Women’s Bodies and Athletic Performace #LikeAGirl! #CSWIP

Sam and I on our morning walk from downtown to the University of Regina for CSWIP.
Sam and I on our morning walk from downtown to the University of Regina for CSWIP. Photo credit: Kate Norlock

One of the best things about being a feminist philosopher in Canada is getting to go to the Canadian Society for Women in Philosophy conference.  We just got back from Regina, where the conference was held this year.  There were lots of great moments, and one of them was the panel Sam organized on women’s bodies and athletic performance.

Four out of four of the speakers have written for the blog: Sam, Audrey, Sylvia, and Moira.  As if that alone wasn’t awesome enough, Kate and Alice were in the room too! And those are just the feminist philosophers who have blogged for us. Besides them, we were surrounded by awesomeness all weekend!

Megan Dean, the PhD student from Georgetown who won the essay prize, presented her winning paper, “Fat Shame Is Not Moral Shame” (and yes, she will be guest blogging for us sometime very soon).

But back to the panel Sam organized. Here’s what they talked about.

Audrey took Iris Marion Young’s feminist analysis of feminine body comportment and “throwing like a girl” into the realm of the relational by extending it to the martial arts. Not all throwing is as individualized as what we think of when we think of what it means to “throw like a girl.” In martial arts training, girls and women often have to overcome a lot of “I cannot” self-talk before they can throw and hit and kick other people, even though throwing and hitting and kicking other people are exactly what they’re there to do.

She made the point that even when we have the skills training so that we can control our own body, that doesn’t always or necessarily translate into being able to act on another’s body.  This led to a fabulous comment from Alice, who said we need to turn our “fleshy embodiment” into “fleshy agential embodiment.”  (yes, we are indeed philosophers!)

Next up was Sylvia on femininity and athleticism. She introduced an interesting scale of sports that are associated with the feminine (like figure skating and synchronized swimming), sports that are kind of (but not really) gender neutral (running and cycling), and sports that are more masculine in their representation (like hockey and basketball). Then she (depressingly) pointed out how difficult it is for women to negotiate the double bind. If they’re participating in so-called feminine sports, then they’re not taken seriously or recognized for their athleticism. If they’re participating in the so-called masculine sports then their femininity is called into question. In neither case is it easy to get taken seriously.

She posed the interesting question of whether sports mirror or magnify what happens in other realms. In my view (mine was the first hand in the air for the Q and A), the whole thing is depressingly true to life. When pressed, Sylvia said that the situation in sports magnifies, not just mirrors, what happens all over the place. And while I agree to some degree, don’t we also think that sport has promising liberatory potential?  Of course it does. So we need to continue to find ways to navigate and challenge the norms of mandatory femininity through participation in sport.

Moira considered the way that a focus on the external goods of sport can be harmful. Instead, she said, we need to focus on internal goods. External goods are things like winning, pleasing others, looking good, earning money, getting prizes. Internal goods are the goods internal to the practice, particular pleasures and skills and meaningful experiences.

She applied her analysis to fitness as preparation for physically transformative life events like reproduction, ageing, disability, and even death and dying. Fitness ideology is usually about avoiding many of these things rather than being better prepared for them.  But the internal goods of sport–endurance, pain tolerance, courage, working through exhaustion–are actually transferable skills that we can bring to bear in these other areas of our lives.  Moira talked about childbirth, but at the break a couple of us talked about how sport has prepped us for menopause!

Finally, Sam presented about the tension between the norms of sport performance and “ladylike” values. She coined a phrase that I’d never heard before and love: “the play gap.” That’s the gap between boys and girls with respect to time devoted to physical activity. It starts young and just gets worse as we grow to adulthood. She reminded us of all the sad facts about women being socialized not to be athletic, to recoil from athletic clothing because of poor body image, to work out in sheds for fear of being seen, to hesitate to spit and shout and do all those things that sporty men do without the least bit of self-consciousness.

She also talked about the blog and I just felt so happy about the blog and the bloggers and the attendance at the talk (because we have not had great luck populating sessions on feminism and fitness, so this was a real turn to the good). It was really a fantastic session!

Here’s to CSWIP and to all the fabulous colleagues we have who are taking these issues seriously!

Moira on the internal goods of sport as preparation for transformative physical life events.
Moira on the internal goods of sport as preparation for transformative physical life events. Photo credit: Kate Norlock
Sylvia talks about femininity and athleticism.
Sylvia talks about femininity and athleticism. Photo credit: Kate Norlock.
Kate, Audrey, and Sam with the big Saskatchewan sky behind them. Photo credit: Tracy I
Kate, Audrey, and Sam with the big Saskatchewan sky behind them. Photo credit: Tracy I

4 thoughts on “Women’s Bodies and Athletic Performace #LikeAGirl! #CSWIP

  1. Sounds like a terrific conference. Is there any film of the panels available?
    Audrey’s presentation brings back some thoughts I’ve had about roller derby, which exists in a strange negotiated territory of female-dominated contact sport; often highly sexualized a la women’s wrestling, but mostly run by women for women, and lots of tension between different groups who want to disassociate from fishnets and those who find them empowering. Men who play tend to get some guff for playing a “women’s” sport when they could be hockey or rugby players instead, despite the fact that it’s a physically demanding, strategic game, just because it is now associated with women.

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