Do you want to be a woman or an athlete?

In my first blog post, when I introduced myself, I described myself as conflicted by two opposing sides.  On one side, I am very girly girl who loves fashion and would never want to chip a fresh manicure.  On the other side, I am not girly at all.  I am a tomboy who likes to play sports and watch football with the guys.  It was not until after taking this class that I asked myself, “Why do these two sides have to be opposing?”.  I have never understood why somehow it is not possible for a woman to be an athlete and feminine and not feel like an oxymoron.  Bruce Toni believes that media coverage interplays with women’s sense of their place in and relationship to sports (Toni 125).  This is possible because media provides the resources for understanding who “we” and who “they” are.  This consequently marks certain bodies and behaviors as normal or abnormal (Toni 126).  Since media represents sport as the natural domain of men and masculinity, it is no wonder why women feel like they cannot be athletes and feminine at the same time.  They are told almost every day through the media that they cannot be because it is normal for men to be athletes, not women.  Women are either subjected to being athletes and not feminine or are focused on as being feminine women and not real athletes.  I have played field hockey for over eight years and through this assignment I am finally able to see the realities of this in my sport.  Female field hockey players are stuck in a crossfire between either being stereotyped as unfeminine athletes or portrayed as feminine women and downplayed as real athletes.

Field hockey is not a popular sport in the United States.  Field hockey is an English game that was presented to the girls of Vassar College by Constance Applebee in 1901 (Bulger 13).  However, there is evidence that field hockey was played in this country long before the arrival of Applebee.  Doctor J.H. McCurdy claims that men at his school of Springfield had been playing the game since 1897.  Despite this, Applebee is still largely credited for making the game so popular with women in Eastern colleges (Bulger 13).  Nevertheless, Bulger admits that field hockey never achieved the national popularity of other sports like basketball or soccer.  Bulger comments, “It was almost the exclusive property of women in colleges” (Bulger 13).  Field hockey has consequently been categorized as a women’s sport.  Yet, somehow the women who play the sport are seen as less than womanly.

Two of the biggest stereotypes women face as field hockey players are being called “manly” and being labeled lesbians.  Field hockey players are often considered “manly” because of their body shape.  During the Victorian Era, there was a shift in what was considered the “ideal” body.  Before the “ideal” body had been that of a strong man with large, bulky muscles much like a modern day body builder.  With the inventions of new machines that could target all muscles of the body, the new “ideal” body became a balanced boy (de la Peña 51).  This balanced body is still the “ideal” body today with women expected to be lean and toned, not bulky and muscular.  Field hockey is a game designed to be played squatting low to the ground.  This can be see in the very design of the field hockey stick being an average of only 36 inches long.  The stick is meant to only come to one’s waist and then the player must get low in order to successfully move the ball.  This constant squatting motion tends to give females who play the sport larger, more muscular thighs.  This, combined with the broader shoulders and arms from swinging the stick, gives many field hockey players bodies that are thicker and not the “ideal” lean bodies women are suppose to have.  Since female players possess bodies that are more ideally for men, female field hockey players are often regarded as “manly”.

Based on my experience I believed that many women were unsatisfied with the bodies that field hockey gave them.  I know, personally, I have always been self-conscious about my larger, muscular thighs.  I know the “ideal” body is very slender thighs, but with the realities of my sport, I will never have slender thighs.  However, I was surprised to learn that most field hockey players are not unhappy with their bodies despite them sometimes not matching what is “ideal”.  J.D. Marshall and V.J. Harber in their article, “Body Dissatisfaction and Drive for Thinness in High Performance Field Hockey Athletes”, studied the prevalence of eating disordered tendencies in elite female field hockey players (Marshall and Harber 54).  The authors conducted this study because of the “ideal” body that society pushes for.  Marshall and Harber argue that, “in North America today women struggle to attain the slim ideal portrayed by society. In addition to the sociocultural demand to be thin, female athletes often experience further pressures within the sport subculture” (Marshall and Harber 541).  Due to this pressure, many researchers have reported an increase in eating disorders and eating disordered tendencies in the female athlete population.  Up to 60% of the female athlete population have been reported to engage in disordered eating behaviors (Marshall and Harber 541).  However, the findings from their study showed that only 3.6% of field hockey players fell into this same category.  The authors thus concluded that the problems with eating disordered behavior that has been identified in other sports does not appear to be as much of an issue in field hockey (Marshall and Harber 544).  At first, I thought that this study just did not accurately represent the realities of most players.  However, after giving out a survey to 25 female field hockey players, I too saw a general consensus regarding a positive body image.  One respondent expressed, “Physically speaking, field hockey exercises the lower half of my body and therefore tones my thighs and quads. And I do not mind, I like having toned and muscular legs. It may not be the “ideal” body because of my non-skinny legs, but that’s okay with me.  Just because I have muscles does not make me feel “manly””.  It seems that despite female field hockey players not possessing “ideal” bodies, they are comfortable and happy with the bodies they do have and do not feel they are “manly” despite the label they are given.

The second most common stereotype that female field hockey players face is being labeled lesbians.  From my experience, there are no more women who identify as homosexual playing field hockey than playing any other sport.  In my eight years playing, I have only run into a handful of girls who identified as lesbian.  However, after reading Joanne Shire, Celia Brackenridge, and Mary Fuller’s “Changing positions: The Sexual Politics of A Women’s Field Hockey Team 1986-1996” I wondered if my experience is representative.  The authors conducted a longitudinal study on a college female field hockey team that exposed a shifting composition from predominately heterosexual to almost entirely homosexual players over the ten-year period from 1986 to 1996 (Shire, Brackenridge, and Fuller 2).  As the years passed and the team became predominately homosexual, the players noticed it became harder to recruit new players for women feared they would be automatically labeled a lesbian (Shire, Brackenridge, and Fuller 11).  The players said that other athletes were always teasing them and questioning them about their sexuality (Shire, Brackenridge, and Fuller 11).  Consequently, fear of homophobic judgment or retribution had caused many lesbians to hide their sexual identity for a number of years prior (Shire, Brackenridge, and Fuller 3).  The authors conclude that, “labeling all women in sport in this way has been used to intimidate and control women’s participation in sport and this was certainly the case for the players in this study” (Shire, Brackenridge, and Fuller 13).  I believe the lesbian label is a way to intimidate and control women’s participation in sports because many women choose not to participate for the fear of the label, as shown in this study.  When asked if she had ever been teased or questioned about being a lesbian, a respondent from my survey answered, “Almost every time I mention that I play field hockey and it gets really annoying after a while”.  It is truly sad that this label can be used to deter women from playing field hockey for fear that they will be teased and branded as less feminine.

The cases above expose how many female field hockey players are subjected to labels that attempt to take away their feminine status in exchange for their athletic status.  At the same time, many of these athletes are also downplayed as athletes in order to up-play their femininity.  Uniforms and media coverage are two examples of attempts to feminize field hockey players and highlight their womanhood over their athleticism.  One of the most well known facts about field hockey is that the women wear skirts as part of their uniform.  However, in spite of everyone knowing they do, no one seems to know why.  After countless hours of research and asking fellow players, all anyone could seem to come up with was that it was tradition.  Skirts have had a long history in sporting beginning as an obstacle to women’s sporting in the 1800s.  The corsets and long skirts prevented women from partaking in physically demanding activities.  However, the bicycle craze of the 1890s had a profound effect not only in women’s sporting, but also in their dress (Bulger 14).  Harvey Green in “Living the Strenuous Life” tracks the transformation of women’s dress to include shorter skirts and sometimes even bloomers as women became more involved in bicycling (Green 231).  Most sports, like the bloomers in bicycling, eventually transitioned away from skirts for women’s uniforms.  It simply seems that field hockey just never did and it thus became a tradition for females to wear skirts as part of the uniform.

Just like in the 1890s when women were forced to wear skirts to prevent their athletic involvement, today skirts are used in field hockey to emphasize the players as feminine and womanly over being seen as athletic.  A survey respondent commented, “The only problem I have with my uniform is the skirt.  It is not that I dislike wearing it or it is uncomfortable as much as the stereotypes that root from the skirt.  For example, people considering the sport to be for women or to be somehow girly and easy because we wear skirts”.  I too feel this way about wearing a skirt.  There is no true functional advantage behind wearing a skirt, it just serves as a means to emphasize the players as women.  This consequently causes people to view the sport as easy and downplays that athleticism required to play.  Another way the skirt takes attention away from players as athletes and focuses it on them as women is through the male gaze.  The male gaze is the way a woman is portrayed in order to sexualize her body for a male viewer (Toni 131).  Wearing short skirts while playing a sport that requires you to bend over is a means by which players are sexualized.  While researching why women field hockey players wear skirts online, the most common answers I found in comments were “for male viewing pleasure” and “otherwise no one would care about your sport”.  This shows that the skirts sexualize female players to the point that people watch not for the game or for the athleticism, but to check out girls.

The second way that female field hockey players are downplayed as athletes and highlighted for their femininity and womanhood is through media coverage.  According to Toni coverage of sports is “saturated in ideologies of gender that privilege men while sidelining women” (Toni 129).  Female athletes and sporting events are rarely covered in media at all and when they do the focus of the piece tends not to be on athletics.  In 2012 when the U.S. Women’s Field Hockey Team was preparing for the London Olympic games, the coverage was focused not on the team not as athletes, but as women.  This can been seen in the several articles that interviewed national team veteran Keli Smith-Puzo on how her being a mother of two would affect her Olympic dreams.  In an article in The Washington Times the author focused in on how “having children often can derail an athlete’s career” and how “Olympic hopefuls face their fair share of challenges. Keli Smith-Puzo’s also happen to be her life’s greatest blessings” (Schad).  Schad is exposing the double-edged sword that is used against female athletes to either be feminine women or be successful athletes.  The dominant discourse is that women can either be good mothers or good athletes, never both.  Puzo’s children are stated to be a challenge in her Olympic hopes as though now that she is a mother, she is somehow less of an athlete.  Furthermore, the photo that accompanies the article is not one of Puzo playing field hockey, but one of her with her children.  This further stresses Puzo as a woman and mom and not as an athlete.  This article and many others like it that highlight players as women over athletes fall into the journalistic strategy Toni terms compulsory heterosexuality.  “Compulsory heterosexuality leads to privileging sportswomen who fulfill heterosexual gender roles such as girlfriend, wife, or mother while simultaneously silencing lesbian identity, despite the widespread assumption that women participating in sports that embody physical strength, aggression, and physical contact may be lesbian” (Toni 129).  With the Olympic Games approaching, journalists could of chosen to focus on any of the other players on the team who had been doing nothing but training.  Instead, journalists highlighted Puzo because she fulfilled the heterosexual gender role as a mom.  Puzo was a player who fell in line with the dominant ideology that a woman either has to be feminine or an athlete.  By focusing on her as a mom, her femininity was brought to light and her credibility as an athlete questioned and torn apart.

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Photo by: ANDREW HARNIK of The Washington Times

When I first began this assignment I wanted to learn about the history of field hockey.  While I did learn many things about my sport and even learned how to play indoor, I learned the most about myself.  Before this I always saw myself as consisting of two opposing sides: the girly girl and the athlete.  Society has created these to be two separate and opposing realms for women.  A woman has the choice between being viewed as an athlete and subsequently less of a woman or being seen as a feminine woman and consequently less of an athlete.  As a field hockey player I have seen this dynamic exposed countless times.  Players are either labeled “manly” and lesbian for being athletes or their athletic ability trivialized to girls in short skirts and mommies.  What I will take away from this assignment is not only the new skills and knowledge I have gained, but also a new way of seeing myself.  There is no reason that I have to feel like there are two sides of myself.  From now on I will no longer see myself as conflicting, but as a harmonious woman fully capable of being girly and a badass athlete at the same time.

Works Cited

Bruce, Toni. “Reflections on Communication and Sport: On Women and Femininities.” Communication and Sport 1:1/2 (2012) 125-137.

Bulger, Margery A.  “American Sportswomen in the 19th Century.” The Journal of Popular Culture, 16.2 (1982) 1–16.  Web. 20 Mar. 2014.

de la Peña, Carolyn Thomas. “Measuring Mechanical Strength.” The Body Electric: How Strange Machines Built the Modern American. New York and London: New York University Press, 2003, 50-88.

Green, Harvey. “Living the Strenuous Life.” Fit for America: Health, Fitness, Sport and American Society. New York: Pantheon Books, 1986, 219-258.

Marshall, J.D., and Harber, V.J.. “Body Dissatisfaction and Drive for Thinness in High Performance Field Hockey Athletes.”  International Journal Sports Medicine. 17.7 (1996) 541-544.  Web. 23 Feb. 2014.

Schad, Tom. “Mother of two, Keli Smith-Puzo aims for 2nd straight U.S. Olympic field hockey bid”. Washington Times. 06 06 2012, Sports. Web. 21 Mar. 2014.

Shire, Joanne, Celia Brackenridge, and Mary Fuller. “Changing positions: The Sexual Politics of A Women’s Field Hockey Team 1986-1996.” Women in Sport and Physical Activity Journal. 9.1 (2000) 35-64. Web. 21 Feb. 2014.

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