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Margin Notes

Racy student photos a tricky issue for university administrators

ULaval nude calendar girls, most notably, raise questions of female empowerment vs. objectification.


There have been a couple of incidents recently where university administrators in Canada have felt compelled to react to racy photos of students taken within a campus context – a tricky situation. One was the case of a female engineering student at the University of Waterloo who last spring posed for a photo in a bikini and high heels in front of a racing car she helped build as a member of the engineering students’ Formula SAE team.

The wisdom of posing for such a photo is certainly debatable. But many felt the punishment was severe: the entire team was temporarily suspended and were unable to participate in an international Formula race-car contest that the team members had been eagerly preparing for.

The second incident involves the women’s rugby team at Université Laval. The team members posed nude last fall for a 2012 calendar which was to be sold to raise funds for the team. (Coincidentally, in the Waterloo incident, the female student apparently had her photo taken so that she could enter a contest to be in a calendar to raise money for charity.)

As with so many of these now ubiquitous “naked” calendars, the photos of the female rugby players were tastefully done (depending on your point of view), with no naughty bits showing. But a couple of professors at Laval felt that the “marketing” of these young women’s bare bodies was a step too far.

“They’re selling young women’s naked bodies to make money in a university context. That’s unacceptable,” Professor Hélène Lee-Gosselin is quoted as saying in Le Soleil. The professor, who holds a research chair on women, knowledge and society, added that the negative consequences of the hypersexualization of women are well documented and “based on sound research.”

Dr. Lee-Gosselin and colleague Guylaine Demers contacted the university’s rector, and the administration forbade the team from distributing the calendar. I admire the professors’ courage for speaking out – they must have anticipated that they might be ridiculed for their “prudery,” and they were, mercilessly, in social media and elsewhere.

The students were shocked, saying they were “extremely frustrated” and disappointed by the decision. Said Christelle Paré, the rugby team’s treasurer (a founding member of the team, but no longer a player): “What we wanted to show were different, non-standard bodies, with muscles, bruises and scars. To say, no matter what, we’re beautiful. That’s the message that we wanted to put out there, and the team members wrote a lovely explanation of that for the front of the calendar.”

So, what is it: female empowerment or objectification? These calendars of naked women athletes are ubiquitous, starting with one done by Canada’s national women’s rugby team, Canada’s national women’s biathlon team, Canada’s national women’s cross-country ski team, Australia’s national women’s soccer team, a French rugby team, even a women’s university volleyball team in the U.K.

Finally, just as the Laval controversy was dying down, it got reignited last week when it was revealed that the Quebec-based Simons department store chain had approached the women’s rugby players to model the store’s clothing for an advertising campaign. University officials quickly nixed that idea, but for a different reason: no trademarks or players of the university’s Rouge et Or varsity teams can be used for commercial purposes, said vice-rector Éric Bauce.

Léo Charbonneau
Léo Charbonneau is a former editor of University Affairs.
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