Pinning down Leslie Heywood on who she is and what she does is like trying to shake hands with an octopus. There's always one more arm to negotiate.
She's an assistant professor of English at the State University at Binghamton. She has published widely on women's issues, with four books in various stages of completion.
She's also an athlete. She attended the University of Arizona on a track scholarship, and now trains five days a week as a powerlifter and body builder.
And she's a performer whose act encompasses video and still images, her own creative and critical writings, music as diverse as Nine Inch Nails and Ani DiFranco -- and her own well-muscled body as a visual aid. Those who've seen her perform say it's a wrenching, powerful experience -- a plunge into popular culture's leering, warped ideal of the feminine form, and an alternative appreciation for the beauty of the athletic female body.
Dr. Heywood brings her performance, "Building Backlash Bodies: Visible Invisibilities," to the University at Buffalo's Center for the Arts at 4 p.m. Oct. 30. It's in the Wednesdays at 4 Plus series of the English department's poetics program, which has vigorously courted the radical fringe among working poets.
However you define her, she's no gray-haired scholar hiding behind a lectern.
"One of the big chances Leslie takes as an academic and as a performer is that she actually puts her body at stake," says Doug Rice, who teaches at Kent State University in Salem, Ohio, and whose work involves similar issues of body image, though from a man's perspective.
"The things she says are very emotionally rendering as well as intellectually challenging. . . . She'll be lifting weights on stage, while above her there will be slides of the way we look at women in contemporary American soci ety, things like the Wonderbra ad. But the audience in a very real way has to be involved in building the meaning of that. Again, that's very risky."
Plenty of writers have celebrated the body, agonized over it, sung hymns to its flowering and its decline. But in academia, where the body often is regarded as just a convenient way to get the brain over to the library, Dr. Heywood's perspective comes as a jolt.
"The idea that the body is uncivilized is something that should be rethought," she says. "There's a whole long cultural tradition that has glamorized and degraded the body at the same time. Athletes are OK for entertainment, and they're great from a dominant cultural perspective when they're out there to entertain us, but when it comes to actually using our body, that doesn't get respect.
"The whole idea that mind and body are separate is a problem, for one thing. The idea that the mind is the more civilized half and the body is the more primitive, base, instinctual part, with primitive urges -- that's one source of the kind of prejudice I'm talking about."
Leslie Heywood grew up near Albany, where she started running for fun as a kid, began competing in track and cross-country at age 12, and lifted weights as part of her training starting at 13. She went to high school in Arizona, earned a bachelor's and a master of fine arts degree at the University of Arizona, then moved to the University of California at Irvine for her doctorate in English. She joined the faculty at Binghamton in 1993.
Her track career at Arizona was interrupted by a struggle with an eating disorder, an affliction she writes about in her book "Dedication to Hunger: The Anorexic Aesthetic in Modern Culture" (University of California Press):
I was at war with that body, starving it, punishing it by running intervals on the track every evening until I couldn't stand, running 10 miles hard each morning and doing half an hour of sit-ups on the back lawn under the apricot trees before breakfast, then making it vomit anything taken in. For two years I lived on spinach and toast during the week, bingeing on weekends. With only 6 percent body fat, all I could see was the "fat" on my stomach and legs. . . . And it wasn't just me. All the women I knew behaved the same way. . . . Every one of us (on her track team), 20 in all, were anorexic, bulimic, or both.
One legacy of those difficult years is a stress-related disorder called mixed connective tissue disease, in which the immune system attacks the body's connective tissues. It still flares up from time to time, Dr. Heywood says, most recently a bad spell last month.
That's a problem for a person who runs six miles every morning with her dogs, and hits the gym five afternoons a week -- free weights only, one body part per day.
But weights have proved a natural avenue for this lifelong athlete. "I've been weight training for 18 years now," says Dr. Heywood, who's 32. "That has always been part of my life no matter what else I was doing."
Lifting weights, she says, is a frequent choice among women recovering from eating disorders. There's power in it -- and danger, too. "In a way," she says, "body building still lets you focus obsessively on your body. It's a way of building it up rather than tearing it down, which can be really healthy and affirmative. But if it's done with the same obsessiveness (as an eating disorder), it can be just as bad. Exercise addiction is a very similar mind-set to an eating disorder. If you're still spending your time in service of trying to embody some ideal image and you're obsessively focused on that image, I don't think that's healthy."
The difference, she says, is between an unencumbered appreciation of the athletic body, and the patently artificial idea of the female form -- an object of desire, of course -- presented in so many advertisements. The Guess jeans models, the Barbie dolls of Victoria's Secret catalogs, Kate Moss and Cindy Crawford, the rock songs that merge violence and sexuality -- all are fodder for Dr. Heywood's writing, thinking and performance.
There are alternatives. Nike, for one, has sold a lot of shoes with ads featuring strong women athletes. "Those ads are really onto something," Dr. Heywood says. "They really plug into most women's desire to be taken seriously just as a powerful body in themselves, without that being filtered through the lens of a lot of sexualization. They focus on athletics as a way to build self-esteem, to have confidence in yourself. But unfortunately, the way things play out, it's not usually quite that simple. What they're really marketing themselves toward are women who are insecure about the way they look."
That culture of mixed messages, too, serves as material for Dr. Heywood's work. "I think these image issues have gotten worse, rather than better," she says. "Not just eating disorders but the whole way of being in the world that surrounds them, the whole preoccupation with image and how your body looks, has gotten much worse."