My week started with a guest appearance on Women Talk Sports Radio. I was invited on to talk about gender segregation in sports. The discussion centered on an article written by a promising high school journalist named Julia Friedman. I had been forewarned but didn’t take heed: this week’s theme would be: can girls compete with boys in sports?
This became evident Tuesday when I came across another article, which had been published in Washington Square News (the student newspaper for New York University). This second article can accurately be described as facile. Madeline Paumen, its author, thinks not only that women cannot hope to ever compete with men, but also that they shouldn’t play sports rigorously as the men do, for they are too delicate. (Is this really the year 2010?)
Let’s do away with a few myths here. Female athletes will invariably be compared with male athletes; neither wishful thinking nor complaining will change that. Moreover, how many honestly believe that for women to simply participate in sports, watered-down of course, without any hope of their being seen as truly elite athletes is satisfactory? I suspect not many in the general population think this way, certainly fewer still among female athletes.
I’ve pointed this out many times, and I apologize to frequent readers for doing so again, but human biology isn’t fixed; it is in fact astonishingly plastic. The environment and societal forces have tremendous influence on our biology, including how testosterone and other muscle-building hormones are produced and utilized in our bodies. Therefore, whether or not X is the norm biologically now doesn’t mean it will always hold true. There was a time, not long ago either, when it was said that women couldn’t match the intellectual capacity of men because their brains are smaller than men’s. We know this to be foolish today. While it is the case that women, on average, have smaller brain sizes, their brains are wired differently, more efficiently (e.g., more neuron fibers in the corpus callosum). That they were (and sometimes still are) denied access to learning and education probably had the say in any perceived differences in cognitive ability. The same, of course, could apply equally to athletics as well.
Despite their still being hampered by feminine ideals incompatible with athletic competition, female athletes have made remarkable gains (beyond those made by male athletes in the same period) during the little more than a generation that they have had genuine access to athletics. So already we can see changes afoot.
There has been much fuss lately over the “epidemic” of injuries experienced by female athletes. Certainly injuries are a very real issue for female athletes and those who care for them. Still, I can’t help thinking that some people are using the subject for reactionary purposes.
Here is the difficulty. We know that early and frequent work in the weight room helps reduce injuries, in youth and later on. Moreover, strength training improves athletic performance overall, it even raises levels of muscle-building hormones naturally. Simple enough. But why aren’t more girls and young women lifting heavy? Because they have to overcome the aesthetic aversion to women with big muscles, thick necks, etc. that our culture still clings to. Thus, the solution is within easy reach, yet seemingly invisible.
Often we are distracted by issues irrelevant to improving the lot of female athletes; for example, how much skin female athletes show, or whether they are being “objectified.” But, as we’ve already seen, a broken aesthetic is their biggest obstacle. It must go before female athletes can realize their athletic potential, and someday perhaps rival their male colleagues.
I should add one more thing before ending. The Washington Square News article says in effect that female athletes should just give up-throw in the towel so to speak. Yet the request is illogical, it transgresses a known fact-strong women don’t quit.