Thursday, September 17, 2009

On Sport and femininity, motherhood

Muscular, athletic, strong, lean, bulky, fast, powerful, testosterone.....

Is there a feminine ideal in sports? An article in today's Globe and Mail, on women in sports suggests that stereotypes still abound.

When is a woman more like a man? When she is a champion athelete, do we need to test her hormone levels to determine if she is female or male? Androgny is still suspect. These days we call hermaphrodites, those born with sexual elements of both genders intersexuals (at least according to Wikipedia). Neither one nor the other.

"Women and men make the same hormones, just in different quantities" says the article, but bulky muscles and strength are usually built by the 'male' hormones such as testosterone. The South African runner Caster Semenya was recently tested to figure out if she is more male than women - and it's not just a matter of XX or XY chromosomes. Some women actually have higher levels of androgens, and therefore build muscle more easily.

Some athletes complain they are forced to wear short sexy skirts and butt-exposing shorts to play up to the cameras and gain media attention for their sport (think Beach Volleyball, track stars, tennis players). They don't want to be made to look "feminine".

Why can't a woman be more like a man? Henry Higgins opined. Well, because men don't want to date 'mannish' women, or because women themselves feel 'fat' if they are muscular and don't want to fit into backless ball gowns and show off their ripped muscles. Even Serena Williams say's she thinks her muscular arms are too thick!

Many athletes, however, report that their muscles make them feel more strong, more capable and powerful. And that's where the feminine-masculine divide is.

It's about power, it's about who's on top, it's still about operating in a masculine-centered world without threatening the power structure by being too "male". Too loud. Too strong. Too much woman for one man.

What if male tennis stars had to start dressing like beefy weight lifters to make them look more masculine, or shave their long locks into brush cuts to appeal to women viewers?

The flip side of being proud of our female power athletes, is that they have to be superwomen too. In the same G&M Life section are two articles, one about a woman who fought back from breast cancer and pancreatic cancer and is now "zooming back onto the court" to play tennis, the other about women who win championships in sports shortly after having children. Paula Radcliff won the NY marathon in 2007 only 9 months after giving birth. (She began jogging after 12 days, although she paid for it with a small fracture at the base of her spine....); Kim Clijsters won the US Open on Sunday, two years after giving up competitive tennis and giving birth.

It makes me proud for them that they can do this; however, it feels like an impossibly hard act to follow. Reality must be somewhere in the middle for most of us, who don't feel like rushing out to perform marathons after giving birth. Giving birth is a marathon.

I think sometimes we have it all wrong. Our feminine power is not in building bulky muscles (but, hey if that's your thing...), nor in imitating male versions of strength (shotput anyone?), but in accepting that there are different kinds of strength.

Harbouring a baby for nine months, going through hours of labour to give birth, pushing past all your emotional, physical and psychological limits to push that nine-pound baby out of your body, sacrificing your sleep, sanity and love-life to care of a vulnerable little one....these are not the only things that women can do. But they are a Lot! They make us strong and powerful, not to mention muscular (lifting a 30 lb toddler all day will do that). Putting up with whining, cling-ons and teething babies would drive most athletes (male or female) around the bend.

So start your endurance training, future mothers, get ready for the only female endurance sport that demands more energy than a triathalon, and lasts twenty years longer; although it should require rigorous training, none is offered or given, beyond pregnancy multi-vitamins.

Be muscular, lean, bulky, round, soft, strong, patient, powerful, and all feminine.



ps I invite your comments, this is only my opinion, what's yours?

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