Once upon a time there was an Internet troll who thought that he had found some magical fairy dust called testosterone that would make him stronger, faster, and smarter than any woman in the world. So he thought he could just claim that he could beat any female MMA fighter out there who was in the same weight class as him. Luckily for us, some fine folks set up a match between him and Anna McCauley Dempster, an amateur mixed martial arts (MMA) fighter out of Oregon, to take place on January 6th.
Now, while it seems obvious that this particular troll is just asking to get knocked out, as he attempts to channel the ghost of Andy Kaufman, much less extreme versions of the claim he makes are pretty common. Lots of people do think male fighters in general have an advantage over female fighters, even correcting for things like relative size. Weirdo internet trolls aside, most people with any kind of experience doing fight training, in mixed gender contexts, will know that there are women who are better fighters than many men they train with. But that doesn’t mean the playing field is level.
On a personal level, I’m as committed to both feminism and martial arts as anyone I know, but hesitate at the thought of genderless divisions. I suppose I do agree with the view that male fighters have an advantage, but I hesitate to say that it’s just a simple physiological fact (e.g. more testosterone). I know, I know. Testosterone is advantageous, and that’s why it’s used as a performance-enhancing substance. Testosterone Replacement Therapy (TRT) is banned by the Ultimate Fighting Championship (UFC). But it can’t be the whole story. After all, “Bigfoot” Silva, who has acromegaly, naturally has testosterone levels that are well below average, but has had to fight for many years without TRT.
One thing I think we can’t rule out, though, to explain differences in ability, is the role of gender socialization. Spend some time hanging out with kids, especially when they’re doing physical stuff, and take note over time of how differently little boys and little girls are treated. A lot of what we supposedly know about hardwired differences between male and female brains can plausibly be chalked up to what Cordelia Fine has called neurosexism. Could something like that be going on with physical ability? Well before puberty and many of the more significant developmental differences, lots of people don’t seem to expect little girls to be as physically capable as little boys, much less encourage them to be physical in the same ways. It seems weird to think that kind of thing wouldn’t affect them as they get older, even if they’re active athletes.
But I think that if we want to encourage people to be athletic, and to take part in athletic competitions, we need, as a sporting society, to sort out just what we think the important differences are to make competition fair. Not everyone’s gender identity fits neatly into a binary, and many trans and intersex athletes have been subjected to a great deal of discrimination. It just doesn’t seem as though gender segregation along a binary is doing the trick these days, and maybe it’s time to consider whether there are any viable alternatives.
On Thursday, June 15, I get to talk about my favourite topic in cycling. Something I like better than debating wheel size on mountain bikes, frame materials for road bikes, or what type of shifters to use on a touring bike. I’ll be chatting about gender and cycling with four excellent people of a diversity of backgrounds. Joining me at the Parkdale Library will be Katie Whitman, Community Cycling Champion and researcher; Lavinia Tanzim of Bad Girls Bike Club; and Sivia Vijenthira of Spacing Magazine, with moderation by Tammy Thorne of Dandyhorse Magazine.
For some of you, this will be an obvious topic of conversation. “Of course that’s still relevant!”, you’ll say, “Why would anyone disagree?”
But I know I get a lot of questions about why we can’t just talk about getting more butts on bikes generally. “Just shut up and ride your bike” is a comment we get all of the time in the advocacy world, whether it’s about centering conversations on women and gender nonconforming (GNC) people, or attempting to convince people not to ride trails when they’re wet.
Why do we need to have this conversation? I have worked in retail bike spaces, as a ride leader and as a mechanic for the past decade. And the overwhelming drone in the background has always been cis-male* voices. If you make a bike event open to all genders, take a look around the room. The gender diversity is likely to be pretty limited, with the bulk of your attendees identifying as male. If you brand your event as women-only, you’re still very likely to end up with a cis-dude* or two attempting to gain access These interlopers will at times be very understanding, having missed the fine (or bold) print, and will at other times be dismissive, derisive, or downright aggressive. That’s cool, we can (and do) deal.
(*cis-gendered = someone whose gender identity aligns with the sex they were born with)
So why am I so excited about this panel and these spaces? What’s the difference at events intentionally directed at women and GNC people? For me, it’s all about the energy and a willingness to ask questions. As a mechanic, the most refreshing thing has always been a woman coming in with her bike and asking questions or talking about her experiences. Events or drop-in hours where women and GNC folks are the sole audience have a lot more chatting, laughing, whooping, and questions than all gender events. There are a lot of generalizations and assumptions about why this happens, and we’re going to unpack the heck out of that in the panel.
Note that I never said women and cycling, I said gender and cycling. How many of you jumped right to thinking this was a conversation about women and bikes? One of the aspects I find most difficult in organizing programs for not-cis-men, is making “women’s” events open and accepting of the trans* and GNC community. All of the events that I run are GNC-friendly. They have to be, because I identify as GNC. But I struggle constantly with the thought that my events are still exclusionary, as they’re often labeled as women’s events. If it’s a women-only event, does that mean our trans* and GNC friends aren’t allowed? Women and GNC events often get read as queer events. Does that mean straight, cis women aren’t allowed? There’s a barrier no matter what we do. My employers may not go for me labeling events as Women and Gender-Non-Conforming. It’s wordy, which is a hard pill to swallow when you’re trying to make a catchy and easily communicable event. If you write your event as Women and GNC, you may scare some women away who don’t know what that acronym means and feel this event isn’t for them. Throw an asterisk in there? People don’t read things. The complications and variations are endless.
So What’s the Question?
We know we need infrastructure changes and programs geared towards lower income people and newcomers to Canada, so that people have a safe and supportive way into bike commuting. But recreational riding, my main squeeze? How do we make these spaces accepting of all incomes, gender identities, and sexual orientations? Can we do it with one club, or do we need multiple clubs to make sure everyone has space?
What do you think, Toronto? Who wants to talk about this with me? See you on Thursday, June 15th at 6pm at the Parkdale Library!
If gender identity is not your most important question, never fear. We’re going to talk about loads of things, including how to make streets safer from an infrastructure level, the importance of programs for youth and newcomers to Toronto, how to tie the suburbs into this conversation, and what the research says about all of these things.
Join us on June 15 for TAKING THE LANE: GENDER AND CYCLING IN TORONTO! Pop by the Parkdale Library from 6-7:30pm for an a-one panel. The event seeks to unpack our city’s cycling past, where we need to go, and who is missing from the conversation? But at the end of the day the question is: how do we get more women and girls cycling?
There is a serious lack of conversation and action around intersectionality and cycling in Toronto. This event aims to highlight that many women and GNC people in the city do not feel comfortable cycling due to unsafe streets (a lack of infrastructure) coupled with a lack of outreach.
Alex has been working in the Toronto cycling community for the last nine years. A certified CAN-Bike, Professional Mountain Bike Instructor Association, and bike repair instructor, Alex would be so happy to take you for a bike ride. In addition to their role with Charlie’s FreeWheels, a charity dedicated to teaching youth how to build and ride bikes in Regent Park, Alex coordinates group rides and clinics with Sweet Pete’s Bike Shop and leads women’s cycling programs as a rider for Trek’s Women’s Advocacy program. You can usually find them with a posse of rad women and non-binary folks in the Don Valley mountain bike trails.
Follow Alex @legslegum on Instagram, Twitter, and Facebook
For some time now women have been told that housework chores can count as exercise, but for reasons unknown I’ve only just cottoned on to this self-help trend. Vacuuming, gardening, washing the floor, hauling the laundry up and down stairs… is it exercise? Some say yes (click here for a representative, if slightly condescending, example); some say no (this example comes from Women’s Health, and is actually even more condescending than the Weight Watchers example.)
I have two replies to the question, personally.
Is housework exercise? HELL YA. Have you ever hauled three loads of laundry up the stairs in between pulling out dead perennials and cleaning up after the dog? It’s a lot of fecking hard work, and I sweat through it weekly.
Is housework exercise? HELL NO. Because it’s WORK, people! It’s unpaid labour for many women, and poorly paid labour for many others. Don’t condescend to us by equating it with self-care. That way madness lies – and nothing but patriarchal double standards.
So what to do with this information then? How to learn from the “housework as exercise” trend, and the arguments underpinning it?
In my job as a humanities scholar, I spend a lot of time with students parsing popular culture and the discourses that drive it. This isn’t just something we do to pass the time in class and prepare for essays that will eventually go in the bin, forgotten; parsing public language is an essential life skill, a citizenship skill. It teaches us to be skeptical of the messages we get everyday from the world around us.
(Think about it: if everyone had some basic message-parsing skills, would Donald Trump be the Republican candidate for president? Or would we be witnessing a proper, grown-up campaign for the most important political office in the world?)
In the two short articles I link to above, my trained parsing brain reads the following embedded assumptions:
women should always be focused on weight loss; this is typically dressed up as “exercise” in the press to make it more modern and palatable;
“exercise” is something women need to make time for; if they don’t have time because of housework chores, they shouldn’t worry about it, but rather repurpose their housework as “exercise”, or even as “me time” (doing squats while waiting for the microwave! As if!);
housework isnotwork, because it’s “exercise” (aka “me time”);
women snack too much when they work hard! Stop snacking, ladies! Next time you grocery shop – because of course YOU grocery shop for your family, right? – be sure not to buy so many salty, fatty snacks that you enjoy!
women have no impulse control (see directly above), and therefore need to be reminded both to exercise and not to snack;
housework is a fact of life. Get over it, ladies.
What’s common among all these assumptions? Basic gender divisions: it’s not men doing the housework in the images in these articles; it’s fit, able-bodied, white, pretty ladies. There’s no notion here that you might, um, ask your partner to help with chores, or simply let the dirt accumulate a bit so you can do something else you enjoy, move your body in some other way. Instead, there’s a blanket assumption that you have to do the chores (it’s natural! It’s the way life is for us gals!), and you obviously have to exercise (keep young and beautiful, if you want to be loved!), so what else to do? (Just don’t eat any crisps while you’re at it, because then you’ll get fat and your husband won’t want you anymore…)
What’s the alternative to this coercive set of barely-spoken assumptions? I want to propose a totally different way of talking about the issue of how housework impacts women’s lives, and what that has to do not with exercise, but with mobility.
I’d like to suggest instead that, as women, whether single or partnered, disabled or non-disabled, in traditional relationships or in non-traditional ones, we all spend some time this week not squatting in front of the microwave, but rather thinking critically about how we move each day, how and why our movements are circumscribed, and how we might find ways – with the help of partners, family, friends, employers, or others – of becoming more mobile, on our own terms.
Here, I want to stress that it is not our job alone to become more mobile, or to overcome socially-driven mobility constraints; we live in a world in which institutional constraints actively work to limit women’s mobility, especially non-white, disabled women’s mobility; those institutions must change in order for mobility to become more broadly equitable for everyone. Mobility is a societal responsibility, not an individual one.
But part of that work needs to be activist on our part, needs to be about us making noise; it needs to start with all of us recognising and deconstructing where and how we are, and are not, freely mobile, and to complain, loudly, when our mobility is unfairly limited – whether because of wheelchair access barriers, or because of media messages that tell us to keep doing that laundry, it’s good for us!
I challenged myself to keep tabs, for a week, on my own daily mobility, to see where I’m free to move in ways that I wish, and where I’m not so free. Here are my findings from last week, generalised a bit to a normal term-time week:
I usually wake up between 8am and 9am; I’m lucky to have a job that works with my circadian rhythms, so I recognise here I’m very privileged to get up without an alarm clock at least 4 times per week. That means I’m better rested and more energised.
next, I walk the dog; she insists, but it’s not like she’s the boss. I could say no! But I enjoy my three walks a day with her, again because I’m privileged to have a flexible schedule.
on teaching days I cycle to my campus office around 11am; I live in a walkable, ridable city (more privilege). I teach between two and four hours a day twice a week; I’m on my feet for half of these, sitting down for the other half. No choice there. Often I’ll wear high heels for teaching, though this is largely my choice; nevertheless, I feel compelled to present as broadly feminine in the public sphere, so it’s not all my choice. The heels can produce standing discomfort and occasional hip pain.
a good portion of the rest of my weekly labour (teaching prep; administration; research – profs work a lot, and teaching is just part of it…) is at a computer, sitting; I’m lucky to have good chairs and the freedom to get up and move around a lot during this work (see dog walking, above).
late afternoons / evenings I usually cycle or row for up to two hours at a time. This represents remarkable freedom of movement, as I have no partner or children demanding access to my time or body at home.
evenings I often work at my computer at home, catching up on things dropped in the day. I can stand up and move around during this work but often I don’t. Because I have no partner or children pressing on my time or mobility, I often forget to get up and stretch. This is a mixed blessing.
weekends include housework, cleaning, gardening, marketing. These are my choice, but I feel social pressure to keep a neat house and garden, so they are not all my choice. Even more because I have no nuclear family (IE: I’m not “heteronormative” in my living conditions), I want to appear “normal” to my neighbours, and so maintain the outward appearance of a middle-class professional woman in all of my “front stage areas” (this term comes from the ethnographer Erving Goffman).
on Sundays I often see my parents, who are elderly, and support my mom, who is in a wheelchair. Because her mobility is so limited I become a surrogate body for her while I’m helping out. This is the closest I come in my daily life to understanding what so many women who are caregivers for children, parents, or partners go through all the time. Taking orders from mom, and moving her around the world using my body, are a lot of work; I compromise my control over my own mobility in order to give her a bit more freedom. I am so lucky to be fit and strong, because the physical demands on me in this labour are tremendous.
It’s obvious from the above that I’m very, very lucky with my mobility in general: it is largely my own to determine. Kids don’t demand I be here or there at this or that time, or that I give over my bodily movement to their needs; ditto with a partner. I have a flexible job and can do what I want when. But socially, I’m still constrained as a middle-aged woman who lives under the glare of heteronormativity. Weekend chores mean less time overall for relaxing – which impacts my health a bit. And, as a result of not having a partner (partly due to the fact, I’m afraid, that I’m in my 40s and have an advanced degree and a professional, intellectual job… intimidating for a lot of guys), I also don’t get regular sex; that’s a key way in which I do not move that I wish I could move more often.
How about you? In what ways is your mobility constrained, and in what ways are you free to chart your daily and weekly course? Try the tracking exercise and share your findings; I’m keen to hear about others’ experiences.
Finally, let me stress once more: this is not about changing ourselves; it’s about charting how institutional and other pressures in our lives keep us from moving freely – and how that impacts, among other things, our ability to exercise and to rest our bodies how we want, when we want.
When all the fashion magazines featured women with hands (their own or others’) covering their breasts, a thought flickered that hands are much more comfortable than the average bra. Hiding women’s breasts, one way or the other, is standard media fare, and of course in some places women aren’t allowed to go topless in public, a clear gender disparity.
It’s become really hard to find a non-padded bra, even for sports. Yet it’s seriously unpleasant to exercise with sweaty padding. Does anyone really believe in “breathable padding”? Sorry Victoria’s Secret, but my skepticism was well placed.
However, in recent years fashion has shown glimpses of the saucy braless 70s, including the bralette and bandeaus, all pleasant options for small-breasted women. The news even declares that bralessness is in fashion.
Many of us may sneer “how nice for you!” Bralessness and even lightweight bra alternatives are not realistic choices. Many heavy breasted women are simply not comfortable and even experience back pain without support from a bra. Sizes small, medium, and large rarely do the work we need them to do either. Sports bras tend to be sized that way and create a special kind of hell. We end up pinched and unsupported on top of being sweaty.
So I suggest the new move away from bras and padded bras may be good for all women. It marks a greater diversity in the types of breast support and sports tops available for women. The less women are expected to hide our breasts the easier it will be for us to demand comfortable functional support.
Over the last few summers I have taken my daughter on a number of canoe trips, and we’ve always had a great time. She loves stopping at little islands to explore and eat snacks, and when she was really young she would nap in the canoe. This year, I signed us up for a three day “Women and Girls” canoe trip in Killarney Park guided by Wild Women Expeditions. While I love planning routes and organizing trip menus, my work schedule has been heavy enough that a bit of luxury seemed in order. With the fab WWE guides in charge, I just had to pack some gear and get us to the trip access point. Better yet, on this trip my daughter would have other girls to play with. I want to nurture my daughter’s sense of adventure and offer her challenging opportunities, but I also want it to be fun. Kids are the experts there.
And they had fun. They swam, jumped out of canoes, and took over a tiny island which they quickly determined was for “kids only.” (No Lord of the Flies, so far as I could tell…) They ran wild for hours and encountered many fascinating creatures: a water snake, a beaver, a barred owl, and the usual frogs, minnows, loons and hawks. The trip was also just the right length for 7 year olds. We spent enough time in the canoes for the girls to get the feel of travelling by canoe, but not so long that they were bored. And there was only one short 30m portage, so the girls got to experience portaging without its unique hardships. They can find out about those later.
The trip was great for the grown-ups too. Laughs over gritty ‘cowgirl coffee,’ lots of swimming, and a break from the usual demands and judgments of everyday life. It’s also really good to connect with others who want to nurture wilderness skills for girls and foster their sense of adventure. And I found the trip freeing in the way that backcountry trips usually are. In wilder places, I feel light and peaceful.
Nothing brought home the full meaning of our trip more, though, than two comments directed to my daughter and I at its end. As we unloaded packs onto the dock, one of the outfitter guys challenged “Isn’t this women-only trip sexist?” Later that night, we were eating dinner at a resort and a man stopped at our table and “joked” to my daughter “You know what I like most about you? You look like your mother.” This man – whom I suspect has been entertaining women with his comedy for decades – was probably unaware that his jokey compliment contained an insult. Among other things, he conveyed to my daughter that what might be best about her is her looks and moreover, that what is good about her looks is that they involve looking like someone else.
The comparison over appearance that women and girls engage in, and are subjected to, is a source of much unhappiness. So is the entitlement that some men assume in their interactions with women and girls by virtue of the fact that they are male. These ways of relating with women and girls steal joy and dampen feelings of adventure, wildness, strength, and capability.
On the bright side, these two fellows offered up some fine teachable moments. I explained to my daughter why I didn’t like these comments in an age-appropriate way. More important, though, is that we had just been on a fun adventure. She saw women charting routes, hauling packs, building campsites, paddling lakes, all the while not giving two hoots about appearances. She experienced first-hand the energy of strong, capable, respectful, fun-loving, and risk-taking women. And she got to feel wild and free. Such experiences fortify girls and women against poisonous compliments and willful ignorance about social power, and do so in ways that may run deeper than conceptual points or clever come-backs (however fun). Where the wild girls are, and how they spend their time, may be more important than we realize.
I was diagnosed with breast cancer this summer, and since then have had a double mastectomy and two courses of chemotherapy that have left me breastless and bald. For a woman who had large breasts and long hair, it’s been a big change. But I’m finding I’m strangely comfortable with my new appearance, shocking as it may be to others.
I thought I was ready for it (I’d had the same friend buzz my hair in a very short pixie cut before my chemo started), but it was still a shock. Bald heads are a sign of maleness in our culture; very few white women willingly go bald, and are considered outliers if they do. Long, thick, shiny, straight hair on women is prized by people of European descent. The few times in my life when I’ve purposefully cut my hair very short, I’ve been chastized for it, by both women and men. Bucking the cultural norm is definitely not okay, and even makes news.
And yet I really love my bald head. Many of my friends have commented that my skull is a nice shape. The artist in me thinks I’m more beautiful than I’ve ever been in my life, since going bald. I love looking at my head, and touching it. Part of me wishes I could keep it bald, even after my hair starts growing back. It’s so easy to care for, so minimalist.
My struggle has been going out in public since losing my hair. Until recently I was still working full-time, as a fundraiser for a nonprofit. I felt physically well, but didn’t want people to assume I was sick. (I figured they’d guess I had cancer as soon as they saw the bald head.) Before my first business meeting after my hair was gone, I vacillated: should I wear a scarf on my head? A hat? Did I need to explain my appearance? To be honest, most of the time I forget I look different – I still feel like the same old me on the inside.
(The business meeting? I wore a hat because it was cold out, but took it off as soon as I got inside. I explained that I was doing really well physically. It seemed to be a non-issue.)
Then one night I was passing by a mirror in my apartment, and caught sight of myself out of the corner of my eye. I was shocked – I really looked like a man. To be honest, I thought looked like my dad, who had been bald. My mom affirmed it when I posted this photo on Facebook.
For many women going through breast cancer treatment, this part – losing the external signs of womanliness – can be very hard. At every step along my cancer journey, health care professionals have assumed that I wanted to mitigate this loss with prosthetics and wigs. And I’m not diminishing that need that some women may have. But I’ve been very clear with myself and others since my diagnosis: if anything, I want to be the poster girl for normalizing the realities of breast cancer treatment. I want it to be okay to be breastless and bald if you’re a woman. I want it to be okay to work through illness, if that’s what you want to do. I want it to be okay to be who and what you are, to be flexible in the moment, and do what you need to do to be well and whole (be it a take a nap, or go for a walk, or have a good cry.)
But I can’t deny it’s been fascinating – and a little disconcerting – to explore the emotional and spiritual landscape of ambiguous gender appearance. I feel like our culture has become more open to considering gender identity since celebrities like Chaz Bono, Laverne Cox and Caitlyn Jenner have shared their transgender experiences. But each of those celebrities seems to have settled on a gender appearance that puts them very squarely within the norms of their identified gender. I wonder if society is ready for people who are openly gender-ambiguous, even if only in appearance.
I guess what I’m trying to say is, I’m a woman and I love being a woman, but I’ve been wondering what it would be like to live the rest of my life in the No-Man’s (and No-Woman’s) Land of asexual appearance. Where I could be mistaken for a man (or transgender, or a lesbian) sometimes, and that would be fine.
I also wonder if I would feel differently if I were younger, or in a relationship with a conservative partner. Maybe part of my comfort with ambiguous gender appearance comes from being near menopause and single – and happy with both of those conditions. I was already knowingly entering a part of my life where my appearance and desirability were becoming less important. I’d heard from older women that you become invisible after “a certain age”. That didn’t seem like a bad thing to me. There’s a reason that contemplatives take a vow of celibacy – the pursuit of sex takes up a lot of energy. What if looking gender-ambiguous saves me from superficial and superfluous flirtations and drama? What if I can focus more time on my work and my creative projects? What if I can have more authentic relationships where people look past my exterior and value the person I am inside?
Part of me still worries about being labelled strange, however. About being ostracized for being different. If I were another 10 years older, I would laugh it off, because by then I’d be facing my 60s, and I know it really wouldn’t matter what I looked like. But I’m finding I’m thankful for activities like aikido, where everyone (male and female) dresses the same for practice.
Honestly? Breast cancer isn’t turning me into a man – it’s turning me into a pre-pubescent girl. (This will become even more true when I begin taking hormone-blocking drugs after my chemo.) And if I remember correctly, my 10-year-old self was pretty awesome. Who could complain about that?
You may also be interested in these blog posts by Michelle about her breast cancer experience: