Last night’s World Cup final between USA and Japan was incredibly exciting to me, not just for the game itself or for the fact that the US Women’s National Team won the World Cup for the first time since I was a teenager. I was also thrilled by the knowledge that millions of people were gathered around their TVs and computers, watching some of the top female athletes in the world play their hearts out. It’s frustrating to me that we live in the year 2015 and the idea of women as dynamic and exciting athletes is still considered controversial in some quarters, so any indication that this perception might be changing is one I embrace wholeheartedly.
I also love seeing my fellow feminists get all excited about women’s sports, because I have to admit, I’ve often been dismayed by how little interest many feminists seem to have in women’s sports. I love to write about women’s sports, but I also see my page views, and the traffic I get when I write about women’s sports is quite small, especially when compared to posts I write about body image. (Ironically, this is happening even as I find myself less interested* in writing about body image.)
The only post about women’s sports that I’ve ever written that gets a lot of traffic is one I wrote about Brittney Griner, and that’s basically because every time she ends up in the headlines, my blog gets hundreds of queries from people wanting to know if she’s a man.
I’m apparently not the only one who has noticed this, as the Atlantic recently published an article by Maggie Martens, where she asks why issues facing female athletes have gone relatively unnoticed by feminist-leaning websites. Why indeed. It’s curious that an issue like FIFA forcing the women’s teams to play on artificial turf gets so little attention, but the appetite for “is Beyonce feminist y/n?” is apparently endless. Which, whatever, if that’s your thing, but I personally feel a bit frayed at the edges by all the arguing over the feminism of pop stars.
I also suggest you read my friend Julia Burke’s take on this as well, where she argues that feminism needs women’s sports just as much as women’s sports needs feminism. I think both essays do a really good job at looking at the structural and economic inequalities of women’s professional sports, of which there are many, and I highly encourage everyone to read them.
I have something I’d like to contribute to this conversation as well, which is a personal perspective. As you know, I’m an amateur athlete and I take that very seriously. I am a feminist, and I take that very seriously as well. For me, these two aspects of my identity are not discrete but rather intimately intertwined.
Being an athlete has done so much for me on a personal level. It has helped me recover from the psychological trauma of a long-term abusive relationship. It has helped me learn to respect and care for my body because rather than seeing it as an encumbrance I must lug through the world, I now see it as a vessel for adventure and pleasure and excitement and pride. It has become very difficult for me to hate my body for failing to meet a very specific standard of attractiveness when I know what terrific things my body is capable of doing.
Sports has given me a safe way to cultivate tenacity, courage, discipline, assertiveness, toughness, and confidence, all qualities I lacked for most of my life, due in no large part to my socialization (and particularly as a girl growing up as a Utah Mormon, which one of the most patriarchal cultures in the mainstream United States). Those qualities don’t just fall away from me when I leave the race course or the weight room. Rather, I carry them with me into the rest of my life: onto the streets, into the workplace, into my politics, into my activism, into my relationships.
We feminists always talk about how women are socialized to be compliant and overly deferential and passive. Well, here’s a way to resist. Here’s a way to fight that. Here’s a way to tell that socialization to take a flying fuck into the sea.
And it’s not just me, nor is it just you (because odds are good that if you’re reading my blog, it’s because you too have experienced the transformative power of athleticism in your life). It’s girls and women all over the world:
Organizations that use sports to promote social and economic development say girls who get involved tend to be healthier, do better in school and have a better status in their families. And in places such as Jharkhand, where many girls are married in their teens, those who play may be in a stronger position to delay marriage and continue their education.
It feels like at least once a week, I’m hearing stories about how playing soccer/football has changed the lives of girls in India, and in Tanzania, how a program is using girls’ field hockey as a way to fight poverty in Argentina, how Afghan women are taking part in some of the world’s toughest ultramarathons. It’s why the State Department – the State Department! – considers it enough of a priority to have an entire program dedicated to the use of sports as a means of empowering women and girls. This isn’t just a coincidence. Women and girls use sports to resist the destructive nature of patriarchy all the time.
The tagline of this blog – “It takes strong women to smash the patriarchy” – isn’t just something I came up with because I thought it seemed clever. It’s what I legitimately believe. Fighting patriarchy and its twisted family members, like white supremacy and homophobia, requires strength and courage. It truly does take strong women to fight these things, and there are few things in my life that have made me stronger than being an athlete.
* This isn’t because I don’t think body image issues aren’t important. I know they are very, very important to many women. I just don’t know if I’m the person to write about them. For one, I’ve shared my thoughts on the matter dozens of times, and my thoughts haven’t changed all that much. For another, I’m not sure the world needs a tall, thin, white woman telling everyone how to feel good about their bodies. I feel like I have other contributions to make to the rhetoric surrounding women’s bodies that are better suited to my interests and perspective. That’s all.