We haven’t shared the new Nike women’s sports ad on the blog–much as we love almost all of it–because we’ve been nervous about the “crazy talk.” The “Dream Crazier” ad for the “Just Do It” campaign features women throughout history breaking down barriers in sports. The commercial, narrated by Serena Williams and featuring an all-female cast, shows women in sports ranging from running to tennis to boxing being celebrated for their passion. And that’s terrific, right? Mostly yes but it’s complicated.
The ad lists the ways in which women have been called crazy for wanting to participate in sports. It’s a long list. But instead of criticizing the use of crazy-talk as ableist the ad tries to take back the language of “crazy.” It urges women to be crazier.
“Disability metaphors abound in our culture, and they exist almost entirely as pejoratives. You see something wrong? Compare it to a disabled body or mind: Paralyzed. Lame. Crippled. Schizophrenic. Diseased. Sick. Want to launch an insult? The words are seemingly endless: Deaf. Dumb. Blind. Idiot. Moron. Imbecile. Crazy. Insane. Retard. Lunatic. Psycho. Spaz.
I see these terms everywhere: in comment threads on major news stories, on social justice sites, in everyday speech. These words seem so “natural” to people that they go uncorrected a great deal of the time. I tend to remark on this kind of speech wherever I see it. In some very rare places, my critique is welcome. In most places, it is not.”
What do you think of the ad? Of using “crazy” as metaphor?
You know how (if you’ve ever worked retail) there’s a clichéd ha-ha customer joke for when something scans and isn’t in the system? “Oh there’s no price on it? It must be free!” From the customer’s angle, it’s mildly funny because they use it once every couple of months. Clerks in stores hear it multiple times an hour sometimes. (It’s not so funny after the first 383 times.)
There is a conversationally-equivalent bad joke for male partners of strong women.
I cannot tell you how many times a man (it is always a man, never a woman) has broached a conversation with, “So you’re a powerlifter?” with a look from John me, followed by “You can lift HOW much? Wow. That is something…,” with a tone that sounds like a mixture of admiration and awe.
At this point it goes one of three ways. Either things segue to the details of lifting, we shuffle on to another topic, or……
…they turn to my husband and say, “You must have to watch your step at home.” or “Wow, I’d be careful if I were you.”
There’s always a moment of silence in which you can hear both of us frantically hunting for something pithy to say in response. Often these conversations come up at professional gatherings and what we WANT to say isn’t polite or appropriate.
It’s insult masquerading as compliment to subtly prevent rejoinder, a backhanded slap across both of our faces but done politely enough that a “fuck off” cannot be handed in return.
It’s also just not funny.
The initial praise of a woman for an ability for which she has worked hard is the veneer, but underneath it’s actually an inelegant way of saying, “Dude, your wife is stronger than you, which I believe means that you are relatively weak of body and spirit, also I am intimidated as hell both that she probably can pick me up and throw me (side note: buddy, I’m thinking about doing just that) AND I do not understand the strength of character that you must have to NOT be intimidated by this so I will pretend that you are both weak and hen-pecked because I feel more manly that way. Also, lady, you are too strong for a woman and the way in which that is determined is my comfort level, so there’s clearly something wrong with *you*.
Firstly, yes, I am pretty fucking strong. That does not require that I be compared to anyone, male or female. It’s a simple fact. The almost-daily battle of Vicky vs The Weights currently sits at 1045 to 184 in my favour (most days I don’t get my ass handed to me, but they occasionally happen), based on training days over the last six years. The fact that I can lift more than John or any man is irrelevant to both of us. I never set out to be stronger than him and my strength doesn’t have anything to do with his self-esteem. Each of our respective skills and hobbies is not something that pits us one against the other, it’s an attribute or asset that we bring to our team. Also I have worked harder for this than most people know or could understand. I will never apologize for it or downplay it. I am well past the point in life of dumbing myself down for social acceptability.
I am and have always been a strong and intelligent woman. There are a lot of us around and I count myself incredibly fortunate to have become a part of the community of powerful women locally, nationally and world-wide. When you become strong, you tend to congregate with folks who are equally strong because they understand both who you are and what it takes to get there and they support that. I am not a gentle personality and I don’t want to be. My grade three report card says, “displays leadership qualities” on it and god bless you Miss Roche for writing it that way because most of the time people called smart and decisive girls “bossy”, “pushy”, or “know-it-alls”. Men (and women) are sometimes intimidated by me.
Most of the women I coach have similar personalities, strength of character, and intelligence.
None of us apologizes for it anymore.
We just throw another plate on the bar and lift that shit, with the knowledge that someone else’s weakness of character is not our problem.
We are under no obligation to be less physically powerful, less intelligent, less forthright, or less confident than any man. And we are not responsible for someone else’s self esteem.
Further to this, men are under no obligation to spend their free time lifting. There is no law that obliges my husband to enjoy strength sports (thank heavens – one lifter in the house is hard enough during comp season and expensive enough to feed!).
We are allowed to make different choices based on preference and talent regardless of sex or gender. John enjoys bushcraft, hiking, triathlon, trail and ultramarathon running, and kayaking. He is able to tackle tremendous distances which are impressive as hell. He is also my best friend, someone I love for exactly who he is and whom I respect immensely.
So does John have to “be careful at home”? No. Because he is my equal in worth and value and he knows and is confident in this. And I am his.
Vicky Taylor-Hood is a powerlifter, lifting and fitness coach, mother, wife, dog-wrangler, kayaker, hiker, and likes to pick things up just to see if she can.
This article in Odyssey about how women runners at Rowan University were forbidden from running in only their sports bras seems like it should be a spoof in The Onion. It’s real. The university’s response was half-hearted, though ultimately the no-sports-bras-in-practice policy will be rescinded.
Have you ever found an issue that brings out all the views?
Mine this week is girls’ school uniforms and exercise. New research shows that girls’ clothing is part of the story about the play gap, why even young girls move less than boys. Their clothes are more restrictive and there are modesty concerns about young girls getting their rough and tumble on in skirts and dresses.
Here’s this explanation of girls’ lack of movement from Australia news:
“When they get to high school it’s becomes harder to get girls active during recess and lunch than it is for the boys. It’s not surprising then that girls participation rates in physical activity drop off significantly in their early teenage years.
People talk a lot about how girls behave in schools as though it’s providing vital evidence for a genetic-like inability to be naturally active and into sport. “Girls simply aren’t interested in sport” we’re told, “boys just naturally want to run around whereas girls don’t”.
But it’s the girls’ uniforms that are acting like physical shackles. The majority of school uniforms still see girls wear dresses that fly up, blouses that allow little arm movement, stockings that sweat and ladder and long skirts that don’t permit the freedom of mobility needed to run and kick without tripping over in painful schoolyard shame.”
So some of the debate is about relaxing dress codes that require girls to wear skirts and dresses. Fine.
It’s still telling girls what to wear, say our Facebook readers. That’s the overwhelming response there. There’s also the worry, given the cultural context, that there is some Islamaphobia going on. But the school says they’ve done it to encourage girls to move more.
Of course, in schools with school uniforms they’re already in the business of telling girls and boys what to wear. Boys can’t choose dresses either. I’m not a big fan (okay, I hate) gender binary school uniforms. What about kids with non-binary gender identities?
So there’s that issue too, I think.
Then there are the other routes that people have taken to either let girls move more in skirts or protect their modesty. What’s their motivation? It’s hard to tell.
Some of my favourite images from sports photography can be found in Howard Schatz’s 2002 book, Athletes. In his provocative work, Schatz photographs Olympic athletes from various sports in black, form-fitting clothing. Arranging them side-by-side, Schatz reveals the various shapes of the athletic female body. There are many ways of reading these images—I am not here to claim they are unproblematic—but the aspect I choose to focus on is how all of these women, in their varying shapes and sizes, represent strength.
I think society has a terrible time accepting physically strong women—women whose musculature is visible and takes up space. (The recent events surrounding Venus Williams come to mind.) We have adjectives for these types of bodies: “broad,” “big-boned,” “stocky,” and “handsome,” for example. But none of these words is meant to be flattering. (Brianne of Tarth, anyone?) As a 6’0’’ woman myself, I struggled well into my thirties with the question of how to be present physically in a room. I knew I wasn’t petite, small, or particularly fragile. I took up space—a lot of it.
For me, everything came to a head when I turned 36 and gave birth to my third child via c-section no. 3. The doctors who prepped me for surgery marvelled at my enormous baby bump, as if it were something glorious and Amazonian. I’ll never forget their astonishment when my beloved Quinton arrived, weighing in at 11 pounds, 1 ounce. I had given birth to a toddler. As for me, postpartum I had never been so heavy nor so chronically in pain. So, I decided I should do what any 36-year-old classically-trained musician would logically do: I decided to take lessons. I hired myself a brief stint with a personal trainer.
I arrived at the gym assuming my trainer would put me on the treadmill—what I had previously been urged to do to “slim down”—and yell at me in an emotionally-uplifting and inspiring way. (Reality tv wouldn’t steer me wrong, right?) But after five minutes of warm up, my trainer turned off the dreaded machine and led me to the free weights. She walked me past the familiar, dainty weights I had compulsively selected in past group exercise classes, and instead handed me the heavy “barbells” from the middle of the rack. Incredulous, I lifted. After a few sessions, it felt great.
In the first weeks working with this trainer I gained fifteen pounds…of muscle. And I grew strong. She quickly learned that we shared an interest in facts and physics. Together, we talked about everything from nutrition, to metabolism, to body mechanics. Herself being 5’4’’ and a competitive body builder, she looked at me and saw a remarkable template. It turned out, the construction of my previously-loathed body meant that I could actually accomplish some pretty remarkable things. She helped me to understand that my metabolism prioritised muscle and would grow it and protect it prior to burning off fat. This celebration of my construction was surprisingly new. And the strength training was far more effective in slimming me down than anything else I had ever done.
My trainer changed my life. She taught me what strength looks like—male or female. So many bodies that I would have previously thought were “bulky” actually belonged to incredibly strong, powerful women. I was astonished—considering myself a fairly educated individual—at how little I understood about the female body. And as I eliminated my fear of weights and of growing bulky, I also began to enjoy being myself a lot more than I had before. Exercising gave me a hobby that helped me moderate anxiety, eliminate chronic pain, play with my children without fear of “putting my back out,” and embrace failure as something amazing. In fact, failure in the gym is key. It is the best way to make you stronger.
Three years later, I still lift, although this summer I began running again as a chance to tackle new challenges. I cannot imagine life without regular exercise, and I talk with my children about strength and being strong. I fear, as a society, that there are far too many instances to undermine women’s ideas of strength, which, as Schatz’s image reveals, can come in many forms. And make no mistake, one doesn’t need to lift the heavy stuff to be a power house; strength manifests itself in remarkably different ways. Improving how I celebrate strength has been essential to improving my outlook on life, making me all the more excited to drive toward that next failure.
Kimberly Francis is Acting Associate Dean of Research and Graduate Studies at the University of Guelph, where she is also an Associate Professor of Music and a passionate feminist musicologist. She’s not ashamed to say that Taylor Swift, Guster, and many, many tracks from Big Shiny Tunes can all be found on her workout playlist.
First, the French Open decides one of Serena’s outfits back in June is cause to tighten up their dress code rules. I wrote about that only a few days ago in Let Women Wear What They Want. Yesterday, the U.S. Open penalized Alize Cornet for oh-so-briefly taking off her shirt during a match.
Have women’s bodies become so hyper-sexualized that we (okay, really men) can’t even see a woman’s sports bra without coming apart at the seams? Watch the video. Alize’s shirt is off for less than thirty seconds. On a break, she had changed out of a sweat-soaked dress. She accidentally put her fresh shirt on backwards. I’m in New York City. I can attest to just how blistering the heat is. Riding at 6 a.m. with a friend this morning, we felt like we needed amphibious bikes to wade through the stifling humidity. I start sweating just looking out my window at the sunshine.
We are super-saturated by media images of women in their scanties. Are you as tired of Victoria’s Secret billboard cleavages as I am? The more we sexualize women in the media, the less room there is for women to be comfortable in their bodies and in their strength.
Meanwhile, no surprise, the male tennis players are sitting around without their shirts on whenever they feel like it.
The powers-that-be blather on about respecting the sport as an excuse to sanction women. The women ARE respecting the sport. Now let’s give the women the respect they deserve!