Feminism needs women’s sports: a female athlete’s take

The U.S. team celebrates after winning the 2015 World Cup. (Photo: CNN)

The U.S. team celebrates after winning the 2015 World Cup. (Photo: CNN)

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.

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26 responses to “Feminism needs women’s sports: a female athlete’s take

  1. I was and remain incensed that the women had to play on artificial turf. Also a bit embarrassed since Canada was the host country. I meant to blog about it but then dropped the ball. Thanks for picking it up and kicking it!

  2. Love this post and I 100% agree! Mainstream feminist websites just don’t seem to tackle the issue of sport in any proper capacity, which is very sad. Don’t blog based on traffic – I find these types of posts more interesting!

  3. “Here’s a way to tell that socialization to take a flying fuck into the sea.”
    Everything in one neat sentence right here.

  4. “Here’s a way to tell that socialization to take a flying fuck into the sea.”
    This is everything in one nice neat little sentence.

    • 🙂 It does seem like a pretty effective way to give women and girls the tools to combat the crap that’s foisted on us from the second we’re born.

  5. Winner, winner, chicken dinner. Three thoughts:

    1) I wonder a lot about why my badass feminist colleagues often eschew sports as a deserving part of the feminist manifesto. It is possible that because “sports” and “exercise” are conflated into “weight loss,” that many feminists without a background in sports see focusing and promoting women in sports as an underhanded way to reinforce socialized standards for how our bodies are supposed to look (?). For example, when it comes up in conversation that I am an ultrarunner, and run 100k and 100mi races, the assumption (often by women) is that I do this for weight loss. I have been called an “exercise freak” by too many people to count. I’m sorry, but if I did want to lose weight, hobble-running on blistered feet through the night on a remote trail, while hallucinating, cramping, and often shitting myself, would not be my weight loss method. I’m not exercising. I’m running through the mountains and trying to cover long-ass distances because it’s fucking fun!

    2) To me, feminism isn’t just about equality and opportunity, but choice. Choice is something women have lacked for eternity. If women do not want to do sports (or any kind of exercise), this should be OKAY. As we know, the fitspo shit out there has just replaced one form of oppression with another (strong is the new skinny- Caitlin you had a great post about this at one point). Bottom line: if a little girl actively chooses arts and crafts over sports at a young age, all the more power to her. Choice is queen.

    3) While I enjoy reading your posts about body image, Caitlin, it is refreshing to see a thin white woman acknowledge her privilege and step aside for other women to resume this discussion. Brava.

    • First of all, hats off to you for your ultrarunning. I think ultrarunning is the shiz. And yeah, anyone who thinks ultrarunning is about losing weight is showing an incredible amount of ignorance about the sport AND weight loss. Because you are right, if it was just about losing weight, there are far easier ways to do it. (And I say this with the full knowledge that weight loss is actually super hard for a lot of people!) This idea that the only reason to be physically active is to lose weight is just so joyless and sad, and it really ignores the fact that those of us who do these kinds of things are doing so not to punish ourselves but because doing so makes us happy!

      You actually remind me of a billboard I saw yesterday for one of those medi-spa places, where you can go in and get your injectables and shit done on an outpatient basis. It said, “No time for the gym?” like getting plastic surgery was an adequate replacement for regular activity. I mean, I guess if your paradigm is all about making your body look a certain way, then that might make sense, but if you care about how your body actually functions? Not so much.

      2. I totally agree with your second point. I do think, though, that there’s a tendency to put people’s interests into silos, like you’re either bookish or you’re artistic or you’re sporty, and never shall these things mix. While people are obviously free to live their lives however they see fit, I also think it’s important to be like, “Hey, reading books has a lot of benefits for you, and so does breaking a sweat once a day, and making things is really good for your soul, so maybe try to incorporate as many of these things as you can in your life?” You know, as a way of being well-rounded. But again, that’s just me and how I choose to live my life. If someone doesn’t want to be that way, that’s totally fine too.

      • Good point about people wanting to put other people (especially children) into boxes. This reminds me of when I was a kid and loved the spice girls- and I wanted to be ALL of the spice girls, into some Super Spice Girl. Ha.

        It’s especially hard to watch little kids- especially girls- ushered into boxes, whether that box be the “good, smart girl” or the “tomboy” or the “shy girl.” It’s more comforting for society to have us all figured out- particularly girls. Predictability is somehow control. The tough part is asking yourself- I am in the box because I’m happy here, or because I’m socialized to be here? And as children, we typically don’t know to ask ourselves these questions. As an adult, it’s really hard to deconvolve self-identity with socialization that has been ingrained for decades.

        (I realize my comment earlier kind of brushed off this difficulty.)

      • It’s so crazy how girls get analyzed by adults and put into boxes. I remember always having to explain myself to confused adults because I was a girl who liked running and getting sweaty (not a tomboy…a girl).

        This totally made me think of how in kids movies (i.e. the smurfs) they’ll have a host of characters and sometimes (oftentimes unfortunately) there will be a ton of male characters with all these qualities about them. But there will be ONE female character and THE MOST IMPORTANT quality for her is her “femaleness” (whatever that is!?).

  6. I love this post. I would love for their to be more feminist, sports focused content out there. Your blog was the first I’d ever seen addressing this area and I am starved for more.

    All you ever see mainstream ‘feminists’ say about women’s sports is that men like Fallon Fox should be able to beat up women. What a joke.

    • Hey Anna, the cool thing about feminism is that is is inclusive- that is, anyone who wants to be a feminist can be, whether you are a trans woman, or a cis man, etc. Further, as feminists, we have a responsibility to protect ALL women- including trans women. Please read this awesome article about a trans woman describe her experiences as a recreational athlete- http://www.runnersworld.com/chatter/body-talk-entirely-amelia-entirely-her-own

      And, finally, all the cool kids use correct pronouns. Jump on board.

      • Got no interest in being a ‘cool kid’ MJM, and I don’t think as a feminist I have a responsibility to protect men. (patriarchy does that pretty well) Especially not one like Fallon Fox who literally celebrated the fact that he caused (possibly career ending) injuries to a lesbian athlete just because he felt she didn’t police her facebook page enough when people called him a man on it. This is literally a man who cheers for the rights of male child rapists to go to women’s prison. All well documented.

        Sorry, nope. Not here for that. I know your heart is in the right place and you feel you should give men the benefit of the doubt, but it’s dangerous for women to do that. Have a good day.

      • For all I know, Fallon Fox may be an asshole. I don’t know. I don’t really care. But I do not tolerate mis-gendering people on my blog. If you have a problem with that, there are plenty of other feminist blogs and sites where that’s allowed, but it’s not allowed here.

  7. I was annoyed that everyone went crazy when the men’s team just made it to the World Cup, meanwhile the women’s team made it to the finals, and you barely heard a blip about. Thankfully, I saw a bit more about it when they won (although maybe that’s just FB’s algorithm learning what I like?) I loved the meme I saw today … “Maybe now we’ll refer to it as “Soccer” and “Men’s Soccer.” Wouldn’t that be great?

    • No, I don’t think it was just you. You had to really go and seek out information about the World Cup if you wanted it.

      That’s what makes the debates about the popularity of men’s sports vs. women’s sports so tricky. Men’s sports have huge media and corporate apparatuses (apparati?) promoting the hell out of them at every turn, whereas women’s sports…not so much. And I don’t think it’s malicious, either. I think they just legitimately believe they are pandering to the markets that exist, but the problem is, their perceptions are not exactly accurate. I actually read a NYT article where a Fox Sports VP said he was surprised by how many people watched the World Cup final, and all I could think is, “You had one job…”

  8. Your comment above: “I do think, though, that there’s a tendency to put people’s interests into silos, like you’re either bookish or you’re artistic or you’re sporty, and never shall these things mix.” — this is something I think about SO much. As someone who is, at 31-almost-32 years old, just discovering that I have not only an interest in athletics but at least a little bit of athletic ability to cultivate, I’m keenly aware that the main reason that it took me this effin’ long is because, as a child, I was labeled the “artsy/bookish” type. Those labels are so powerful and have so much influence over a child’s life, and I think a conscious effort to avoid that would make a heap of difference in the overall health and wellbeing of kids in the future (and by extension, adults of the future).

  9. I’ve never had much interest in watching sports before but thanks to your blog and a number of other feminist blogs and feminism+exercise blogs I’m interested now. I should look into where women’s sports might be streaming legally online since I don’t have cable.

    This might be a total tangent from the article but I also think people might benefit from showing kids that there are more kinds of physical activity than just the typical team sports like softball (played it as a kid and HATED it), or soccer (I kind of wish my parents had tried to put me in soccer though, I think there’s a chance I might actually have liked it if only I could have gotten over the sore loser mentality I had). Like, if there had been hiking clubs through my school or community somewhere I would have been all over that, or a little league version of track and field or kids’ 5K stuff in elementary school. If there’d been age 6-10 kickboxing lessons or something that was prominent enough that my parents would have thought to sign me up for that. That kind of thing.

    Now that I think of it those kinds of things do exist, they’re just much less prominent. Like your parent would already have to be interested in the niche activity themselves to think of signing a kid up, and the schools probably wouldn’t even think of offering classes in those types of things, or at least not unless it was a pretty large school. (Oops wrote an essay.)

    • Alison, I TOTALLY agree with you! I thought I hated all forms of athleticism until I started running. As a people pleaser, team sports filled me with dread because I’m not a coordinated person, and that lack of coordination let other people down. And they let me know it. It felt awful and I could not just brush it off, even if we were only playing for “fun” in gym class. Competing only with and against myself, on the other hand, feels amazing.

      I think there’s a lot more to be said on this – girls are raised to be people pleasers, after all, and so the disappointment of letting down the team might be felt more by girls than boys, on average. And that can turn into a lifetime of hating sports.

      • That’s it exactly! I much prefer competing only with myself than with a team/against others, to avoid the ridicule and the frustration of not being good at things right away (or even ever). Self-consciousness and perfectionism are a lethal combination.

    • I totally agree that we do kids (and the adults they become!) a disservice by limiting our definitions of physical activity to team sports. I personally had NO IDEA that there was a single athletic aspect of my personality until I discovered running and triathlon.

      I actually played soccer as a kid and I hated it, lol. I think I just didn’t know how to kick the ball properly, so I always ended up hurting my toes.

      Also, I love comments that turn into essays! They are like my favorite. 😀

  10. I believe playing sport has helped me to have a positive body image, even as a teenager. Partly because I saw (and see) my body for what it can do, rather than what it looks like, and partly because playing sport with other women exposes you to other women’s bodies that aren’t posed and photo shopped. It helped me know what “real” and “normal” looks like, and even “beautiful”.

  11. Here here! This was by far my favorite post yet! My family and I couldn’t get the game and I was really disappointed. I have 2 boys and their father loves soccer. At our local library they were promoting the women’s world cup for weeks and we checked out several soccer books. It was a let down to miss out on watching and sharing that moment where my boys could see how amazing women can be in sport. They see mom play and run, but this would have been nice to show them women whole do it better than mom….and dad.

  12. I went to a Seattle Storm game recently and it was EXCELLENT. Why did I never do that before? I have awful memories of my high school prioritizing boys’ sports because no one went to girls’ sports–because they didn’t advertise! Self perpetuating cycle of sexism 😦

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