My news feeds the past day or so are filled with stories reporting on Mary Cain’s truthtelling about her experience with Nike. Tagged as an Olympic hopeful, Cain was known as the fastest girl in America, until, as she puts it, she wasn’t.
The pressure to become thinner and thinner led to serious health consequences for Cain, including osteoporosis (she broke five bones) and infertility (she did not have a period for three years).
Sadly, Cain, is no longer the fastest girl in America. Her athletic career may be gone., but more powerfully perhaps, she is reclaiming her space in the world. And that is no small thing.
I often teach and coach individuals and groups on thinking quickly, presenting effectively and getting messages across. A couple of times I have had all-female groups and I give them an exercise. It seems so simple yet it terrifies them the first time they do it. I make them throw their arms in the air and say “my name is (insert name) and I am fabulous!”
But after doing the exercise two to four times, the women are more confident, they feel empowered by owning that space, and they see the benefits of challenging their fears.
As a result of my teaching work, I have made a habit of watching how people speak and deliver day-to-day. Recently I had to attend a meeting which was focused on some pretty high powered issues. The person running the meeting was the woman in charge, although her voice and her body language didn’t send that message — the complete opposite in fact.
Not long after that experience, I had the chance to listen to another individual describe her early forays in civic activism and I was struck by how she owned the space she was in. And revelled in it.
One woman with power and afraid to use it; another who used her power to be effective in her work. It made me think and the following questions came to me: Why do we continue to impose expectations about behaviour that effectively makes women smaller and invisible? Why do we take young women with great promise and force them into something they are not? Why do we diminish their power?
It makes me sad when we see young women’s dreams altered, shrunken, and swept aside. However, I am happy Cain and her athletic colleagues are fighting back. Women are taking back their space, making it their own, and showing others how it’s done. Cain makes no apology for speaking out against Nike, and she should not give the shocking way she was treated.
Back in July 2019, blogging colleague Marjorie Rose wrote a post in which she looked at how weightlifting women are also pressured to be smaller. Marjorie wrote:
It occurs to me that this means we really don’t know how strong women can be. Because as long as women are battling pressures to be less-than at the same time that they are competing, they are hobbling themselves. In order to really test women’s strength, women need to feel equally safe as men pursuing the sport to its limits. And at that time, maybe we can comment on a woman’s body and lifting without it being an issue.
If Mary Cain had felt truly safe and supported in the pursuit of running excellence, where would she be today? We have to stop the pressure to become small and invisible. Stand up and own your space. I know who you are and I see you. You are fabulous.
-MarthaFitat55 writes from St. John’s.