The Evolution of the Feminine Athlete
I’ve been trying to write this article for almost a year. I have asked several other women and girls their opinions, read them over countless times and have sat down to write it at least 12 times. Each time I get stuck on the fact that I have no answers. I have no solution. I’m not sure what it means to me to be a female athlete and I’m not sure if it matters. And by the time I get stuck I am back to questioning whether this is even something to discuss, or whether it is just something I have imagined being an issue.
Until last night. I was at the grocery store and I ran into one of my closest girlfriends and her husband. I hadn’t seen them in a while and we had a nice chat, then laughed or high-fived each time we passed each other again (I’m a very inefficient shopper, especially when I’m hungry). Somewhere near the chips and salsa, I remembered that I had exciting news: I had in fact been asked out that day by a girl. While I am not interested in girls, I always think it is flattering to be asked out and I admire anyone that has the guts to just go for it. It did make me wonder a bit if I had been sending out some interesting vibes, and when I told my friend this, she looked me up and down, eyes pausing on my lower body, then said, “well, at least your jacket is cute. It is a little bit feminine.” Leaving no doubt that she thought my soccer sweats and vans may be the not-so-hetero vibes that I’m throwing out there.
This made me realize several things:
My friend and I have very different ideas of what being feminine means to us.
I am no longer offended by someone thinking that I am less than feminine, because I understand what it means to me.
Soccer sweats are still the most comfortable pants I will ever own.
They have pockets! Can you beat that?
This is an absolutely real topic and femininity in sports is something that should be discussed and shared in as many ways as possible.
The fact that feminine identity and sexuality are closely intertwined with being an athlete is very interesting to me…but we’ll save that for another day. There was no question to my friend that my clothes were less than feminine, while I was thinking about how I had just gotten a haircut and was rocking the best looking hair I would probably have all year, which made me feel quite pretty. I gave no second thought to my clothes. They were comfortable, allowed me to run, squat, and inch worm, and kept me warm while I was out on the fields. It was all the motivation I needed to wade through the writer’s constipation and start this discussion.
Let’s be clear, I have no answers (I never do), and even if I did, they wouldn’t mean much because this is entirely up to each individual. What it means to be a female athlete is different for every single female athlete. I merely hope to comment on the fact that the gap between being feminine and being a strong athlete seems to be closing.
I have noticed that there seems to be a generation gap in athletic femininity. My friends that were part of the Title IX movement have a very different view than those that are coming up in sports now.
The first person I talked to was d’Alary Dalton. She played all the sports she could in school when Title IX was introduced, played soccer college, then went on to coach and is now the director of Sol Soccer Club in Santa Barbara. Here are her thoughts:
There are so many layers to this question for me. In truth, as an athlete I never perceived myself as feminine and I was challenged by the distinct labels that were drawn in my day. Looking back, being a feminine athlete meant wearing make-up, hair with ribbons, and a thin physique while competing. Tennis, golf, and gymnastics athletes were our models for acceptable boundaries of feminine and therefore, how we might perceive/present ourselves in an athletic arena. In traditionally male dominated sports, to be a serious athlete you were expected to sacrifice being feminine and take on traditionally masculine traits (aggression, muscles, etc.) all the while signaling that you are still feminine, for example by keeping your hair long. It was also understood that expressing yourself in this way was considered being a "tomboy" (code for lesbian), and thus more masculine. Navigating this contradiction was very challenging.
As a coach, I've see this change to girls/women separating these stereotypical feminine expressions from their actual competing. They wear dresses, make-up, etc. after the game, not so much during. And, what a feminine athletic body looks like has changed (thanks to Reebok and Nike) and is continuing to change (thanks to Serena Williams). Styles are evolving and expanding to include a wider spectrum (consider Abby Wambach's tux and hair). Women (and men) athletes today seem freer and more comfortable moving along a continuum and thus less pigeonholed into narrowly defined terms like "tomboy".
Thank you for the question and for sparking my thinking.
-d’Alary Dalton, Sol Soccer Club
From the article titled Pots & Pans: Thank you, Title IX, for redefining ‘playing like a girl’ :
“Because of T9 — my daughter, Valley Girl and ’round the way girl, jock and princess, someone who is afraid of spiders and not much else — has been able to be her whole self in ways that were denied to women of previous generations.
My daughter melds power, precision and finesse… and like the UConn women, my daughter and others of her generation have helped redefine what it means to “play like a girl.”
Today, my daughter, a speech pathologist, gets down to the serious business of living in 21st-century America without fear. She isn’t afraid to display her power or strength. She isn’t afraid to display her emotions. She’s used them all to successfully compete everywhere from the soccer pitch to the graduate school classroom at the University of Cincinnati. All have belonged to her.
-by Jeff Rivers
I love this. The recognition of the combination of strength and emotion; they are partners in power! These women forged the way for females to not only have access to athletics, but to excel in them and to have the chance to explore the identity of being an athlete. I love how Jeff Rivers said his daughter had the chance to be “her whole self”. What if we all focused on what it means to us to be our “whole selves,” rather than which sweats we are wearing or what the latest magazine trend is?
I recently stumbled upon this article, How I learned to Love My Body As A Female Athlete, from GOOD Magazine. It is written by a current USC Volleyball player.
“I had a firm stomach. My legs were rock solid. And my arms were defined. I could sprint 100 meters in 14.60 seconds. I could single-leg squat 130 pounds, and I could hold a plank for 4 minutes. All of this didn’t make me any less feminine.
I was still that healthy-looking girl, but now I had the build of an athlete. What I hadn't understood in the dressing room was that I was strong. I didn’t know that strong was something I could be. From that point on, my outlook changed. Just because you are not a certain dress size, or weigh more than 120 pounds, does not mean you’re not beautiful. Just because your body needs to consume 4,000 calories a day, does not mean you are fat.
And, most importantly, girls who compete to win the national championship will not, and physically cannot, look the same as models clouding our Instagram feeds. So, as a female athlete playing volleyball for the University of Southern California, I finally realized what it meant to be a beautiful woman. And to my pleasure, it was nothing that society had told me to be.”
This Victoria Garrick and I are close in age and while it is has been a given that we will participate in sports, for some of us, the identity that accompanies our endeavors has been more of an exploration. Body image often comes up as a part of this exploration, especially with the rise of social media.
In my own experience, I played soccer starting at age 5 and have never stopped. When I got to college I had some time off from playing with a competitive team when I didn’t make the club team at UCSB. At that time I tried other activities and learned a lot about what it meant to me to be a soccer player. This was the first time in about 13 years that I wasn’t training and playing regularly, so when I did start playing again it showed in my body.
My mom has never ever “shamed” my body or made me feel anything less than beautiful. But there is one comment that I will never forget. I was home from college for spring break and I had been training and playing with the women’s club soccer team during their open spring season. She walked up to me, poked both sides of my thigh and made a comment about how big and strong they were. “MOooooooOOOOM, they are not! They are the same as they’ve always been.” This was the first time that I really noticed how sports changed my body. It wasn’t until I was trying on some ‘loose-fitting’ pants a couple days later that I realized the truth of her comment. There was a short moment of panic, a good laugh and a quick self-check…she was right!! Was it ok that my thighs were bigger? The fact that my mom had already pointed it out actually gave me someone to ask about it. Together we decided that stronger was better. Especially if it helped me on the soccer field. And she reassured me that buying medium pants instead of small pants wasn’t even a big deal.
The idea perpetuated by media and society was that smaller was better. Yet for athletes, smaller is rarely better. Smaller on the soccer field meant getting knocked off the ball and pushed around. The moment of panic came from trying to pair these two conflicting messages that will never really line up. So, which do I go with? For me, I choose athletic and strong.
I’m very aware that my brushes with body image questions are very slight compared to many girls. I’m grateful that I have a Mamacita with a good head on her shoulders. I can’t tell you how many conversations I have had with other soccer players about the perils of jean shopping…the thighs are a force to be reckoned with! But each time I can laugh and remember that “stronger is better.”
Fast forward to now and the latest generation of athletes. I asked one of my high school soccer players last year what it meant to her to be a feminine athlete. Here was her response:
Being a feminine athlete means to me that you have to be strong and confident. I also believe that a large difference between female and male sports is that women are more supportive of their team and care about their teammates like family. I've seen many boys' club soccer teams and I notice that when they make a mistake, they usually yell or become frustrated with the player unlike girls who try to lift the player up by telling them that it was a nice try or that it wasn't their fault. I believe that this is a very important aspect of being a feminine athlete.
-Claire Velez, Bishop Diego Varsity Soccer
For this player, there is no question of body image or uncertain identity. Only an observation of ways that females interact differently than male athletes. For her, being a female athlete is being an athlete. It is natural. Amazing!
And last, but certainly not least, one of my favorite responses. Julia Swensen, one of my college lacrosse players, beautifully explained how she feels to be an athlete and how it shapes her life:
"I am proud to be a female athlete. Being an athlete and teammate is not only empowering, but also gives me a sense of identity and set of skills that apply to every other aspect of my life. Being an athlete has taught me that there are no limits to success; that you can always get stronger and push harder than you did yesterday. I have grown a lot from learning how to set goals for myself and manage my own self-improvement: knowing where I am now and where I eventually want to be. To me, being a female athlete means being compassionate, persistent, disciplined and having a competitive drive. Getting myself out to the next practice after a painful loss is comparable to pulling myself out of a mental funk when life doesn’t go as planned. Being an athlete has taught me to push myself beyond my personal boundaries, and I’ve come to realize that being out of my comfort zone is when I grow the most as a person and realize who I want to be. Being tough on the field teaches me to be mentally tough in life."
-Julia Swensen, UCSB Lacrosse
This exploration is ongoing. There is no wrong answer. I am so proud to be an athlete. I LOVE competing and playing. Playing soccer is essential to my whole self. And I enjoy feeling feminine. It is also essential to my whole self. For me, there is no need to separate the two.
Fun Fact: this article was also published here!
Garrick, Victoria. "How I Learned To Love My Body As A Female Athlete." GOOD Magazine. Dick's Sporting Goods, 01 Feb. 2017. Web. 07 Feb. 2017.
Rivers, Jeff. "Pots & Pans: Thank You, Title IX, for Redefining 'playing like a Girl'." The Undefeated. The Undefeated, 06 Feb. 2017. Web. 07 Feb. 2017.
Beach balance photo taken by Luke Barrett.