Sunday, 19 August 2012

Sunday Salon: Of sports and gender equality.

Today, rather than giving you a new recipe, I continue what my friend Mick started us off with a fortnight ago with ramblings on something I care about. And since Mick told us something about himself I think it is only fair if I do the same. So here it goes  - three things you might not know about me :)
When I am not pretending to write a food-blog I keep myself busy by trying to get my head around how light things we look at appear and why, by going to lacrosse practice (my sister finally convinced me and now I'm hooked) and by complaining about how I don't really understand the articles I am reading, how my legs hurt, and how I am really not good at the whole sprinting for the ball thing. 
And this gets me to what I actually want to talk about - our perception of women who do sports (at all different levels).

Perhaps I never noticed before, perhaps the newspapers and blogs I read just picked up on it more than in the past, but I was shocked during this year's Olympics by the number of comments that people made that pretty much reduced female athletes to their looks.
I was shocked to see that apparently there is still a large enough number of people who think that it is acceptable to discuss an athlete's performance in a sporting event and focus either on their gender or their looks.

This in turn reminded me of how growing up I was always told that there was no difference between men and women. That I could become whatever I wanted to be, whether that was a nutritionist, a teacher, or an engineer. That it does not matter what you do as long as you give it your best. I think the only times I had a slight discussion with my parents about my career choices was when I decided to drop Management in University to focus on Psychology (where my dad told me about the bad employment statistics for Psychologist and asked me where I could see myself working) and then again when I decided to go to grad-school (where our discussion focused on whether I would still be able to find a job in industry if I decided against academia).

Watching athletes, who decided to turn the thing they are good at into a job, who work incredibly hard to be the best at what they do, who I am pretty sure had a lot more conversations with their families about their career choices (at least I hope so), who had to sacrifice time with friends or just time off in order to be where they are is simply amazing.

Watching female athletes who do the same thing being reduced to their bodies and even harassed for it makes me sad. While you might say that this is only a small proportion of people who behave like this on the internet, I fear the fact that this group of people thinks it is ok to do so means there is a much larger proportion of people who do not care about whether this happens or who even implicitly support ideas such as the one that female weight lifters might not be as womanly or feminine. Both options have somewhat scary implications.

This kind of behaviour makes me wonder about two things - what is feminine, who gets to decide? And, I think more importantly, what does this tell us about some of the deep-rooted beliefs we share as a society?
When I asked a completely non-representative group of friends about what sports they perceived as feminine gymnastics ranked quite high on everybody's list. I definitely agree that these athletes look incredibly graceful when they are doing but when I watch gymnastics I am actually more impressed with how they are able to make an intense and strenuous routine look easy. The same goes for cheerleading or ballet. These athletes work for hours to make things look easy that most of us will never be able to even do. Yet, a lot of the time they are not perceived as athletes.
Interestingly, the sports that women tend to be perceived as athletes in, such as soccer, or cycling, or swimming, or weight lifting are all sports that I have heard people mention words such as 'tough' and 'muscular' negatively.

Is it really the case, that when we practice a sport that emphasises 'making it look easy and graceful' we will not be perceived as athletic whereas when we practice a sport that does not we are perceived as less feminine?
I have never competed in a sport at a national or even international level, but thinking about the sports that I have and am practicing, when I dance in front of people and get off the stage I don't feel feminine, I feel strong and powerful and proud because I know how much work went into that performance and I know what kind of strength it takes to leap across a stage and make it look effortless. When I was kayaking I didn't feel any less feminine (because nobody cared about your gender, it was about whether you made that line or not...). I also think that some of my friends whom I consider extremely 'feminine' are though as nails when they are out there playing soccer, lacrosse, or volleyball.

So why am I going on about this today? Why does this concern me? Or you?
To me, it is a scary thought that nearly 40 years ago our mums and aunts were protesting and burning their bras and whatnot in order to achieve gender equality. On the one hand people are somewhat enraged that until 1977 women in Western Germany needed permission from their husband in order to get a job. Yet we are still holding on to archaic concepts of what it means to be a woman and what a woman should act like. We are also still expressing this by treating sports and jobs that are more feminine as somewhat less valuable than their male counterparts. It is perfectly acceptable to want to work in an office, but how often are parents who decide they want to be a stay-at-home mum or dad judged for that decision? How much are professional football players paid, and how much does a professional ballet dance make? I think the length you can expect your career to last is roughly the same and the injury potential should be similar as well.

Sometimes I feel like we stopped working towards gender equality (yes, it might be there on paper in most developed countries, but I mean real equality).We cannot change the world in one day, but acknowledging female athletes for what they do rather than discussing their performance in relation to their looks seems like a good place to start.

1 comment:

  1. Hello!

    I just thought I'd devote some of my morning to comment on your post.Just a couple of things...

    With the recent Olympics I think a nice example of the focus on the female athletes' look is the dress code for beach volleyball competitions. I think it's in the official regulations that ladies play in bikinis (sports bra and panties - see Wikipedia as source of all knowledge - and they had to do that despite the British weather (leading to the odd combinations of bikinis with pull-on long sleeves). Guys are also required to wear 'swimsuits' but these consist of shorts above the knee and t-shirts.

    A contrary trend can be observed with many male athletes, too. For example male divers wear the tiniest speedos, and are entirely void of any body hair (see: Obviously the other example is professional footballers with their compulsory fancy hairdo, tattoos, and six-pack (think Cristiano Ronaldo).

    The next thing is that there are quite a few female athletes in 'male' sports that happily take their clothes off and post for pictures in guys' magazines (for example US football goalie Hope Solo). I am not sure what this is doing for either the sport or the athlete. Just a thought.

    And lastly, if we are talking about equality, I think it is also important to mention that guys involved in more 'feminine' sports such as ballet (unless they are professional dancers), figure skating, gymnastics, etc... probably also get a hard time. Particularly in the amateur sector.

    Also - do you think the same focus on the body of (female athletes) is present in winter sports?


Related Posts Plugin for WordPress, Blogger...