On Women and Sports*

*Written January 2004

Many, if not all of us, will remember the unpleasantries of phys-ed class – getting last picked for teams, denied involvement by the boys on the playing field, and ridiculed or labeled as an anomaly if we did excel at sports. Despite the telescoping strides of the last thirty years, women’s sports still lag behind men’s in prevalence and popularity, with the same exclusionary trends of the schoolyard taking the form gross funding inadequacies in commercial or educational contexts.

So what’s the big deal? Adages like the “weaker” or “gentler sex” teach us from early on to believe that men are more inclined to physical activity – discouragement has ranged from misguided concern over women’s fragility’ to outright exclusion from sporting events. There do exist differences in our capabilities and talents – Men tend to be stronger, mostly as a function of greater overall size and muscle mass. Women tend to excel in tests of endurance and flexibility. A recent report from the University of Colorado at the American Physiology Society (September 2000) confirms that women outlast men in endurance tests an average of 75%.

Though the modern, ever-increasing presence of women in the world of sports has narrowed the differences in physical achievement between men and women, preference and participation still seems to correlate with our earlier roles of hunters, gatherers, soldiers or life-givers. Combat games like wrestling and swordplay clearly have their pre-cursors in military exercise, dance often references the rhythmic nature of the sensual, and gymnastics most likely developed from the agility necessary to navigate through complicated environments and obstacles. We are of course, more similar than different, and success in most sport, modern and ancient, is dependent on striving in both areas.

A Little History
From Chakra theory to Maslow’s hierarchy of being, theories of social philosophers frequently account for our creative endeavors as a sublimation of energies originally and primarily allocated for survival and procreation. Tools, technology and language, idiosyncratically human endeavors, provided the leisure and resources necessary for the development of art, science, entertainment. While artistic and inquisitive pursuits take advantage of overcompensatory mental capacities, recreational sports result in place of the physical exertions once demanded of us to survive and perpetuate. The ancient Egyptians left visual records of men and women engaged in swimming, wrestling, and ball and stick games. Minoan artifacts depict women swimming, skiing, bull-jumping, fencing, wrestling and practicing gymnastics. Double-Ball, a game strongly resembling modern lacrosse, was played exclusively by women in Native American Cultures, the earliest evidence of which point to Asiatic migrations as early as 30,000 years ago. In India, kabaddi, much like modern tag was played by girls and boys, and dance has played a prominent cultural role. Sumo wrestling was once participated in by both men and women until being banned for women at various points over the last thousand years to the point of non-existence.

Beginning around the 3rd millennium BC, some drastic changes took place in world culture. The rise of written communication, monotheism, agriculture and hierarchical societal organization began to distinguish the societies of our Indo-European ancestors from the more nurturing, communal, symbiotic and polytheistic civilizations of the ancient world. Surviving literature displays a shift from matrilineal, partnership-oriented practices towards patriarchal, patrilinear and misogynist ones of groups such as the Canaanites, Phoenicians and Hebrews, with the most drastic pioneers of the phenomenon being the Greeks. Among a myriad of other restrictions placed on Greek women, including literacy, public office, voting or possession of property, they were also excluded from participation in the Olympic games beginning in 776 BC. Despite the imposed social bondage, they were able to organize their own Games of Hera, which also took place every 4 years.  The spread of Patriarchy brought with it many impositions on women’s education and empowerment, physical and otherwise. Listing each example is beyond the scope of this article, but a further examination of western society’s evolution sheds light on our modern relationship with sport.

Roman culture reaped much from Hellenic society, but the comparably elevated status of women had its roots in the influence of Spartan and Etruscan culture, where women possessed considerable sexual, economic and political sovereignty. Spartan women trained in gymnastics, as it was believed to result in healthy children, and Etruscan women, as described by Theopompus of Chios, “take particular care of their bodies and exercised often, sometimes along with the men, and sometimes by themselves. It is not a disgrace for them to be seen naked. Further, they dine, not with their own husbands, but with any men who happen to be present, and they pledge with wine any whom they wish.”

The Middle Ages in Europe was a nadir of physical and intellectual development, as bubonic plague, the constant warfare of feudalistic society, and the strict control of information by the Christian church resulted in a time when the body was seen as little more than a necessary evil. Physical activity was relegated for the most part to manual labor or military training, with “wasteful” types of physical activity such as sports and games generally discouraged, as they were associated with the earlier pagan religions and believed to lead to evils and excesses. Given the precarious nature of survival and perpetuation of the family, women’s status as mothers and care-givers was elevated – unfortunately very often at the expense of their commercial or intellectual endeavors. This was the age that saw the invention of the chastity belt and the deaths of some 30,000 women (many older and post-menopausal) during the witch trials. Educational theorists of the renaissance began to acknowledge the importance of a broad-based education including physical activity, and some efforts to organize women were also made, but such things remained for the most part the domain of men of privileged class.

The industrial revolution saw shifts from manual to mechanized labor, and the rise of nationalism as the growing laboring class brought the control of government and military activity into the hands of the majority. The need of a physically fit labor force and army necessitated organized physical instruction, and fitness curriculums were developed as part of national education programs.  Women’s induction into the workforce entailed greater access to such education. Structured, modernist approaches to games and sporting activity became widespread in the mid-19th century, and women’s physical education was given special attention by suffragists and early feminists. According to Susan B. Anthony “Bicycling has done more to emancipate women than any one thing in the world.” Title IX of the Education Amendments was instituted in 1972 to ensure equal opportunity to girls and boys in physical education.

The Benefits
It’s no secret that regular physical activity has countless health benefits, including resilience to diseases, reduced cholesterol and blood-pressure levels, and increased production of the hormones and chemicals that promote a positive outlook and higher energy levels. Participation in sports, especially team-sports increases young people’s self-esteem, and boys and girls who participate in sports are more likely to describe themselves as popular amongst their peers. Athletics has been the arena in which boys have traditionally learned about teamwork and goal-setting – critical skills for success in the workplace and beyond. Correspondingly, 80% of female executives at Fortune 500 companies participated in sports as kids.

Girls that participate in athletics are more likely to:
-experience greater self-esteem and confidence
-have a positive body-image
-excel academically
-graduate from high school and/or college

Girls that participate in sports are less likely to:
-engage in illicit drug use
-experience depression
-engage in unsafe sex practices or become pregnant at an early age
-stay in abusive relationships

Other facts:
-Women who exercise 4 or more times per week decrease their risk of breast cancer by up to 60%
-osteoporosis in women 50 and over has been linked with discouragement from the weight-bearing exercises necessary for bone-density development.
-If a girl does not participate in sports by the time she is 10 years old, there is only a 10% chance she will be participating later in life.
-During the past 10 years the number of girls who play on high school teams rose 31%.
-Women 18-24 are the most active exercisers of any age group. Over the last 10 years, women’s participation in fitness is up 77%.

Body Image
Beauty, that oft indefinable and inexplicable driver of human emotion and action, is ever-elusive in our fickle, post-modern, pluralistic society. It is a universal phenomenon, and yet there is hardly anything universal in its definition across cultures – except for its relationship to health. One has but to look to history’s metamorphosing ideal of the human aesthetic to see a reflection of our notions of sound living. Today, from waif to beefcake, we are bombarded with images of exaggerated ideals that, though based on modern conceptions of fitness and longevity, have become grossly unrealistic. Modern medicine has given most of us the basic health features, such as symmetry or nice hair, that would have set the lucky possessors apart from the crowd 100 or a 1000 years ago. That, coupled with the fact that success in advertising is dependent on making the consumer feel inadequate without the product, raises the bar well out of reach, its holders all the while egging us on to keep trying. Artists respond with depictions from the opposite end of the spectrum, but nevertheless there remains a void when it comes to a constructive, practical and inclusive representation of a healthy woman. Enter athletics. Though a muscular physique and erect posture typically mark the athlete, female athletes come in all shapes and sizes, and different body-types are suited to different sports. However, the real significance lies in the relationship that develops with one’s body when it is used as an instrument instead of just ornament. Aspiration becomes measured in achievement and ability instead of pounds and inches, and the taut, glowing results that we initially sought as empty symbols, become mere side-dishes representing worthier attributes of skill and resilience.

Lauren Greenfield, in her photo essay “Girl Culture” documents the everyday reality of girls growing up in the plastic, hyper-sexualized glow of American media. It is a disheartening montage of adolescent insecurity and self-doubt, but one positive area she found was in women’s athletics; “They have a larger and more important context in which to see themselves,” she says, “that has to do with making a faster time, or coming through for their team, rather than simply looking good when they walk out the door.”

Additionally, there is a physical interaction and proximity entailed in sports that offers us a perceptual reference-point for physical relationships, on and off the field. While playing, we learn how to interpret and react to the touch and body language of a teammate or competitor – a habit of intuitive analysis that lingers on after leaving the arena. By playing or fighting, we learn to be comfortable with physical contact while learning about our boundaries. In the locker-room or spa we receive an unadorned, cross-sectional glimpse of each other’s bodies, a privilege all but snuffed out by our puritan ancestors. A regular dose of reality might be all that’s needed to defang the media’s ability to sell their painted ideals as reality.

Final Thoughts
Besides all of the previously mentioned benefits, sports are fun! Who wouldn’t rather play soccer with a bunch of friends than peruse a magazine propped up on a Stairmaster, or perhaps learn some new dance moves with other like-minded souls instead of staring at a television monitor from a treadmill? Regular exercise also increases one’s sex-drive, while benefiting the act itself with increased strength and flexibility. A holistic approach is important – one which incorporates our natural inclinations to learn, create, compete and connect, rather than one which looks on fitness as the boring, obligatory maintenance that our modern, dualistic notions of the mind-body relationship have reduced it to. We don’t exercise our minds for the sole purpose of looking good at parties, do we? Why would we with our bodies?

-Costa, Margaret D, Guthrie, Sharon R. 1994. Women and Sport. Champaign , IL : Human Kinetics

-Craig, Steven. 2002. Sports and Games of the Ancients. Englewood Cliffs, NJ: Prentice-Hall, Inc.

-Crego, Robert. 2003. Sports and Games of the 18th and 19th Centuries. Westport , CT : Greenwood Press -Cross, Suzanne. 2001. FEMINAE ROMANAE: The Women of Ancient Rome; Roman Women in Historical Context http://dominae.fws1.com/context/Index.html

-Feminist Majority Foundation, 1995. The Empowering Women Series, No. 4 http://www.feminist.org/research/sports2.html

-Jones, Adam 1999-2002. Case Study: The European Witch-Hunts, c. 1450-1750 and Witch-Hunts Today. http://www.gendercide.org/case_witchhunts.html Gendercide Watch

-Poliakoff, Michael B. 1987. Combat Sports in the Ancient World. New Haven , London : Yale University Press

-Radek, Kimberly M. 2001. Women from the Renaissance to Enlightenment http://www.ivcc.edu/gen2002/Women_from_the_Renaissance.htm

-Shlain, Leanard. 1998. The Alphabet Versus the Goddess. Harmondsworth, Middlesex , England : Penguin Books

-Zeigler, Earle F. 1979. History of Physical Education and Sport. Englewood Cliffs, NJ: Prentice-Hall, Inc.

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