Feminist perspectives on women in sport

I’m starting this post off with the assumption that you, gentle reader, are a feminist. Because of course you are. What’s a feminist? Just somebody who supports the idea that men and women are equal, and thus should have the same legal and social rights. Of course that’s you.

But of course, feminists are not a monolith. Lots of feminists disagree about lots of things! Let’s talk about three mainstream feminist perspectives.

Cultural feminism: Cultural feminists support the idea of gender essentialism, which is basically the idea that men and women are simply different. They might say, for instance, that women are just naturally more nurturing and men are just naturally more aggressive. While cultural feminists still support choice (i.e., if women want to go be CEOs rather than kindergarten teachers, that’s fine), their main focus is on the mainstream undervaluation of women’s traits and work. So whenever a general trend of difference is spotted between men and women, a cultural feminist advocates the equal importance of both sides. A gather is just as important as a hunter. A homemaker is just as important as a CEO. Ballerinas are just as important as football players. Being nurturing is not a sign of weakness.

Liberal feminism: A liberal feminist says, sure, we see those differences in the behaviours of men and women, but they’re not due to natural differences. Rather, we construct gender socially starting from the time we give dolls to baby girls and trucks to baby boys, continuing on to when we tell girls to be gentle and not get their clothes dirty but when boys are rowdy we shrug and say “boys will be boys”. Then high school guidance counsellors talk young women out of going into engineering while high school boys are made fun of for joining the school musical.

A liberal feminist thinks equality can be achieved when we abolish any legislation that is unfair to women. So this means that we should have laws that allow women to vote and hold property, that you shouldn’t be allowed to discriminate based on gender when hiring a new employee or when deciding what you pay current employees, that we should have paid materials leave so that women are never forced to choose between having a job and being a mother, and that that leave should actually be a parental leave, so that women and men play an equal role in caring for their children, etc. A liberal feminist’s goal is to make sure there are no legal restrictions holding  a woman back from being able to choose her own way in life.

A quick note on the idea that gender is socially constructed (i.e., gender constructivism). To assert that the gender concepts “masculine” and “feminine” are not inherent to the biology concepts “man” and “woman” is NOT to assert that gender differences don’t exist. Gender constructivists are not ignoring empirical evidence that shows many instances of many women tending to a certain behaviour and many men tending to another. They’re just saying that these differences are due to nurture rather than nature. To quote Simone de Beauvoir, “one is not born, but rather becomes, a woman.”

Socialist feminism: A socialist feminist, like a liberal feminists, supports the theory of gender constructivism. Unlike a liberal feminist, a socialist feminist thinks that inequalities cannot be solved simply through legislation, since sources of women’s oppression can also be social and cultural. In socialist feminism there is also more of a focus on the intersectionality of oppressions, e.g., racism and class conflict.

Of course, there are many other types of feminism: radical, Marxist, eco, anarchist, postmodern, postcolonial, French structuralism, transnational, trans… and they’re not necessarily mutually exclusive. You can take parts of some perspectives and parts of others and build your own feminist perspective. You do you, gentle reader!

I tend to identify most strongly with the socialist feminist perspective. I’ve done a lot of work with women in engineering, so let’s use that as an example. There are not a lot of women in STEM (science, technology, engineering, and math) careers and undergraduate programs, why is that? As a female engineer, I’ll start by firmly rejecting the idea that women are just worse than men at math and physics, so goodbye cultural feminism. But I also don’t think that there are any legal paths to fix the problem; what law could help? Maybe in the 80s there were rooms full of men refusing to hire a female engineer, but I know first-hand that there are plenty of engineering firms who wish they could hire more women, if only there were more women with engineering degrees! So where is the problem… is it because more parents enroll their sons in science summer camps than daughters? Or because around grade 7 there’s this idea that boys won’t like girls who are smart in math? Or because when girls do poorly in math but well in other subjects, they are often told that’s perfectly okay? Do lowered expectations come into play, building a weird self-fulfilling prophecy? Is it because of the way we market science toys to girls? It’s hard to say.

But something to consider is that most (truly more than half!) of women in engineering undergraduate programs have a parent or close family member who is an engineer, when those numbers are way lower for men. What’s that about? From my involvement at my undergraduate school, I know that most women who apply to engineering get accepted, not because of a selection committee biased towards women or trying to hit some benchmarks, but because women tend to apply only when they have the grades whereas men will apply with GPAs much below the cut off. What’s the root of that?

Julie Foucher finishing the Crossfit Games triathlon in 2012, beating all but 8 of the men

Julie Foucher finishing the Crossfit Games triathlon in 2012, beating all but 8 of the men

I take a more purely gender constructivist position when talking about intelligence (or desires, behaviours, and mental ability, etc) than when talking about physical traits. When talking about gender, I’m referring to personality traits, but when talking about sex, I’m referring to bodies. The bodies that we call “male” and the bodies we call “female” do tend to have some statistical differences. I mean obviously genitals, chromosomes, and pelvic cavities or whatever, but let’s think about differences that effect athletic performances. For example, male bodies are sometimes (though of course not always) taller, heavier, and larger framed than female bodies. We can talk about differences in bone density and testosterone levels and lung capacity and red blood cell counts. So, there are quite a number of ways that a male body confers athletic advantage. I acknowledge them.

So what are we talking about when we talk about sex-based differences in athletic performance? A cultural feminist says no biggie, it’s just not in women’s nature to enjoy lifting weights or competing. Men are just stronger and faster. Liberal and socialist feminists say no, of course much of this is socialized! While being a boy might come with some physiological advantages in sports, being a boy most certainly comes with social advantages as well! Think about young girls being punished for rowdy or high energy behaviour. Dads taking only their sons to baseball games. A near dearth of media coverage of female professional athletes to serve as role models. Gym teachers going easy on female students. Social pressure on teen girls to quit organized sports. Women avoiding the weight room for fear of becoming bulky. The weird idea that feminine beauty must be small and frail.

When girls are not given the same access as boys to athletic support, facilities, training, encouragement, recreational programming, and role models, it is unfair to say than men’s athletic results are due solely to physiological differences.

A liberal feminist says “hey, title IX!” while a socialist feminist says “we’ve got our work cut out for us!”

Okay, we’ve got a lot of ideas floating around! We’ve talked about the differences between sex and gender, the concepts of gender essentialism and gender constructivism, and the perspectives of cultural, liberal, and socialist feminism!

With all of this in mind, I leave you with a question: should Crossfit.com provide a women’s RX weight?

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First Lifting Meet in Quite a Bit More Depth

The team got together on Friday morning to go over the warm up that we would do on competition day, to practise our opening weight, and to finalize our decisions about what weight to open at. I wanted to total 101kg, but I also didn’t want to open with anything too heavy and risk starting off on a horrible foot.

When practising my snatch at 41kg, I hit myself in the head (drawing blood!) and decided that I’d better open at 38kg. The plan was to use my three attempts to get 38kg, 41kg, then 44kg.

I did, however, finish the lift!

I did, however, finish the lift!

The clean & jerks felt GREAT so I decided to open at 50kg and then attempt 53kg and 57kg, so that with my 44kg in the snatch I would hit 101kg.  My previous records were 41kg and 53kg, so it would take a little bit of personal record breaking, but I felt ready!

On Friday night we stopped drinking water and had a salt-free dinner. We awoke on Saturday morning and packed up breakfast for eating after weigh-in. I was hoping to compete in the 63kg weight division but the scale I had been using was giving me evidence to be a tad worried about hitting that. No sweat, though, since I weighed in at 60.96kg! Breezy! Also it should be noted that they make you strip down to your underoos. Uncomfortable!

Things were a bit frenetic during the warm up since the warm up plates were in pounds and we lift in kilograms, but a giant calculator on the wall mitigated the issue. Then we, as in all the novice women, lined up to walk out onto the lifting platform and be introduced (name, weight class, and I think where we are from) to the officials and the audience. As we were walking out, one of the officials told us to smile which bugged me a bit because I highly doubt the male athletes were given such a reminder, but oh well.

Okay, so then the lifting began. Because my opening weights were higher than the other women on my team, I was still in the warm up area while they lifted and I didn’t get to watch them. Eventually it’s my turn, and I do 38kg with no problem and 41kg with no problem (tying my old PR). Then, for 44kg, I was trying to stay calm. As I walked out, I reminded myself to calm down, calm down, because I didn’t want to get in my head and change my lift. Just do the exact same lift, don’t start being weird. Unfortunately, I think I over calmed down because I lost all my snap! I pulled the bar with no problem, up, up, over my head, and then suddenly it was behind me and I had to let go. It was over so quickly… what just happened? I should have had that!

There’s a little intermission between snatches and clean & jerks during which our team got together and talked excitedly about all the PRs we just hit. I just wanted to cry. I needed that 44 to have any hope of hitting 101. Now I can’t get to provincials. I was trying to just be happy for the other women when my coach came over and suggested I aim for 60kg on the clean & jerk. That would be a 7kg PR for me and I was in a sad mood so I was just like, “no, of course I can’t do 60, that’s too heavy. I probably couldn’t have even hit 57. It’s just over.” And he let me just be cranky for the moment but gently said that he thinks it’s worth trying.

And of course he’s right. What would be the point of aiming too low? If I kept with my aim of 57kg, then whether I got it or not, I still wouldn’t be going to provincials. Shoot for the moon! As I warmed up, I started getting very positive. Of course I should go for 60kg! I still wanted to open at 50kg, because that was the number I had chosen as my “safe, for sure, for sure will get it” weight, which meant my second attempt should be 55kg.

Okay, so 50kg goes well like it ain’t no thang:

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And 55kg, a PR by 2kg, was also not a problem. It went up easily!

Then, finally time for 60kg, walked up feeling really positive and focused, cleaned it with a loud and weird grunt, and… missed the jerk. I think I didn’t dip enough. But honestly, I felt really proud of myself for even attempting it, plus that’s a huge clean PR (approximately my body weight!). I feel really confident that I’ll hit that elusive 101kg total next month at the next meet.  For now, here is PROOF (pics or it didn’t happen) that I at least cleaned 60kg!

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We’re taking the week off of lifting to treat ourselves to some Crossfit wods (Helen, Fran, and Nancy! What a true delight!) but we’ll be back on the platforms next week to start training for the next meet. I can’t wait!

First Lifting Meet in Review

Well, lifting meets are FUN!

I’ll post a highly detailed play-by-play on the morrow but in summary: I missed a snatch I should have got, I got a new PR on the clean & jerk, I didn’t qualify for provincials, I did finish 2nd, and I had a great time!

I like lifting! I like my team, and we had so much fun on the drive. I like my coach, who is exactly everything a coach should be. I liked the other women lifting, who showed great sportswomanship throughout the day. I like my gym, where everybody remembered that we had a meet and asked how it went when I was there today. I like my chiropractor because she is a wizard! I like the officials who took everything SO seriously! I like Lethbridge because what a town! I just like everything! I’m basically this girl but for lifting:

Also, an awkward highlight. So after the women’s session, they called us all up and awarded metals to the top 3 lifters (based on Sinclair outputs, which is basically a function of total lifted and body weight so that we can be ranked across body weight categories).

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(I’m on the far right)

Great, okay, so we get our medals and shake each other’s hands and whatever, and I turn to leave, and they call me back for: THE POSE

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This picture cracks me up every time.

When the men got the medals, there was a heckler in the audience who shouted, “do the pose!” (that heckler was me) and an official was like, “yeah, do the pose!” And that might be my highlight of the meet.

 

Preparing for my first lifting meet

Next Saturday is my first Olympic lifting meet.  The most common question I’m getting is “oooh, are you nervous?” and the answer is “not really.” I have prepared as well as I know how. My physical training is done; this next week is all about relaxing and getting in the right head space. Dwelling on nerves or imagining worst-case scenarios is probably not the best route.

I’m taking the day off work on Friday for a 9am chiropractor appointment, and a 10am final team training session. Then the whole team travels together on a big 15-passenger van for the 5-hour drive to Lethbridge. Even if we all fail to lift a single kg at the meet, the weekend will surely get a final grade of FUN because we’ve got a great team and a great coach and that drive will be full of laughs (aside to team: big pressure to bring jokes, now).

On Saturday morning, women’s weigh-in is at 8:30am. This means no breakfast and no drinking water until after we’ve made weight. I’m aiming for the 63kg weight class and I THINK I should be fine, but what with it being blueberry season and the logical conclusion to eat a lot of blueberry pancakes lately, who knows! I’m glad we have an early weigh-in, though, as the men’s weigh-in isn’t until 10 or 11.

After weigh-in, we’ll eat and get hydrated. And at some point, I guess I’ll have to eventually get changed into my HORRIFIC onesies. It is a highly unflattering garment, let me tell you.Then some sort of warm up. And then at 10:30am, we lift!

Here is how an Olympic lifting meet works: each athlete gets 3 attempts to get her max snatch and then 3 attempts to get her max clean & jerk. Your total score is the highest successful snatch plus the highest successful clean & jerk. The lifts aren’t back-to-back; the other athletes cycle through their attempts as well. I have 3 goals:

1. To get a total. It’s possible to be unsuccessful on all three attempts of a lift, and therefore not to have a max successful lift. I don’t want this to happen! I haven’t chosen my opening weights yet (i.e., the weight I’ll lift for my first attempt) but I want to choose something low enough that I KNOW I can lift.

2. To hit my PRs. I know I can snatch 41kg and I know I can clean & jerk 53kg. It would be a bit disappointing to miss those numbers on the day it really matters, but historically I perform better under pressure so I’m feeling hopeful that I can hit a 94kg total.

3. This one is a looooong shot but I’d love to qualify for provincials. For my weight class, that’s 101kg, so if I could somehow do 44 and 57 then I could qualify. Or 45 and 56? I don’t really think I can hit 101kg at this meet, but it’s okay, because I have another chance to qualify in October. But still, it’d sure be nice!

From my current best (94kg) to my provincial-qualifying goal (101kg) is 7kg. My friend Kevin has called these “The 7 Angry Kilograms” and he made me this to-do list to count them down. Each kg has a name! I taped it up at my favourite lifting platform, and when I next hit a new PR, I get to cross off the kilogram. Because we’re tapering right now, I haven’t hit any PRs yet.

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Six days to go!