Book Launch for Obesity in Canada

Please join us in Winnipeg on September 26 at 7:00pm for the official launch of Obesity in Canada: Critical Perspectives. The event is at McNally Robertson Grant Park in the Atrium.

I’ll be there along with co-editor Deborah McPhail and some of the book’s contributors. We would love to talk about the book, our research, your research, and critical perspectives on obesity.

No RSVP required, more details here.

Podcasting Project

I’m creating a podcast documenting how Canadians think about bodies, health and sport. It will focus on stories of how individuals experienced, thought about or contributed to noteworthy events, social movements and controversies.

Right now I am looking for people who won a “gold crest” or “Award of Excellence” from the Canada Fitness Awards in the 1970s and 1980s. These were a series of tests (shuttle run, 500 and 50 metre run, chin ups) that you may have done in phys ed class as a kid. If you – or people you know – were Canada Fitness Award all-stars, please get in touch!

Please email me at jenny@jennyellison.com with your story.

Not a Canada Fitness Award winner? I’m also looking for folks with memories of other events and programs of the 1970s and 1980s for future work:

• The Canada Home Fitness Test “Fit Kit” (see photo)
• ParticipACTION
• The 1988 Calgary Olympic Games (and especially the theme song “Can You Feel It”)
• Women’s Health Movement Activism

Fit Kit image

Silken Laumann: Unsinkable

Fifteen for 15 #7

Silken Laumann’s was the first name I wrote down for Fifteen for 15. She stands out to me because of her physicality and the way it has been used by advertisers, which I’ll talk about below. Her tenacious comeback from injury to win a bronze at the Barcelona Olympic games is also very memorable. Because I’ve studied Laumann and I remember her career so well, I jumped at the opportunity to read her new book, Unsinkable: My Untold Story when HarperCollins offered to send me a promotional copy.* The book is often surprising and very personal. Reading the book hasn’t changed my reason for putting Laumann on my Fifteen for 15 list, but is has challenged me to revisit my thinking on athletes’ bodies and their status as role models.

unsinkable-cover

I try always to refer to female athletes by their last names. As all Intro to Women’s Studies students learn, professional and high-profile women are often called by their first names. This linguistic pattern reflects our society’s tendency to diminish women’s power and authority. And yet I find myself wanting to refer to Laumann as “Silken” because she seems so approachable. I know that, like many great female athletes, Laumann’s approachability is only one part of a more complex story of discipline and determination, but even then…

The Coles notes are this: Laumann competed in four Olympic Games (1988-1996) for the Canadian Rowing Team and medalled in Los Angeles (double sculls), Barcelona (single sculls) and Atlanta (single sculls). She was also World Champion in 1991 and medalled in numerous other international events. Many Canadians will remember Laumann best for the 1992 Olympic Games when within only a few months she recovered from a horrific accident that shredded her lower-leg to win a bronze medal. They may also remember an embarrassing incident where she was stripped of a Pan American Games medal after taking Benadryl, which contained pseudoephedrine, a banned substance at the time. If you’ve encountered Silken Laumann more recently it is likely in her role as motivational speaker and life coach.

Laumann is memorable to me because of her advertising campaigns for Subaru and IBM from the 1990s. Studying these ads, what stands out is that they are different from earlier representations of female athletes. Ads from before 1990 tended to really (really, really) feminize athletes, picturing them with vases of flowers and emphasizing that they had soft skin (1970s) or were skilled with housework (1950s). By comparison, Laumann’s Subaru campaign was very gender neutral, depicting her in a power suit standing in front of a car. Likewise, in her IBM ads she wore her rowing uniform, as opposed to in everyday clothing, which is rarely the case for ads prior to 1990. These images are different, even, from those of her contemporaries Marnie McBean and Kathleen Heddle, who were depicted wearing crisp white shirts, in close-up, and heavily made up (in one memorable example).

So, part of Laumann’s significance to women’s sport lies in her very powerful public image and muscular form. Visually, her ads point to a change in in the way we view female athletes, in that she looks more like herself in advertising campaigns than do athletes of earlier generations. My sense is that representations of Laumann are not anomalous, but she doesn’t represent a complete cultural shift in the way we visualize female athletes, either. She did pave the way for women like Catriona Le May Doan and Clara Hughes whose physicality has also been prominent in their campaigns for Cheerios and Bell.

One of the reasons Laumann’s physicality interests me is because she has made candid comments about the way sport has shaped her body. Though I had to look back at my notes to get the quote, I remember being struck by Laumann’s comments to a Toronto Sun reporter in 1993. When asked about her body, she replied: “when I started becoming muscular as a rower, I really had a problem with it. In the beginning, I thought, ‘Oh this is ugly.’”** Talking about her perception of herself as an adult, Laumann said in another interview, “I love being strong…it’s a feeling of power, the feeling of being strong and looking strong is so great.”*** I like the candor of these quotes because they capture the way that our feelings about our bodies can shift, over time, and sometimes in the same day.

Unsinkable is a surprising read. Laumann has a much darker past than I imagined. She had and has a complicated relationship with her mother, who was verbally abusive to “Little Silken” who feared bringing friends home from school and, at times, believed she might come to physical harm. Laumann also speaks candidly about her ongoing struggles with body image and mental health, as well as her divorce and current family relationships. I’m not sure why these parts of Laumann’s story surprised me. Athletes are only human, after all. And yet, Laumann’s candor was unexpected. I thought, perhaps, the book would be written more along the lines of a self-help tome (though there is a fair share of talk about “her journey”). Or, perhaps that it would offer greater detail on her sporting accomplishments (it has that for sports bio junkies, you know who you are). But mostly the book is surprising because it frames Laumann’s successes by talking about the not-so-great moments when she wasn’t as inspirational, perfect, or even as normal, as she might seem. I won’t give everything away, but I was left with a feeling that I know “Silken” and also that she is a lot more like the rest of us than we might think. She’s working on it and this process is her new brand: life coach, writer, mom and human.

A question the book raised that I am still trying to answer is: why do athletes become our models for health and well-being? Why did I assume Silken Laumann was such a super-human that she wouldn’t struggle with food or body image like so many women? Athletes are required to be disciplined, they endure so much pressure, that they seem like they can manage any kind of mental stress. Certainly this is why Laumann and so many athletes turn to successful careers as motivational speakers. This perceived perfection must also relate to the bodies of athletes, because they seem to have so much power and control over their physicality. It is an interesting turn of events, then, to see Laumann and Clara Hughes talk publicly about mental health and depression. In doing so both women are helping to change the conversation about these topics, and perhaps also our perception of what it means to be successful. There is a gender dimension here, for sure, in that in Canada it is the high-profile women coming out with their experiences. It also seems that many of those athletes who do speak publicly about depression do so only after they’ve retired from competition (Hughes being an exception, she competed in 2012 after joining the “Let’s Talk” campaign).

I am curious to see how this link between mental health-public advocacy and sport plays out. I hope it matters to people and I hope it makes a difference that athletes are choosing to share their stories. Reading this book I realized that I had an overly simplistic view of Laumann and I’m still finding it hard to grapple with how this personal information informs my “academic” view of the rower. The book is a reminder that the “afterlife” of famous athletes can really shift how we understand what they accomplished during their careers. My reasoning for putting Laumann on my list hasn’t changed, and neither has my understanding of those advertising images from the 1990s. But, I think the book does shift how I, and others, will read future representations of Silken Laumann.

*Note: I was contacted by a HarperCollins publicist and asked to review Unsinkable. I accepted the book because no conditions were placed on what I decided post.

**Moore, Micki, “Smooth as Silken,” The Toronto Sun, 7 February 1993, 18.

***Olver, Bob, “Silken Steel,” The Toronto Sun, 13 July 1991, 48.

Clara Hughes: Changing the Conversation About Sport and Health

Fifteen for Section 15 #4

What makes a great athlete? For me, it is someone who is accomplished but who has also shaped or changed the cultural conversation in some way. In his book Celebrity: Fame in Contemporary Culture, David Marshall likens the place of the “celebrity” in contemporary culture to Roland Barthes’ conception of the “sign”. Marshall argues, “like the sign, the celebrity represents something other than itself” (56). Celebrities, or for the purposes of this post, let’s say celebrated athletes, are those in who have some kind of cultural currency.

Clara Hughes is one of only four athletes to win multiple medals in both the summer and winter Olympics. Hughes won two bronze medals for cycling in the 1996 Olympic games, then switched to speed skating, winning a bronze medal in the 2002 5000 metre race, a gold and a bronze in speed skating in 2006 and another bronze in 2010. In what was (apparently) her final Olympic race, cycling in the 2012 London games, Hughes placed fifth, close, but 32 seconds away from a medal.

In 2011 Hughes made an unprecedented move in her personal life, becoming spokesperson for the “Let’s Talk,” a Canadian mental health awareness campaign. Hughes has appeared in ads for “Let’s Talk” and spoken to the media in-depth about her experiences with depression. In 2014, she is doing a cross-Canada bike tour to raise money for the campaign and to raise awareness of mental health issues. Hughes also does outreach with other organizations, including Right to Play, and has had other sponsorships.

Depression, and mental health in general, are perceived (by some) as weaknesses and can be a taboo topic for discussion. Talking about depression, as the campaign’s title suggests, is a way to de-stigmatize mental health issues. Joining “Let’s Talk” is much more impactful than typical athlete outreach or sponsorships. It is a pun-y thing to say, but Hughes really changed the conversation about her career, and also about mental health. She is proof that physical strength doesn’t preclude mental challenges. And at the same time she offers a face, maybe a coping model, maybe hope, to Canadians experiencing mental health issues.

And Hughes makes me think of David Marshall’s book because she has done something that other celebrities don’t often or can’t do: radically transform how we know her in a short period of time. This ups Hughes’ cultural currency because she has made her legacy about more than her titles and records. And yes, this is a campaign sponsored by a media corporation, so Hughes benefits even as she gives back. Still, it seems to me that Clara Hughes could have traded on her accomplishments or her beauty in the search for sponsorship, but instead she has chosen a more complicated path.

Barbara Ann Scott: No Fragile Mamet

Fifteen for Section 15, #3

Written accounts of Barbara Ann Scott, the 1947 and 1948 European and World Champion women’s figure skater, and 1948 Olympic gold medalist, offered exhausting descriptions of her appearance. A 1948 Time magazine attempt extended to a paragraph:

Barbara Ann, with a peaches-and-cream complexion, saucer-size blue eyes and a rosebud mouth, is certainly pretty enough. Her light brown hair falls pageboy style on her shoulders. She weighs a trim, girlish 107 lbs., she is neither as full-bosomed as a Hollywood starlet nor as wide-hipped as most skaters. She looks, in fact, like a doll which is to be looked at but not touched. But Barbara Ann is no fragile mamet. She is the woman’s figure skating champion of the world (2 February 1948, p. 35).

The Barbara Ann Scott doll, from www.civilization.ca

Scott retired from amateur skating and turned professional in the early 1950’s. She became the headliner of North America’s largest ice skating show the Hollywood Ice Revue in 1952. In addition to the estimated $100,000 she earned each year from professional skating, she held endorsement deals with Canada Dry, Community Silverplate and Timex. Eaton’s also produced a Barbara Ann Scott doll well into the 1950s. Scott donated at least some of her earnings to a charity she founded, and in her spare time she was a pilot and an accomplished golfer. She married in 1955, but had no children. She raised horses for the rest of her life, and appeared from time to time at public events, including as an Olympic torch-bearer for the 1988 and 2010 games. Barbara Ann Scott died in 2012, at the age of 84.

I’ve always loved Barbara Ann for her seeming contradictions. Scott’s public image, as a pretty teenager, belied the more complicated and impressive reality of her life. Her success is a reminder of the different roles female athletes negotiate in their work as competitors and entrepreneurs-mothers–spokespeople. Scott’s appearance really lent itself to advertisers’ vision of femininity in the 1950s but her life story is a reminder that there is always much more beneath the surface of an athlete than her public image. But, Barbara Ann Scott makes my Fifteen for Section 15 list because of her success. She is the only Canadian singles skater to win gold at the Olympic games, she was a three time winner of the Lou Marsh Trophy (1945, 1947, 1948), a two-time World Champion, successful professional skater, entrepreneur, philanthropist, pilot and icon.

The Fat Studies Journal, vol. 1, 1.

The first issue of The Fat Studies Journal is now available in print and online. I’ve contributed a review article on exercise options for fat people, and I’m very pleased to be part of this new project. Building on The Fat Studies Reader (2010), the FSJ will examine the historical, social and cultural fascination with the body. I thought I would take this opportunity to post about the field, since I’m frequently asked what it is I study and why it matters.

What is Fat Studies?

Like Disability and Queer Studies, and Women’s Studies before these, Fat Studies is an activist and academic project. Scholars interested in fatness want to break down taken-for-granted understandings of fat/thin, and the relationship of fatness to health, fitness, sexuality, gender and ability. “Fat,” in this case, is not used to make fun or put down. Fat is a descriptive term for body size, and I use it to signal my participation in the project of deconstructing the medical and social history of the body.

Is fat healthy?

Fat Studies scholars approach this question from two angles. The first, as I’ve posted about before, is to suggest that fatness isn’t necessarily unhealthy. There is plenty of data to suggest that medically “overweight” and “obese” people with low cholesterol and blood pressure, and good cardiovascular capacity, can live just as long as people with a “normal” BMI. A second approach to this question, which I am exploring in my new research on body morality, examines how “obesity stigma” – the rhetoric of the obesity epidemic, the medicalization of fatness, and targeting obese children – is problematic. Given the evidence that people can be healthy at every size, this research suggests public health policies should focus on improving overall health outcomes and not on weight specifically.

Continue reading The Fat Studies Journal, vol. 1, 1.

Border Crossings: Canadians at the Michigan Womyn’s Music Festival

The Michigan Womyn’s Music Festival started in 1976 and is still held annually near Grand Rapids, MI. MWMF is a woman-only event featuring female musicians and personal-development workshops around pretty much any topic you can think of from yodeling, to massage, to sex (technique and politics), to health, to cats, to white privilege, to coming out as a lesbian, to child rearing. About 7000 women from more than 20 countries attend the Festival every year.

A lot of Canadian women have crossed the border into Michigan to attend the festival and I want to know more about why they go, what they learn and who they meet. I already know that members of (what became) the Montréal-based group LG5 (lesbiennes grosse cinq or five fat lesbians) were inspired to form their organization after meeting fat activists from the Fat Underground and Boston Area Fat Liberation groups in Michigan in 1979. Last week I was visiting the Brooklyn-based Lesbian Herstory Archives to try to clarify the origins of the LG5/FU/BAFL relationship.

Continue reading Border Crossings: Canadians at the Michigan Womyn’s Music Festival

Glee: Giving fat bottomed girls their due?

Because of my dissertation topic (fat women’s organizations in Canada), I often think about, and love to talk about, representations of fat people in popular culture. Indulging this love of talking, thinking, and fatness, my friend Adene said in a recent email:

Have you caught all the talk about Glee (the cool guy being into the fat girl)? The entertainment shows are treating this storyline as revolutionary but there’s a part of me that wonders if the storyline was introduced because it was funny, and so well accepted because audiences may have considered it unrealistic. What do you think?

Good point, right?

Continue reading Glee: Giving fat bottomed girls their due?

Pundit!

I recently spoke to Steve Keating from Reuters about the legacy of the Vancouver 2010 Olympics. What, Keating’s article asks, will be the long-term impact of the Games?

The Olympics and identity have come up frequently in the last few weeks of class. My students frequently point to the Vancouver 2010 as an example of Canada’s accomplishments at hockey, and less frequently as an example of this nation’s goodness (for lack of a better word). The Games seemed to reflect what Molson’s, Tim Horton’s and HBC’s commercials have been telling us for years: we’re fun, we’re folksy, we’re good at hockey and we can handle the cold. The Olympics seemed to re-affirm what we, as Canadians, think we are about. I’m not sure whether or not these ideas about Canada entirely reflect our population but I am glad that my students have something tangible to which they can attach these values.

Keating’s article can be found here.