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Do ladylike values clash with the norms of sports performance?

I wonder sometimes about the clash between the gender role socialization of girls and the demands of athletic performance. I’ve been reading and writing about the history of women’s cycling (see Riding this summer? Beware of bicycle face! and Bicycles: Making good women go bad since the 1800s) and it strikes that the mismatch between ladylike behavior and the norms of sport haven’t entirely gone way. What worries me is that if I think this, given that I consider myself mostly free from the oppressive aspects of femininity, I imagine there’s lots of other women for whom it’s worse.

I know, I know. I’m not free of femininity entirely, and I even embrace some aspects of chosen femininity as fun, but I don’t think of myself as particularly ladylike.

Part of the story is that the demands of femininity never quite fit me that well. And I suppose that’s true for lots of girls.I remember the clashes. I once got in trouble for chewing gum in church, ‘girls don’t chew gum.’ Later I got in trouble in grade school for sitting on a chair astraddle with the back of the chair between my legs. Clearly, not ladylike. I was even punished for pulling on my snowpants over my skirt and tights without waiting to get into the girls’ cloak room to do it.  The joys of attending a Catholic school, taught by nuns, during Newfoundland winter.

Part of the the ill fit now is age related. “Lady” sounds not just feminine to me, but also old, and I don’t plan to grow old gracefully. Part of it is also my connection to the queer community. I’ve spent time with people who’ve questioned gender roles much more seriously than I have and if traditional gender roles rub me the wrong way, for other people they’re a jail cell that makes life hell.

In grad school I started to approach this issue theoretically, reading Iris Marion Young’s Throwing Like a Girl. Young’s essay begins with the phenomenology of learning to throw a ball and argues that women are trained into fragility and self-consciousness because we are objectified. You can read more about Young’s views here at the blog Pondering Postfeminism.

I also loved Sandra Bartky’s Femininity and domination: studies in the phenomenology of oppression. I was a student of Sandra’s (she’s now a friend as well as a former teacher and mentor) at the University of Illinois at Chicago and I learned a lot about the demands of femininity and the ways in which those demands make women’s lives difficult. At that stage in my life though I didn’t have an athletic bone in my body and so the particular constraints femininity imposes on athleticism weren’t obvious to me.

But the clash between ladylike values and sports matters to me now because I’d like to get more women out on bikes and I’d like to see more women out there racing and competing. Yes, racing.

What are some concrete examples of the clash between ladylike behavior and the values of athletic performance?

I’m going to talk from my own experience here though I’m certain there are examples from sports I haven’t tried. Sigh rugby. Sigh roller derby.

First, there are the clothes. It’s clear that women aren’t always fond of, or comfortable in, performance athletic wear. I’ve written about that here and here. See also my post on going commando. Sports clothing geared to athletic performance have as their purpose to go fast not necessarily to cover everything you’d want covered or to look cute.

Second, there’s acting in a way that commands attention. I’ve had difficulty Kiaing in aikido, for example. But there’s also leading an attack in bike racing. Sports requires confidence and fearlessness and sometimes the way we’ve been taught to be quiet and to not attract too much attention or not take up too much space gets in the way.

Third, there’s physical contact with others. I play defense in soccer and when you’re covering a player on the opposing team. you stay close. Very close. Soccer isn’t a contact sport but you can be uncomfortably close and you do deliberately block and get in the way of players on the other team. In Aikido, I’ve had real difficulty learning to punch and strike people. Yes, Aikido is all about self-defense but in training one person needs to attack so your partner can practice defensive techniques. If your fist stops short of your partner’s chest, they aren’t learning very much and likely you aren’t giving them enough energy to execute the technique properly. I’m getting better at this but it’s taken awhile!

Fourth, and this one definitely sets ladylike values on their edge, there’s bodily excretions of various sorts and the way they’re dealt with in training and competition. My male cyclist friends laughed when they had to teach me how to spit. How could you not know how to spit? Well…

Ditto, blowing your nose on the bike. I had to be taught how. You can read about it here and here.

Luckily, I never plan on competing in an Ironman length event so I don’t have to worry about how to pee while riding a bike. That’s covered for men here.

The Fat Cyclist’s post How To Pee Whilst Riding Your Bike has this to say about women: “And if You’re a Woman… I have neither information nor advice for you. I’m sorry.” Gee thanks.

You can even buy a “I pee on my bike” triathlon tshirt.

Is peeing on the bike disgusting?

“Now, some say “Gross – now you’re covered in pee”. It’s all about getting to the finish line ASAP, not smelling as good as possible. But realistically, it can’t smell all that much worse than how everything else smells. Not to mention you’re doing it on the bike, which means the wind will help evaporate things very quickly. If you are properly hydrated, it is probably closer to water than anything else.” from How To: Peeing on the Bike

It’s probably clear now why the people helping to rack the bikes after the bike leg is over at an Ironman event do so in rubber gloves.

So, for me at least, there have been some tensions between the demands of ladylike behavior and the demands of athletic performance. And I don’t even think of myself as a lady.

I agree with the author of the West Yorkshire ‘was knitting, now cycling’ blog accident bizarro  on the matter of the term “ladies”:

“I’m worried about this word. Its connotations are bad, for me. Ladies are perfectly-behaved, delicate creatures in twinsets and pearls, or bootylicious babes in bikinis (as satirised by Flight of the Conchords so perfectly here). I can’t identify with either of these groups. I’m not that old, yet; I swear quite a bit and laugh like Sid James; I occasionally wonder what it would be like to have a cleavage. I’m not much of a lady.”

I think we women athletes may need to say goodbye to our inner “ladies” and channel our inner “bad girls.” I’ve been meaning to read Girl Trouble reviewed in the Independent here. The book by the cultural historian Carol Dyhouse “explores the history of our moral panics over rebel girls, from the late-19th century onwards.”

Sounds like a great book. And I’m guessing, maybe hoping, there’s a section on bikes, or at least on women and sports.

The reviewer says this about the New Woman, ‘Many depictions traded in stereotypes: “‘Girton Girls’ were caricatured as bicycle-riding, back-slapping, whisky-swilling, bloomer-wearing eccentrics.”

Oh, and note to self, on the list of things not to Google, add ‘bad girls on bikes.’ I did find this call for videos and short stories on the subject of bikes and sex.  They say they are into ethical bike perversion, joyful exploration, shameless flirtation, and radical honesty.


31 thoughts on “Do ladylike values clash with the norms of sports performance?

  1. Fantastic post. Ditto re. grunting at the gym. If we do do it, we are told we sound like we are having sex. I’ve heard this from a number of men, including my own partner. So that just reinforces that self-conscious feeling. Thanks for thinking this whole clash through so eloquently.

    1. Don’t get me started on that one. I had one friend note that a partner complained about the noises she made during sex. “Sounds like a porno.” What? Surely the one time you can sound like you’re having sex is when you are, you know, having sex. No, must be ladylike even then, lest you be an utter bad girl because that’s the two flavours women come in, ladies and tramps!

      But yes, men generally are free to make a bigger range of noises in sports, take up more space everywhere, be smellier at all times, pee and spit when and where they need to etc etc

      1. That’s unbelievable about your friend’s partner’s complaint. Geez!
        The whole idea of taking up space, being visible, vocal, and unapologetic about it — I really think that’s a major feminist issue.

  2. Great post! One thing’s missing though: sports bras to fit large breasts. Bras of any kind to fit large breasts didn’t exist when I was growing up in the 70s and 80s (except the Doreen bra, which remains a best-seller but which isn’t a sports bra. And it’s ugly.) In recent years I’ve started to find bras that fit me. But still, when choosing sportswear I’m made to feel like a freak. When running… well there are a few good runner’s bras available, now.

    1. Thanks. Yeah, there was some discussion of that in the comments on my post about sports bras. My own pet peeve are padded sports bras… Good point.

  3. Love it. More eloquent than my post “Nice Girls”. Another related observation re: women & sport. Before my injury, I played in a women’s touch football league. I always marveled at people’s reaction when they learned I played football. Some were supportive and encouraging but all too often I was met with reactions of people being amazed, thinking I was “too feminine” or even “too old” (my mother said that) or others who sexualized it. There were lots of snickers and replies along the lines of “where do you touch each other” and “ooooh, girl-on-girl action”. Barf.

  4. Great post! And thanks for linking to my piece about Throwing Like a Girl.

    Two brief anecdotes:

    * My mum told me the other day that my grandparents would often say things like “don’t run, it’s not ladylike” to me and my sister when we were little.

    * The other day I heard a mother at a shopping mall telling her daughter (who was wearing a dress) to stop climbing/playing/running – basically enjoying herself – because her dress was going to get ruined.

    There seem to be so many examples of femininity getting in the way of sportiness. Drives me insane sometimes.

  5. Hi Sam– great post! I think you have read my co-authored article on Riding like a girl from the Cycling: Philosophy for Everyone volume. Pata Suyemoto and I looked at men’s and women’s race reports from mountain bike racing, and found some differences in emphasis, reported feelings about self, race, role of competitors, and other things. From my own experience with bike racing and also playing competitive squash, one of the hardest things was staying in touch with the goal of winning as the number one priority. I found myself often thinking about my competitor(s) as compadre(s), to be worked WITH rather than AGAINST. Sometimes winning (even passing) seemed, well, rude. I know that sounds crazy (and I am a southern lady, so maybe that partly explains it), but in the thick of the race, I just wanted to be in it, to finish well enough, to help my teammates or have a good time. In squash, head-to-head competition was more fierce, but I still never liked crushing anyone. And still these days, if I am playing someone who is really clearly about to die if he/she doesn’t win, I will sometimes ease up a bit. What is this saying about me as competitive athlete?

    -catherine womack

    1. Yes, love that paper. I always mention it when I give talks on women and cycling!

      I’m like you. I don’t like to trounce people, winning is fine. I don’t care about margins. I actually think it’s sportspersonlike to ease up when victory is assured. I don’t think it’s southern or feminine necessarily. Though in your case it’s overdetermimed perhaps! 🙂

  6. Great post. I’ve done a number of sports where female participation is low — crewing on racing sailboats, saber fencing, to name two. I play softball (I’m 55) with a co-ed group of friends and only once (hah) did a new guy try to treat me “like a girl.” My friends often put me first in the line-up or make me the DH, so I have no fears about what I can do there — and growing up in Toronto, softball was not my game!

    Saber fencing (I was nationally ranked for 4 years in my mid 30s), is a great example of this….I stopped partly because we would not be able (mid 1990s!) to compete beyond nationals. In the last Olympics, American women took all three medals in that sport and I cried with pride and excitement. It felt good to know I’d helped to kick down that door.

    1. Nice. Thanks for sharing. I have friends who race sailboats and who fence. Both seem like they can be pretty make dominated domains.

  7. This was engaging and so inspirational! When the Olympics was on in England I had so many conversations about how women had had to make the choice to give up their ‘femininity’ to become world class in their fields, whether it be a swimmer with no breast or a boxer with no teeth. As a young feminist this was super refreshing to find a view that was so thought provoking without being a really aggressive view! Have tried to do feminist blogs myself but it always seems to turn ranty, would love your take on my next one! But amazing post either way 🙂

    1. That’s interesting. I’m only a recreational athlete, but I *definitely* made that choice when I was starting out. (The thing I chose to throw myself into was weightlifting; I suspect how many women feel like they have to choose between beauty, attractiveness, femininity etc. and athletic excellence probably varies by sport.)

  8. Great post! As an extremely athletic young girl, how many times did I hear (from my equally athletic mother): “Cindy sit like a lady” I would reply I wanted to sit like a comfortable person. ‘Lady’ represented for me (and still does) a long list of don’ts. Ladies don’t…..
    I’m really enjoying your blog!

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