Tuesday, July 03, 2007

Playing hard or hardly playing?

Reading the myriad of tributes to Title IX that came on or around the 35th anniversary of the legislation, I came across this one written by Susan Reimer of the Baltimore Sun. It is part movie review (Gracie) and part memoir of her own athletic endeavors prior to and post Title IX.

Reimer takes the discussion of Title IX in a slightly different direction from other articles I have seen. She talks not about numbers of opportunities and the experience of winning, but of missing the opportunity to build "a real relationship with our bodies."

This is a crucial point that often gets overlooked when we talk about things like boys' teams versus girls' teams and legislation and court cases and cuts. Why is it actually important for young women to be able to play sports? Because, as Reimer says, the transition from girlhood to womanhood is a time where bodies have a tendency to "shock[] us or betray[] us or embarrass[] us." And, I would add, that women's bodies have historically been used to keep women in an oppressed state. Sport and physical activity help alleviate that oppression. But it's a fine line between getting in touch with one's body and abilities and conforming to a male model of sport.

Reimer, I found, crosses uncomfortable across that line when she expresses her regret at not being able to ever truly discover the limits of her body despite her participation in numerous physical activities in her adulthood. She looks to her children, a son and daughter who played high school sports and continue to be athletes, who did have that chance to feel the burn in their lungs or what it feels like to exceed physical limits (which of course is impossible because clearly it wasn't a limit if it could be exceeded).

What she describes has become an oddly romanticized version of sport. And it is one that women have adopted as they have gained opportunities to play. Training impossibly hard is not the only way to participate in sport and other physical activities. Why do you have to know where your physical breaking point is to feel satisfied with your performance? And please note I am not just talking about women/girls. This "no pain no gain" mentality and all that goes with it is equally damaging to men.

We just cannot seem to accept that there is another way. That there are many other ways, in fact, to participate. They are often called "alternative" practices, like yoga and other, what are being called, "mindful" physical activities. I was disheartened to read that Reimer's daughter, after taking a yoga class with her mother, said it didn't do anything for her. I have heard similar statements from women who consider themselves true athletes. They have been so inculcated into the dominant ideology of sport that anything less than nearly tearing a muscle seems not worth the effort--despite the numerous benefits of mindful exercise.

I foresee bad things from such views of exercise. We can already see the ill effects. Kim Clijsters retired earlier than expected this year after citing the numerous injuries and near-constant pain it took to keep her game at its highest level. Other former pros suffer from lifelong problems stemming from their playing days. And it has filtered down. Former collegiate athletes who pushed themselves to these proverbial physical limits have also experiences the aftereffects: bad knees, bad backs, the inability to participate in recreational sports after their official playing "careers" are over.

Organizations that advocate for girls' and women's sporting opportunities frequently cite the health benefits. But the practices that are deemed most worthy are hardly healthy.

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