser was going to be flag bearer was, great choice! My second thought was, she’s competing in another Olympics? Hayley Wickenheiser has been a member of the Canadian Women’s National hockey team since 1994. She first competed in the Olympic Games in 1998 (Nagano), where the team won silver. Since then the Canadian women have won three consecutive gold medals in 2002 (Salt Lake City), 2006 (Turin) and 2010 (Vancouver). These accomplishments, and her numerous accolades, are detailed on her website.

hayley2

Wickenheiser has rightfully been credited with contributing to the growth of women’s hockey in Canada, at the elite and recreational level. 1998 was the first year women’s hockey was an official sport in the Games, and now we have a generation of young women who have grown up watching our team compete, and dominate, at an international level. This is unquestionably a good thing for the sport and for players who, as Wickenheiser demonstrates, are can play elite hockey for longer, and on a bigger stage, than ever before.

I’ll be watching coverage of the opening ceremonies, and profiles of Wickenheiser closely over the course of the games. She is unquestionably one of the most accomplished, toughest, and unapologetic female athletes in Canadian history. Her representation in the media and ads follows a trend I’ve observed since the early-2000s, which is that female athletes are increasingly presented in more complex and less cloyingly feminine/heterosexual terms than their predecessors. As I’ve written before, in the past ads and news coverage has tended to focus on what else an athlete can do. For example, “XX” is an athlete, and also a wife! “XX” is incredibly skilled, but her kids come first! “XX” competes like a man, but looks like a woman! There is nothing wrong with looking or acting feminine, however, my research suggests that this focus on what else female athletes can do is about trying to reconcile or make people comfortable with their perceived gender non-conformity.

And yet, in the last five to ten years we’ve seen some important changes in the way female athletes are presented to the media. In advertisements and promotional shots they flaunt their muscles. Wickenheiser certainly does this in several images on her website. And, the women’s hockey team, as an example, gets taken very seriously by sports commentators who have documented developments on the team, roster and coaching changes in great detail in the lead up to the games. Tensions remain, however, about what female athletes can and should do. The hilarious controversy over the Canadian women’s hockey team’s celebration, with cigars and booze, at the 2010 games being one notable example.

On the ice, all that should matter is the game. Wickenheiser and her teammates are players first and their femininity and life choices don’t matter. Off the ice, female athletes need not be apologetic for their sexuality or their self-presentation. The challenge is to find ways to talk to, and about, athletes without reducing them to one thing, as historically a lot of sports coverage has done. My hope is to see complex portrayals of Wickenheiser that depict her as a competitor, an Olympic veteran, a mom, and possibly a future physician. It is all of these things, plus, you know, talent and years of training, that make Hayley Wickenheiser an important figure in women’s sport.

Canadian Bulletin of Medical History, Issue 30.1

An image from one of my projects is featured on the cover of the current issue of the Canadian Bulletin of Medical History (30.1). It is an illustration by Dr. Ingrid Laue who was the editor of “The Bolster, ” the newsletter of Vancouver fat acceptance organization Large as Life (LAL). LAL was active in Vancouver between c. 1981-1985. The group organized fitness classes, swimming nights and fashion shows for fat women only. About 120 women were members over the years, and “The Bolster” had 500 subscribers.

Bolster Cover March 1983

Laue used clip art to put together this cover. What makes it special is that the two foremost figures, the woman in black and the golfer, have been enlarged by hand. Laue wanted the images to reflect women who were actually “ample.” Since it was not easy to find clip-art of large women she instead added to the images herself.

The desire to enlarge clip-art to make bodies larger is indicative of the erasure of images of fat women in contemporary culture. Fat bodies aren’t a part of the stock images stored, photocopied, cut and pasted into documents to illustrate fashion, parenthood, childhood and work. Large-sized clothing is rarely stored in archives, displayed or studied by fashion historians. And, beyond greeting cards and post cards poking fun at fat people, it is still rare to see large bodies displayed as art in contemporary society.

Laue’s images also help us to see that women respond to images of beauty and health in unexpected ways. Rather than use an image of a smaller woman or no images at all, she chose to enlarge and sketch images herself. This, to me, is a modest example of the ways that women talk back to popular culture and body norms. Laue and other members of LAL were not willing to accept the erasure of fat women from popular culture and so they chose to create images of women, as well as social sites and services (aerobics and dance classes, clothing swaps), for fat women.

When we talk about popular culture, in this case I’m talking about the media, beauty and fashion industries, we tend to assume that women are the victims of the monolithic and uncreative images of femininity presented in mass media. But Laue’s images are a reminder of the creative responses women have to culture. And, they are also a reminder of women’s desire to expand our culture’s understanding of beauty to include different shapes and sizes.

Betty Draper Joins Weight Watchers

Weight Watchers (WW) was created by Jean Nidetch, a self-described “fat housewife.” Nidetch felt embarrassed and ashamed about her weight, especially after a bad experience with a “skinny nazi” diet instructor at a New York “obesity” clinic. Nidetch felt it would be less intimidating to diet with her friends and so she organized a support group. Between 1961 and 1963 Nidetch turned her dieting model into a business. In her 1970 autobigraphy, Nidetch said that she believed the strength of her approach was that it offered a safe, snack-free space where women could talk about what they ate, why, and how they felt about it. She wrote, “I don’t guarantee that losing weight makes life beautiful. I don’t guarantee that it’s going to give you the success in life that you want.  But surely it’s going to make you confident that you are capable of controlling your own body, that you are not a victim.”  

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Jane, Again: Fonda’s ‘third act’ and a return to aerobics

Given my frequent posts on exercise and list of publications on aerobics, you’ll likely be unsurprised to know I follow Jane Fonda on Twitter and read her blog.

She posts frequently – links to her personal website, and announcements about her TV appearances. Fonda recently posted a TED talk. TED, tagline “ideas worth spreading,” is a both a conference and virtual space that “offers free knowledge and inspiration from the world’s most inspired thinkers, and also a community of curious souls to engage with ideas and each other.” It is worth a look, if you’re not familiar.

In any case, Fonda’s talk was about “Life’s Third Act.” Now in her 70s, Fonda is taking on aging, advocating for a new paradigm for thinking about what it means to grow older:  age as potential, rather than age as decline. The “third act” metaphor is appropriate for Fonda, though perhaps it is more appropriate to see this as her fourth or fifth life. Fonda started out as an actress in the 1960s (her first act). Though sometimes associated with the sexy and campy Barbarella (1968) , she has twice been nominated for an academy award. By the late-1960s Fonda was involved in radical proto-Marxist style politics. She starred in Godard’s Tout Va Bien (1972) which examined the class struggle – and a film about which I wrote a first year film essay. In the same year Fonda got herself into some trouble – in America at least – for her critique of the Vietnam War and (perceived) sympathies for the North Vietnamese. Of that time, Fonda has expressed both regret and frustration, with the misrepresentation of her position on the war (her second act).

Continue reading Jane, Again: Fonda’s ‘third act’ and a return to aerobics

Read Mindy Kaling’s Book

Subtitle of this post: if you like the same stuff I like.

I like popular culture that deals with regular people and everyday concerns. So, Mindy Kaling’s new book Is Everyone Hanging Out Without Me? was a treat to read. The book is short, mostly biographical, and includes some sharp observations about beauty and the body in contemporary (North) America. For example, Kaling rightly observes that the word “fat” means so many different things to different people that it has become meaningless. She then offers a tongue-in-cheek breakdown of categories of fatness from “chubster” to “obeseotron” to explain the different types of large bodies we see (or don’t see) in popular culture. I suspect some folks on the Fat Studies listserv will have something to say about Kaling’s commentary on body size, but I see it as satire, especially because of the fun and funny critical commentary on women in popular culture that comes later in the book.

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Drop Dead Diva

Drop Dead Diva is one of a handful of American television shows featuring a full-figured lead actor. The premise of the show is quite silly – Deb, a wannabe Price is Right model dies in a car accident and hits the “return” button at the Pearly Gates when the bureaucrat she meets is trying to decide where to send her. Jane is a successful attorney who gets shot in the crossfire during an altercation at her office. As Jane lies dying on an operating table Deb’s soul enters her body and – voila – Deb is now Jane – a skinny model “trapped” inside the body of a full-figured attorney.

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A post about romantic comedies, and Queen Latifah in particular

In my last post I mentioned I have a soft spot for Queen Latifah movies. I’m not sure I’ve ever said that out loud before, and now it is on the internet forever. Oh well. Over the weekend I’ve been trying to decide what it is about QL that I find so compelling, aside from the obvious, which is that she is one of the only full-figured actresses in Hollywood. I also took a look at one of QL’s latest films Just Wright, where she plays Leslie Wright, a physiotherapist who trains New Jersey Nets player Steve McKnight back to health just in time for playoff season.

Continue reading A post about romantic comedies, and Queen Latifah in particular