Where Sports and Body Image Get Complicated

"What kind of fat-free muffins do you have? Oh, really? Allright, then, I'll have a cup of coffee and a bagel. Do you have fat-free cream cheese?"So begins my first interview on women athletes and body culture.I had approached Lisa in the gym -- she was pumping iron, and clearly had been for some time. In our conversation she indicated that a few years ago she had begun to be "disgusted" with a twenty-pound weight gain and decided to make massive changes in her lifestyle. Aerobics led to weight training, which became increasingly serious. "I'm a natural athlete because it's fun to do," she tells me. "It's not about body image."Yes, I think, then why did you put Nutrasweet in your coffee instead of sugar?All of the women to whom I spoke initially discussed athletics as a way of utilizing their strength and power, building muscle as a way of being able to kick ass -- in competition, in self-defense, at their day jobs. Sports foster a confidence that spills into all other aspects of one's life, I was told again and again. And there is little question that this is true; studies showing increased self-esteem in girls who play sports have long been in the public domain. They learn to set, meet, and exceed goals, they learn team-building skills, they learn that they are as good, that they are better. Most athletic women love knowing that they can do 75 push-ups, or run 10 miles, or win the match. This is all pretty obvious.However, there are fewer places than the gym where the real struggle of third-wave feminism becomes evident. We know that we are supposed to want to work out solely for our health, for strength, for endurance... yet the age-old demon of body image still rears its ugly, media-driven head. We want desperately not to care whether that grueling workout had any effect on our butts and thighs, we want only to be concerned with our heart rates and endorphin kicks. Of course we are not lying when we say that we enjoy the power. But the fact remains that there may also be the guilty pleasure of vanity in there as well.I always thought that real feminists didn't buy into the ludicrous late-twentieth century beauty ideal in which hips are tight, stomach is flat. We were supposed to be over that garbage, right? Isn't it true that truly strong women don't care about their looks? Yes and no. Again, the weight-lifter and the kickboxers, the competitive sailor and dancer all used words like challenge, fun, tough, energy, stress-reduction, and health to explain why they do what they do. Yet they used other words, too.Sarah and Alison, who respectively took Grand Champion and First Place kickboxing titles at their last match, discussed food and body parts for most of our interview. When asked why they train, Sarah immediately said, "I do it because I want to look good," and Alison agreed, noting that "vanity is high up there." They spoke to me in detail about inner thigh flab, Alison's weight loss, why Sarah will order a salad when her friends go for pizza. Laura told me that performing with an Afro-Brazilian dance troupe was an "emotional rollercoaster" because she "never felt thin enough."Now, I want to be careful hiking along this slippery slope. Too often in our culture issues are polarized -- either these women are "strong" and impervious to body image problems (according to the usual feminist definition) or "sucked into the media's lies" and are actually anorectics masquerading as athletes. The answer is usually, neither. Or both. America in the late twentieth century has decided that women should look a certain way. We can't untangle the complex web of reasons why women may be serious about exercise and laud some as exemplary, condemn others as harmful. Even if we could understand where one motivation starts and another ends, we simply don't have the right to judge.Ann Wilson, editor of the highly intelligent webzine Melty writes in "Sports Angst," "I want to be athletic again. I want to feel strong and powerful. I want to be part of a team, surrounded by cool women.... And yet I hesitate. I don't let myself go. Why? Because I don't understand or trust my motivations." If she (as a self-identified feminist) is actually working out to look skinny and cute or buying into someone's corporate marketing plan, she muses, perhaps she shouldn't be working out at all. Though with this attitude, she acknowledges, much is lost. Like the opportunity to play sports.The media doesn't help our confusion. Alison found Nike's ad campaigns to be "inspirational... I want someone to like my legs because they're cut, not skinny." She talks about the desire to be recognized because she's been doing work and likes the fact that her drive and effort have tangible rewards. But for her, the end result remains desirable body parts -- often she mentioned arms and thighs as if they were not part of a whole. Yet, the means are the work she does, and she sees this idea in the ads. Laura, though lambasting Nike's corporate policies, also likes their marketing because they "promote images of tough women." Because tough women put in the time, they sweat. Push themselves harder. All the reasons why sports are Good Things.But how much better is a jock with a six-pack stomach and a 10 K reparatory than a size-two waif for the average woman? I don't dispute that bench-pressing is a better means to an end than starvation, but the assumption that a woman who has a full-time job, maybe a family and barely the energy to cook herself dinner should then also have time to run 5 miles every morning is hardly helpful. None of the athletes to whom I spoke have children. A few are in serious relationships. For all of them exercise is their primary leisure-time activity, which is fine, but not the choice everyone makes.Should women work out to lower their risk of breast cancer, heart disease? Of course. Have studies found that exercise is a great way of alleviating depression? That, too. I do not ever mean to imply that people should not exercise. However, there's a gap in our cultural thinking -- the difference between an athletic woman and an athletic body. A woman who works out and a woman who looks like she's been working out. And we've come miles on the definition of healthy -- hooray for fruit juice smoothies instead of milkshakes! The former provides vitamins and the latter cholesterol. But Nike ads don't show us the many women who exercise regularly , who play sports, but remain a size 14 simply because... simply because they do.So women are working out. Their self-esteem is better in some respects. But they still get neurotic and they still berate themselves for not running hard enough, long enough, even though they just got back from work and there's crap to do at home and someone has to give Jenny a ride and they're just damn exhausted even before their sneakers hit the street. And I know that I'm blurring the line between athletic women and women who exercise. But really, the line is usually pretty fuzzy. The athletes to whom I spoke seemed to be grappling with a lot of the same issues as other women I know, though they may have spent more time thinking about it all.And as with most other issues, it seems that the hope lies in developing perspective. Alison and Sarah are both in their twenties. They spoke almost exclusively about foods they eat, foods they don't eat, why they like their bodies, why they hate their bodies. They mentioned their relationship to kickboxing some, but not much. They seemed to have the classic insecurities and need for validation that are emblematic of the age of grappling with self-definition. Lisa and Laura are both in their thirties. Lisa spoke at length about her family's health history and mentioned that she wanted an overweight sister to exercise not to look good, but because of a genetic disposition to hypertension. When we discussed the media she spoke of breast cancer, rape, pregnancy -- health and health-related issues, again and again. On the other hand, if I had to choose one word to describe Laura's relationship to sport, it would be passion. Simply put, she doesn't do something unless it's fun, and when she talks about sailing or snowboarding her eyes light up like a lamp. Both Lisa and Laura discussed their struggle to feel satisfied with the appearance of their bodies. But they spoke about a whole lot more.Body image issues don't disappear, but as one grows a little older and begins to like oneself more, underlying motivations may shift a bit. The media isn't going anywhere, and neither are hundreds of years of women's body baggage. But, as Lisa muses, "if a woman's exercising properly, even for the wrong reasons, at least she's getting a workout." Maybe the rest will come with time.


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