After reading a few articles lately and having different personal experiences over the years, I’ve been thinking more and more about what it means to be a female athlete.
As always this started off as a small idea and then grew. Another novel in Loree’s blog!
The “Male” Definitions and Connotations, Oh My:
I can actually remember my first “male” comment associated with working out. I was in 2nd grade and at my house was an unused, little spring leg exercise contraption. I remember playing with it, doing the little ineffective squats and my aunt warning me of working out “will turn you into a man.” Dear God, the worst thing that could happen! NOOOOOO…
But that was just the first idea, in school I’ve always been competitive and active and loved sports. During recess, I played tackle football with the boys in the dirt lot. I wanted to be taken seriously, so it was just easier to be a tomboy. I learned people were more apt to believe your athletic talents when you looked like a boy rather than showing up in pigtails and pink. Well, of course you had to have talent to keep playing, but you were actually picked for the team by looks.
This tomboyish connotations pretty much continued through school and high school until about puberty when us girls were also trying to meet boys. Then pre-game prep became curling your hair and applying eyeliner for our basketball games. It seems funny now how I meticulously rearranged my uniform to look my best, but as soon as I started playing all thoughts were on the game because the only thing that mattered on the court was winning.
Competitive as I was, my first question to the strength coach when I went to CSU was if lifting when make me look manly. Ha!
This idea that being athletic and having muscles is a male thing isn’t new and continues to invade all areas of athletics and working out. As a personal trainer, I had a female client who was over 300lbs look me up and down and warn she didn’t want to get any male muscles. She literally thought looking like me was the worst thing that could happen to her and she was morbidly obese. It is amazing to see the fear of weight training because somehow our femininity would be lost if we lifted weights.
First thing is first: Can we get rid of the idea that being strong and muscular and being competitive are only masculine traits? Can we define athletics by our own definition?
Defining The Female Athlete:
So if we don’t want to be males, then we must be females, right? Should we over feminize ourselves pointing out that yes, we are indeed women? I enjoy being female, I really do. It is a strong part of who I am and permeates everything about me. However, my definition of female may differ from others.
I’m tired of seeing women forced to “look feminine” or look a certain way to sell themselves and their sport. Who hasn’t seen the team photo of all the women dressed up (not in uniform) but dresses and makeup and more than one of them is visually uncomfortable put on display? And what ad for female athletes isn’t overtly sexual?
We can’t ignore that selling our sport is so closely tied to selling our sex appeal to the mass market. I remember being in an USATF annual meeting a few years ago talking about marketing our sport. The female throwers were arguing for more press time, exposure, etc. Someone actually said in the meeting, “who wants to see a bunch of big girls throwing things when we can see girls going over the pole vault in bikinis.” I have mixed feelings on this. One, I want to see my sport succeed and I want us to be marketable. And yet, I want us to be respected as athletes. And to answer that, there are people out there interested.
Now I know this part in particular may bring some people’s attention to me. Yes, I compete in a skirt. Yes, I care how I look. And yes, I did wear thigh high fishnets at indoor USA champs (an inside joke among friends). But I do this for me. I express myself, my style, my humor in my uniform and I am happy to be in a sport I can do that. I find it empowering to wear bright red lipstick and 4 inch heels where some women might find it demeaning to be forced to do that. If I had Serena’s closet, I wouldn’t know what to wear first! But this is me.
I don’t feel that women need to be tomboyish to be taken seriously as athletes any more than I believe they should have to overcompensate to prove they are feminine. I feel it is about expressing herself and most importantly competing well.
Not all females exude femininity in the same way and nor should they. It’s not always the stereotype of traditional beauty or sex appeal. It makes me angry when people say I am “pretty feminine” for a female thrower. If you lack curves, then you’re not a female? If you’re a little too muscular, then you’re not a female? Are some events more masculine than others? If you are a female, then you competing is celebrating the female form, athleticism, body, mind. Let’s not put ourselves into little simple boxes.
I wear a band that says, “Throw Like A Girl.” The slogan isn’t meant to say you need to look like a “girl,” it’s meant to say throw like yourself, be competitive, be strong, be confident in who you are. It takes a demeaning statement and meant to use it to empower. We don’t have to be anything other than ourselves whether that be tomboyish, fem, whatever! I use the term Throw Like A Girl to be empowering because whether I am putting on my 4 inch heels, my flip flops, or throwing shoes that is how I feel, powerful.
Women athletes shouldn’t have to feel that like need to be anything other than themselves, and that should be enough.
Separate But Equal:
Finally, I know my limitations as a female athlete. I may be stronger than your average non-athletic guy, but a trained male will be stronger typically body weight to strength. I know my body does not make the same testosterone levels and it will be harder for me to make gains or recover as fast. I know there are other differences in my body too that will make my approach to training slightly different.
However, what is the same is the hard work and dedication to my sport. That is and always will be just as good as anyone and should never be questioned. I’ve made the mistake too many times of trying to prove how tough I am by training through pain and injuries only to make things worse. I shouldn’t have to prove my dedication or hard work this way.
Women’s sports in general are usually changed slightly: smaller ball in basketball, lighter implements in throwing, shorter hurdlers, etc. This is where I think the differences should stop. Even though we are different, we should be respected the same as any male sport because what is the same is the hard work, the hours of training, the desire to win, the competitive spirit.
We can celebrate ourselves as women, celebrate our likenesses and differences, celebrate everything about ourselves in our sport without having to lose that what makes us what we are.
Growing up I’ve redefined myself over and over again, each experience changing how I view myself and how I view my life. There was a time when I just wanted the boys to pick me for their team and a time I was hoping they’d pick me for prom. And the same is with my sport, how I express myself within my sport and view myself within my sport has changed too. There was a time I thought I had to “act like a boy” to be respected in the sport and a time I thought I had to “act like a girl” in order not to be seen as boy for competing in my sport. I know, funny, huh? But something that has remained a constant is my desire to be the best I can be.
And finally a quote from the very funny movie, “Zoolander,” when Fabio is accepting his Slashie award for best Actor/Model. “This award means you think I’m the best Actor slash model and not the other way around.” So, even though we are female (the females reading this) and we each have our own definition of what that means to us, out on the field, we are athletes. So when we are being recognized for our athletic talents, can’t it just be the best athlete slash female and not the other way around?