The New York Times published an article this weekend about American swimmer Amanda Beard and the new stage of her life. She became a mother about a year ago and is working on a comeback in competitive swimming (she'll be competing in nationals this week; her first big meet since failing to qualify for the final races in the Beijing Olympics).
I had some initial qualms about this article because I feel it constructs motherhood as some kind of happy ending, a positive life changer; something that drew Beard out of the pressures of her competitive sport life. And this is certainly how Beard is describing her new lifestyle. I just worry because one, motherhood is not exactly a stress reliever and depicting it as such when we are talking about an elite athlete makes it seem like the pressures are too great for women at this level of sport. And two, motherhood generally, from what I have seen and heard, often creates greater pressures and stresses. It is not any kind of escape. But I'm kind of overlooking the "she's happy now that she's a mom and she was miserable as a sex symbol, under-pressure athlete" message because the whole part about her being miserable is news, the extent of which I never would have guessed.
It turns out the Beard has abused drugs and alcohol, engaged in disordered eating, and was a self-injurer or cutter. I found this particularly interesting for several reasons. One, it's not something people usually admit. It's a disorder fairly shrouded in secrecy and shame though I have heard it is the second most prevalent disorder among female adolescents (Beard started in college) behind eating disorders.
Two, she was a swimmer and a model so it's kind of hard to hide cuts and she said she cut her arms and ankles--fairly noticeable places. She used make-up for photo shoots, she says.
This leads to three: what people do and do not see. I never met Beard in person so what I "saw" was mediated. And she was in control of some of the image I/we were presented with. I often critiqued her for doing things like posing in Playboy and other magazines and selling her sex appeal and, in my opinion, selling out. I don't think the revelation that she was a cutter excuses the way she marketed herself, but I do think it's relevant to our understanding of the position female athletes find themselves in: extreme pressure obviously that can manifest in poor self-esteem and various forms of self-abuse and the need to succeed that makes one do things like pose for Playboy.
I thought the statement by an addictions counselor (who never treated Beard) who specializes in self-harm was particularly insightful. She noted that, "people don't see what they're not looking for." This was in regards to Beard's cuts. But it can apply to our culture's ways of seeing female athletes. We don't look for the ways that praising good looks and feminine behavior and comportment can be incredibly damaging to both those who do and do not conform. And people don't look because they don't want to see. They don't want to see cuts on arms and have to think about the pain and emotions behind that. And they don't want to see unhappy, pretty athletes because what's behind that is incredibly complicated and, unlike one person engaging in self-harm, everyone who consumes sport is implicated.