I scored on my own goal (Guest post)

So, the other night I scored on my own soccer goal. Then we lost the game.

But more on that in a moment. First, I would like to point readers to a recent online article, Google Spent 2 Years Studying 180 Successful Teams. The Most Successful Ones Shared These 5 Traits.

A summary of a summary of a study conducted by the ubiquitous Google, this article looks like prime click bait. But after the game, when I was feeling pretty down on myself for contributing to our team’s loss, I clicked.

The article explains the most successful work team traits are dependability, structure and clarity, meaning, impact, and…the fifth (you first have to scroll past an advertisement on the page for added drama) is psychological safety. Apparently it’s superfun to work at Google, which strives to cultivate environments where workers feel safe enough to take risks and ask questions so they will be “less likely to leave, more likely to harness the power of diversity, and ultimately…more successful.”

This list of successful work team traits list was good for me to read that night. Everyone fights their own inner battles, and fear of letting the team down has always been mine.

It’s not a unique problem, I know. Nor might it seem like a big deal. A more confident player would say, “Who cares? It’s only a game. It’s only rec sports. Everyone makes mistakes. Just think positively for next time, and get over it.”

“Getting over it” may be a matter of perception, but when one has fear her perception can be all that matters. I don’t have another Google study to back up my thinking, but I believe that fitness gurus who promote a healthy lifestyle through physical activity insufficiently address the psychological component: there may be a large number of folks (like me) who avoid or leave exercise for fear of failure, inadequacy, and judgment. Easier not to show up than to risk letting others down.

Until recently, this fear of mine, irrational and silly as it may seem, had been strong enough to keep me from joining sports teams (which is already out of my comfort zone) well into my adult life.

So, when my very greatest sports-related fear had come to pass, I turned the corner when I realized that I did have “psychological safety.” I DO (or should) feel safe to fail around this group of amazing women, whom I blogged about previously when it came to “finding one’s tribe.”

And, later in the evening, when one team member checked in with me, and another texted to make yoga plans, my clearer thinking was reaffirmed. A non-soccer friend (with whom I was commiserating) suggested that being self-aware about our fears and inadequacies can help us to re-examine with greater clarity how we perceive the judgments of others.

Now here I am, showing no lack of awareness of my private fears as I blog about them publicly on a fitness site that has recently reached 10,000 Facebook likes.

So, to the anxious late-to-the-gamer like me: find a team that will make you feel safe, and stay aware of your feelings so that you can push through them to get yourself out to the next game.

And, to the other Confident Connies playing group sports: By making failure safe for others on your team, you also enable fearful folks to play at all. For me, that win is better than any scored goal (on one’s own net or otherwise).

More feminist than fit, Elan Paulson works at Western University and plays rec soccer in London, Ontario.

Athleticism and Fashion in Wonder Woman (Guest Post)

by Elan Paulson

Even the “god killer” Amazonians can still be slaves to fashion.

I am certain that the writers of the new Wonder Woman film made it a top narrative priority to get Diana Prince into a dress store in suffrage-era America. Her fellow shopper exclaims with that Diana has tried on over 200 dresses, but viewers know she is looking for the outfit that will enable her to blend in as well as fight. The film makes clear visual contrasts between the strapless gold dress that Diana kicks butt in on Themyscira and the dark, high-necked piece that is trying to “choke her” in 20th century Britain. On one island women do the killing, on the other women’s fashion does.

And yet, even in the outfit Diana settles for—a simple black dress with a white shirt resembling a masculine suit—Diana’s femininity/sexuality is still not covered up enough. Barely concealing his attraction to her, Steve Trevor decides she needs fake glasses to further obscure her distracting beauty. Shortly after, the camera fixes on Diana’s glasses, stomped on and broken in the street, following her first back-alley fight. There are a plethora of “gaze” metaphors that I won’t unpack here.

The film makes easy retrospective social commentary: the clothing designed by men for women that restricted their movement is an allegory for their oppression, whereas clothing designed for movement, presumably designed for women on an all-women island, symbolized liberation.

And yet, there are still other moments in Wonder Woman that complicate this easy distinction. When Diana needs a fancy dress to sneak into a Nazi gala, she finds an unattended female party-goer who has impatiently decided to walk to the gala (another fellow “empowered” 20th century women, though far overshadowed by Diana).

But rather than dragging her into the bushes to steal her clothes right away, for a full few seconds Diana walks alongside the woman, sizing her up to see if the dress fits. There are few men who take the time to size up soon-to-be stolen clothing for fit. It stands out as both reinforcing a female stereotype (something that men wouldn’t do) but also showing Diana as a discerning female shopper. Where will she hide the god-killer sword in such a form-fitting number? (Spoiler! She uses the sword’s hilt to accessorize the dress.)

In an interview, Director Patty Jenkyns writes that “To me, [Wonder Woman] shouldn’t be dressed in armor like men […] It should be different. It should be authentic and real – and appealing to women […] It’s total wish-fulfillment […] I, as a woman, want Wonder Woman to be hot as hell, fight badass, and look great at the same time.”

Wishes may be had in Wonder Woman, but what isn’t different between the experiences of the goddess Diana and regular mortal women is the need to continue to navigate the complicated relationship between athletic and fashionable clothing, to achieve the often culturally-imposed desire to fight badass and look great at the same time.

For me the two pieces of clothing that serve the most meaning do not serve fashion at all. First, Diana’s gauntlets (or as Wikipedia informs me are “bracelets,” which are apparently an allegory for emotional control) are activated early in the film, revealing the first hints to Diana that she is more than a regular warrior princess.

Second, Diana’s headband (which the internet also corrects me is a “tiara”) has a more complex comic book backstory that is either downplayed or rebooted in favour of representing not only Diana’s status as royalty but also a connection to her family, particularly her Amazonian mentor, aunt Antiope, who trained and sacrificed for Diana.

So, while even bracelets and tiaras may suggest that women’s power lies in accessorizing, I appreciate how the film embraces (rather than avoids) women’s ongoing negotiation of athleticism and fashion, the clothing that (literally and metaphorically) liberates and constricts. May the jewelry women inherit from their female family members be continued reminders of the challenges that fashionistas past—both real and fictional—have had to face.

Finding your tribe (guest post)

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If it takes a village to raise a child, it takes a blue-clad tribe** to uplift its new members.

This year my soccer team put together a group entry to the fun run, Polar Rush 2017. Now its third year, the Polar Rush takes place at Horseshoe Resort north of Barrie, Ontario. The event fundraises for Sick Kids, and this year raised $17,000. Individuals and teams complete a 5km run or walk, facing 12 obstacles, on the resort’s hilly terrain.

Dressed in blue running gear, and with “best before” freezer tags pasted to our chests, our 15-person Team Freezer Burn jogged, slogged, sledded, and climbed the obstacle course. Then, later that night, we potlucked, played games, and recounted our day out together.

I’ve written about the limitations and benefits of fun runs. However, for me the day was notable not because of the event’s athletic focus or charity fundraising. It was notable because it turned a group of individuals into a community. In our overnight adventure I saw many, many acts of caring—women helping each other by navigating the run’s obstacles, sure, but also by driving and navigating, booking rooms, bringing food, welcoming new friends and partners, teaching games, and sharing stuff. No matter who or what was needed, someone was there to support, arrange, organize, and help out.

In this group I’ve gone from a person who was terrified of joining team sports for fear of letting anyone down to feeling emboldened to try new activities. On one hand, it’s a small thing to run a 5K race, in the snow, with bright blue hair with 14 other people on a day in February. On the other hand, in our busy, isolating, and stressful 21st century life, this group of women will still take time to encourage and strengthen one another. We build community through camaraderie, or, as one team member put it, “Start together and finish together.”

For those of you who want to be more physically active, or even if you just need to be taken care of for a little while, then I encourage you to find or reconnect with your tribe. And if you are the tribe, then make the time to welcome new members in. You can lift the blue by bringing it to another person’s life.

**Note: I am aware of the colonial implications of the word “tribe.” I use the term “tribe” not to refer to a particular ethnic group or nation, but as defined in the Merriam-Webster dictionary as “a social group comprising numerous families, clans, or generations […]having a common character, occupation, or interest.”

Elan Paulson is less fit than feminist but plays recreational team sports, tries any new form of exercise, and chases after her two cats when they jump the fence. She works at her stand-up desk as Director of the EdD Program at Western University’s Faculty of Education.

Party Run: 2016 Mudmoiselle London (Guest Post)

By Elan Paulson

(Shown above: Team “Slick Chicks” post-race)

This is a follow up to my previous blog post on party runs, which I published in anticipation of the 2016 Mudmoiselle London fundraiser for the Canadian Cancer Society. In my previous post I had signaled some concerns about party runs, highlighting examples of runs that are currently available in North America. So, here’s me reporting back on where the Mudmoiselle stands in relation to these concerning issues.

The corporate issue: The event was well-organized and fully stocked with smiling volunteers; cheerful music; and a series of tends for registration, bag check, and changing. The Mudmoiselle “template,” with standardized pink/yellow/teal colours, was used for signs and medals. Registered participants received modest draw string swag bags with a shirt, trial-sized protein bars, and assorted gift certificates. About the only noticeable corporate branding was a guy at the photography booth dressed up like a Best Buy ticket.

What I think I liked most about the run was the camaraderie it inspired. There were some cooperative obstacles, but it was the occasion itself that brought out our team’s support for each other. That’s something no amount of sponsorship could buy, and perhaps it was in part because there was little corporate presence that we could focus on motivating and having fun with each other.

The “dress up” issue: Our team chose “business slick” attire: white men’s dress shirts, ties, sunglasses, and lipstick. Our costume was determined less by gender norms and more by what was comfortable but also ironic for a mud run. At our after-run lunch back at the captain’s house, our team was already talking about next year’s costume. Most seemed to like the idea of formal gowns.

The health issue: The course was not competitive, or even timed. An announcer warmed up teams at the start line. The obstacles were challenging, but not insurmountable. And some were quite amusing. Our team particularly liked the diagonal pole we had to slide down (with the aid of applied lubricant) to avoid falling into a mud pit. We encountered encouraging signs (“It’s just a hill; get over it”), water stations, and cheers from by volunteers and medical staff. So, it was a healthy activity, but afterwards we chose to have pizza and beer.

The environment: On this well-marked course we ran up and down a local ski hill on a beautiful, sunny day. We pulled jeeps in neutral, flipped large tires, and navigated through strings pulled taut across woody bike paths. Other than the water and soap to make a “slip ‘n slide” down a larger part of a hill, most obstacles seemed to use existing spaces well, and did not seem environmentally damaging.

The fundraising issue: The London Mudmoiselle met its fundraising goal—nearly $80,000—and our team met its own goal as well. I took my fundraising seriously, and through asking friends and family for donations raised almost $900. While I may have ran the Mudmoiselle run, it’s those who donated to the charity who are the real champions of the day. So, I’m listing below those who donated for me to acknowledge their generosity.

I had only one family member refuse to donate to the CCS because he thinks they aren’t transparent about how they manage their funds compared to other charities. And while the day served the purpose of fundraising, at the starting line there was no explicit mention by run organizers of the charity or its efforts (at least none that I had heard).

Overall: As an event that emphasized fun, friends, and health, but without over-the-top competitiveness or a barrage of corporate gimmicks that undermined the run’s social purpose or personal benefits, Mudmoiselle’s pros and cons netted out pretty evenly for me. It was a party run, but it was fun and it promoted an inclusive type of “partying” that many would find to be a welcome alternative to a traditional booze bender on a Saturday (complete with ties around our heads).

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Every Game is a Practice (Guest Post)

By Elan Paulson

Treat every practice as if it were a game. I heard this expression playing ball as a kid, and then recently saw it again as an inspirational sports meme. The advice is to practice like every second matters, take play seriously, and give 100% effort as if one were in an actual game.

But after I had just played my first recreational mixed ball game in over six years this past week, I had to tell myself the opposite: treat every game as if it were a practice.

As a reader of Fit is a Feminist Issue, you already recognize the pervasiveness of media-reinforced stereotypes about women and their marginalization in sports. In Women, Media and Sport: Challenging Gender Values, Pamela Creedon notes that “By denying access to the game as players, we are taught that women are less qualified, powerful or physical than men. By limiting women to largely stereotypical support roles, […] we also learn that women should be subservient” (6).

Clearly, this is an ignorant view at best, but if you know mixed ball teams you may also know there visible and invisible rules that re-affirm that women indeed play a “support” role in the game. (I refer a mandatory numbers of female players in a line up, or the tendency to place women in positions that see the least action or require the least skill.)

I have a strong desire to challenge the gendered stereotypes in sports that Creedon references. It’s also in my nature to be conscientious and want to make a positive contribution to team efforts. As a result, I am hard on myself and unforgiving of my own mistakes (both off and on the field).

When I struck out last week, my desire to challenge gendered sports stereotypes, combined with my inherent self-criticism, mixed a poisoning of my enjoyment of a fun afternoon outdoors playing rec ball with nice people. A team member of mine had noticed my frustration, commenting, “You don’t look like you are having much fun.”

Now, at the time I was wearing the all-in-good-fun bright pink t-shirt that team members must wear as “punishment” for striking out (another gendered marker that subtly associates weak play with women). But I wasn’t having fun because the pink shirt a) equated women with inferiority in sports and, b) equated inferiority in sports with me.

So, going forward this season I plan to give myself explicit permission during every “practice” to try a new strategy, to screw up, to fail, and to strike out.

If I punish myself for every missed play, and feel further humiliated by the pink shirt, I internalize not only the very gendered stereotypes I challenge but also an approach that is hypercompetitive and stereotypically masculine (Creedon, 7) that I also wish to avoid. Even when my failure may look as if I am reinforcing gendered norms, having fun is the more important “win” for me.

So, going forward, every game is an opportunity to practice…both my skills in baseball and self-forgiveness. And living my values is the real feminist “play” in my sports life. FIAFI readers, is this a needed reminder for you in team sports as well?

References

Creedon, Pamela J. Women, Media, and Sport: Challenging Gender Values. Sage Publications, 1994.

What’s in a (Women’s Team) Name?

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Recently I saw the everydayfeminism.com cartoon, How Society Polices Women’s Clothing (No Matter What We Wear), in which illustrated female figures engaging in various life activities (i.e. working-with-clipboard, relaxing-with-guitar, clubbing-with-clutch purse) are each critiqued for what clothing is worn. I had noticed, however, that none of the women were depicted wearing sports clothing.

This is not to say that women’s athletic apparel escapes cultural policing. For instance, women’s clothing for tennis and beach volleyball seem increasingly revealing and sexy, while already revealing women’s clothing has become athletic apparel, such as in the lingerie football league. In the 21st century, women athletes (particularly those who have achieved celebrity status) are tasked with demonstrating excellence in both athletic performance and sexual attractiveness.

In direct contrast, my current rec league soccer team jersey is far from sexy, especially after I have totally soaked it in the heat of an outdoor summer game. My jersey has white accents, but is mostly Wizard-of-Oz-Emerald-City green. On the jersey is printed the league’s insignia and the number 12 (not even my favourite number). Its style is almost totally generic. Aside from my rainbow socks and matching headband, I’m sure I must blend in almost entirely with the grassy green soccer pitch.

But I have come to identify profoundly with my jersey. On Sunday nights, number 12 green is me. An hour before game time you will find me frantically looking for my jersey like it’s a (well-hidden) treasure. When I arrive at the field, my heart begins to race when I see my Emerald City green-wearing teammates already warming up on the sidelines. (There’s no place like home!)

My only other soccer jersey (purple, number 18) is equally un-sexy with me in it, but on this jersey our fun and slightly sexy team name is on the front of it: “Chicks with Kicks.” My green team name, by the way, is “Femmes of Fury.” So while as sports clothing my jerseys aren’t explicitly gendered or sexualized, the team names still manage to adhere to the formula of suggesting both (aggressive) athletic performance and (sexy, objectified) femininity.

In fact, there are websites dedicated to listing such team names for women. On one site, top-rated women’s team names include the “Pink Fluffy Monsters” and the “Mighty Morphin Flower Arrangers.” Cute, right? But the performance-attractiveness formula emerges again, suggesting that women must be rough-aggressive and passive-feminine. Of course, this is not the case for every women’s sports team. Samantha has reflected in another FIAFI post on soccer team names bearing gender neutrality in favour of referencing activities like drinking and middle-age onset.

I tend to regard my team names and sports apparel as emblematic of 21st century mainstream feminism: the “radical” feminist power of our all-women team uniform, a liberal “girls are as tough as boys” attitude, and 3rd wave “fierce-but-still-fashionable” accessorizing (i.e. the afore-mentioned colourful socks and headbands) that expresses our individuality amidst our uniform-ity.

It’s not that I dislike “Femmes of Fury” and “Chicks with Kicks,” per se. But do I wonder about how these team names risk re-inscribing feminine-otherness, even as they invoke girl-power assertiveness. Do men feel the need to ensure their sports team names follow such a similarly gendered formula?

My questions for FIAFI readers: What do your team jerseys look like, and your team names sound like, and what do they mean to you? Do these “fearless feminine” team names still suggest that feminine attractiveness still matters as much as athletic performance? How might such team names resonate (or not) with non-cisgender or gender-queer players?

On Athletic Teachers: Finding Your Coach(es) (Guest Post)

Anyone who has played ball as a kid knows what it means that I spent my first few years of softball in right field and batting at the bottom of the order. (For non-ball players, it means that I couldn’t field or hit. I was the weakest link.)

Our catcher, Karen, was one of the best players on the team, my secret hero, and the daughter of our coach. With Karen’s mom’s very patient coaching, over the years I slowly improved my skills and my confidence. And, as one of the team’s only “southpaws,” I eventually moved to first base, where I got to be part of the in-field action (and even got to play directly with Karen).

When you’re a kid, coaches are easy to recognize. You can pretty much rely on anyone taller than you to tell you what to do without having to ask them. When you’re a kid, the problem isn’t finding a coach. Rather, the problem is deciding whose directions to follow when multiple “coaches” (read: parents) are shouting at you all at once from the sidelines.

As our beloved coach, Karen’s mom taught us not only the rules of ball but also how to be part of the team, so I felt included even when I was standing alone in right field, completely frightened and praying that that ball wouldn’t be hit out to me.

I don’t remember ever thanking Karen’s mom for coaching me as a kid, but I’ve only recently come to fully appreciate Karen’s mom. Why? Because adults don’t get coaches.

More precisely, adults have to actively seek out folks who are willing to share their knowledge, time, and attention. From afar, you can follow every step of your idolized professional athlete. You can pay for a personal trainer. You can sneak peeks at other gym-goers, or read the how-to posters on the wall. But, generally, as soon as you are as tall as everyone else, you have to find a coach, then as her to tell you what to do.

Not everyone might feel that they need a coach, but I certainly do. Just as when I was little, I still feel a certain need to have someone not only to explain the basics but also to help bolster my confidence. As an adult, my body isn’t as resilient or resistant to injury as it used to be. (And neither is my pride, so I don’t want to screw up.) As I explain in my previous guest post on Athletic Learning, when it comes to exercise my M.O. is to research the rules and learn the techniques, rather than rely solely on inherent athletic skill (of which I have little). And in order to learn, I need someone to teach.

My first ever Zumba exercise class was last week. As I strained to keep up with the fancy salsa-esque footwork, I asked my co-worker, who was next to me, when the class instructor would begin actually teaching us the moves. “Usually they only do the steps, and the class just tries to follow along,” she informed me.

Just follows along? But I had questions! (Like, where did the weird name “Zumba” come from? Where do the moves come from? And why do Zumba-ers wear those bizarre tutus?) I needed some Socratic Zumba for this activity to be enjoyable.

Without taller people around who will automatically tell me what’s going on, I’ve had to look to more unconventional coaches. Here are some that I’ve found:


Coach #1: Mel, my physiotherapist
– I don’t waste time chatting about my holidays or my newest hair colour with Mel. Instead, I pepper her with physical activity-related questions, trying to understand the mysteries of body mechanics, acupuncture, and glute-related pain. When I go to physio, I try to get more out of my visit than just stretching exercises and polite adult small talk.

Coaches #2: A bunch of 8 and 10 year old girls – The moms on my rec soccer team had the idea of bringing along their children (who are also awesome little soccer players) to our practice to help give us a lesson or two. Well, the girls LOVED coaching us adult soccer newbies. They broke us up into position-specific groups, ran drills, and even punished us with sprint lines when we failed to meet our objectives. In wonderful irony, everyone shorter was giving directions to everyone taller. Our practices alone have been more fun than any other athletic activity I’ve experienced in a long time.

Coach #3: This blog – When I feel there’s no one I can ask or I’m worried about looking silly, I do what millions of other people do: I go on the internet. This blog, in particular, is a valued “coach” for me in the way that it shapes my attitudes about athletics, body image, and health in positive and productive ways.
The best coaches don’t just explain the rules or show the steps. Instead, they strive to meet the player’s own unique goals and needs (whether they are physical, psychological, or both). The best coaches make fear and pain–and even failure–fun. And the best coaches improve not only your skill but also your attitudes towards your body and abilities.

So–maybe take a moment to think about who officially (or unofficially) coaches you, and thank them the next time you see them. As an adult (or at least a taller person), I find it humbling but also rewarding to reach out to all my unconventional “coaches,” who help me to enjoy athletic activities like a kid again.