Doing the NASSSty
being one writer's jaundiced view of the 1997 convention of the North American Society for the Sociology of SportIt was a crisp week in November 1997 in which hundreds of sport sociologists and their ilk descended on a cheap, low-profile hotel in Toronto. I acquired superexclusive press accreditation and infiltrated the North American Society for the Sociology of Sport convention, known everywhere simply as NASSS. The theme – "Sports, Bodies and the Third Millennium" – was about as well represented in the content of the typical paper as, say, welfare recipients are in the provincial Tory cabinet. (But I'm jaundiced!)
Day 1Like all conference attendees, I struggled with the entirely undesigned "programme" book. My teeth gnashed repeatedly as I spotted typo after typo and witnessed no effort whatsoever to make the text comprehensible. Even figuring out which day and which hour a paper was to be presented was difficult, and there was no typographic differentiation of author or title. Even after typing up a cheat sheet, I still got lost.
First up was Ian Ritchie's "Sex-Tested, Gender-Verified: Modern Sport and the Construction of Social Difference" – a paper that epitomized the audience-hostile stagefright delivery style preferred by academics. News flash: Reading a paper verbatim ensures that 90% of the audience will not understand it. The written and the spoken word are different. (Among other things, long adjective chains and dependent clauses are killers.) And even if the written and spoken were identical, peoplereadsofastfromapreparedtext that you're bound to lose the audience.
The correct approach, of course, is a rock-star style, with flashcards or a well-written, chatty script accompanied by audio-visual aids. If you're spectacularly gifted, you can rattle it off extemporaneously, a skill it seems only the younger generation has developed. 2/3 of Ritchie's paper amounted to a historical review of sex-testing practices in sport. This is the sort of information that lends itself to overheads and/or slides and a snappy off-the-cuff discussion. After the history lesson was over, I felt like I'd been run through Martha Stewart's KitchenAid mixer, creamed with three sticks of butter. I can't remember what Ritchie's conclusion was, or even what his point was, and my notes record only the following: "Blah."
A similar deer-caught-in-headlights style awaited us with our next presenter, Colin Chapman, and his paper "Netball: Not Enough Sex." (Hey, the title got my attention.) Except Colin had a good reason for being scared: He'd forgotten his paper in Washington, D.C. that morning at 0300. Instead he read from notes. Disappointingly, Chapman did not live up to the paper's title and focus on the interesting gender characteristics that hover around netball like dust around Pigpen.
Chapman, an Australian solid-state physicist<slash>speed coach, wore a very fetching Montreal Canadiens cardigan and described the modest literature on netball, a basketball-like game played almost exclusively by grrrlz and women in Australia (also New Zealand and not that many other countries). In netball, there is no dressing room: Everyone can see all pregame preparations. Coaching is out in the open. There's no retirement to the lockers during half-time; there are no lockers.
Chapman and colleague Christopher Hallinan, both of Victoria University, did a study on talk fragments among members of the team Chapman coached. Having worked with rugbies league and union in speed development, Chapman spent three months doing paid training with his netball squad before taking any notes on what the players were saying. (Doing so was inconspicuous. They were already used to his taking coaching notes. All utterances were verified post-facto, and often expanded, though I wonder if this taints the source. Linguists expert in field methods, advise.)
The theme, Chapman told us, was transience, with players prodding themselves to transform, Superman-in-phone-booth-style, from "pussycat" to aggressive. (Actually, the operative term was hate, which came up over and over again in recorded utterances.) Chapman focused on the issue of activating that hate and deactivating it once the game's over. Players seemed to accept that there was some risk the hate would spill over to post-game life; at the same time, if the hate continued after a game, they feared they'd be catcalled as dykes. (Netball, Chapman reminded us later, is a proper woman's sport, played while wearing only the tidiest of pleated skirts.)
"They need some bastard in them!" the coach was quoted as saying, and you can just imagine the Aussie vowels at play there, which indeed ought to be enough to put the bastard in, say, a Canadian. The team voluntarily engaged in poisonball (i.e., dodgeball), a big P.E. trauma of queer kids. Predictably, with the explicitly murderous goal of dodgeball, even netball players who were "flat" off the pitch really walloped the poor saps who were set up as targets. Knocking them right over was common.
In the pregame huddle, the players and captain (but not the coach) would make an effort to put on a veneer of aggression – and then try to get rid of it post-game. The on-field persona, Chapman told us, had to be clear to the crowd in the stands as a persona. But there's no ritual, like the aggro-building huddle, to remove that self-fulfilling façade of aggro. The players felt they had to do something to break the spell, but there was no structured something for them to do.
The meeting room in which Chapman discussed his findings was packed to the walls with seven people, of whom three were MC or presenters. (The other two presenters were no-shows. Best not set any marriage dates with them.) It was barely necessary even to raise my hand to ask a question, which was: If netball were a game with a dressing-room preparation time and another dressing-room decompression period later, wouldn't these problems disappear? Probably, Chapman replied, pretty much summing it up.
Later, I spent two minutes in Margery Holman's session "In the Name of Tradition: Hazing Practices in Athletics." She read her paper – written in an excessively dispassionate style, perhaps to distance it emotionally from its own topic – with all the engagement and comprehensibility of a bad Apple II speech synthesizer. Hazing requires a much more frank and street-level approach.
During the short time I could tolerate the presentation, I noted Holman's list of purposes for hazing other than "team cohesion":
I sashayed over to a smaller room hosting an all-Norwegian panel: "Gender and Body in Sport Culture: A Taste of Norwegian Sport Studies." I missed most of Kristin Sisjord's paper "The Gendered Perception of Physicality: An Example from Wrestling" (drat!) and can't do it justice here.
Berit Jonsen, a former prison guard, in "The 'Herculean' Body and Power in Prison," described the role of weightlifting in the jailhouse social hierarchy. Building up muscles acts as material proof of social order in the pen. With so little to do in prison, I later asked, isn't weightlifting pretty much the only way to develop dominance or prestige or respect or street cred? No, Jonsen replied, being well-spoken confers privilege, too. (And I suppose being able to beat up other prisoners does the same.) Jonsen will be carrying on further study in another prison.
Now the fun part. As if on cue, a troupe of International Lesbian Haircuts trooped in for Heidi Eng's "Girljocks and Fairies: Staging Sexuality and Gender in Sport." Eng noted that, in all of Scandinavia, no out-of-the-closet elite athletes could be found. But they have to be there somewhere. So she looks at queerness within the athletes: Do they leave it at home or bring it onto the field? Onstage or backstage?
The question then becomes one of interpretation, particularly of gender roles. Eng ran quite a fabulous slideshow illustrating similarly-attired male and female athletes in the same respective sports and pointed out that our impressions of the clothing's gender meaning tends to differ substantially. Female beach-volleyball players look sexy, while male beach-volleyball players merely look like beach-volleyball players. But with queer athletes, we'd expect a further interplay between these impressions and stereotypes (tomboys, or girljocks, on the female side, and fairies on the male).
If all this sounds vague, it's because, like Jonsen's, Eng's presentation was based on an ongoing research project. Eng is interested in surveying or watching or observing athletes in new ways. Do they act and look different – more girljocky? less fairylike? – with their clothes off? When they're in the dressing room chatting with teammates? In that specific context, Eng links performativity with athletes in the nude: "What is queer with your naked material body in the locker room?"
Can we learn by simply listening rather than watching? A problem with sport sociology, Eng points out, is being obsessed with texts rather than focusing on real life. (Testify, sister!) Heidi Eng likes to consider data that "is not most obviously queer" – looking for hidden queerness.
During Q&A, I seconded her motion on the different reactions we have to male and female athletes playing the same sport in more or less the same attire. But what's happening these days, I pointed out, is that the acceptable range of sexy female athletic bodies is expanding quickly. Case in point: Beach-volleyballeuse Gabrielle Reece, who is statuesque, built like a proverbial brick shithouse, athletically gifted, yet perceived as glamourous and beautiful not despite but because of her muscles and atheticism.
One of the International Lesbian Haircuts then succumed to the standard liberal-feminist knee-jerk reaction and self-righteously complained "But they're still sexually available to men!" So what? I replied. Lesbians can also dig her, and anyway, there's nothing wrong with being sexy in athletics. (Give it up, grrrlz. Straight guys have every right to pursue their own sexuality.)
(As the session drew to a close, one of the haircuts came over and asked me, "Are you the Joe Clark with the Gay Games homepage?" "Yup." She nodded with self-satisfaction, as if to say "Ha! I knew it," and stalked out, grinning to her friend.)
In any event, Eng is right-on in pointing out the field's academic remove. One prominent sport sociologist I know doesn't read the sports pages and is not all that interested in sport. What kept occurring to me at NASSS is how richer the presentations could be if they were more rooted in real-life experience, whether the researcher's or the subjects'. I have a purely journalistic approach to sport sociology (go ahead and dis me for my ignorance of prevailing theory, like identity, performativity, or agency) and I frankly think this is the better approach.
Day 2I dragged myself late into an early session I was eager to learn from, "Violence, Pain and Injury." I find sports injuries fascinating and believe their significance is underresearched. (I have a large clipping file of popular- and academic-press articles.) Elizabeth Pike's "Babes with Blades Row Hard: The Pain/Risk/Injury Nexus in Rowing and Sculling in the U.K.," the only presentation I saw, was information-packed and fascinating. Her subject cohort was elite rowers. Some findings:
Pike pointed out some areas for future research: Do you gain higher status if you play hurt? If pushing yourself to your physical limits is part of the sport, does that include pushing until you're injured? If the goal is to recover quickly from injury, then which is preferable, doing so with or without treatment? Like the other British presenter I would see, Pike exhibited superior command of the English language and was not visibly nervous.
Later on, three strongly mismatched papers. (The ostensible theme of the whole conference – "Border Crossings: Sports, Bodies and the Third Millennium" – was only rarely touched upon and never, ever spoken out loud by a presenter. Anyway, the idea that a sportsoc conference has to explicitly focus on sports and bodies is a disgrace no matter how you cut it. What the hell else are we supposed to talk about?) An underprepared presentation – "A Case Study of a Student-Athlete's Path to the NFL: Race-, Gender-, and Class-Related Experiences" (Jepkorir Rose Chepyator-Thomson and Atony Jordan) – started off with the attention-grabbingly different looks, styles, accents, and exposition methods of the two presenters. Chepyator-Thomson, a Kenyan-born African-American, is a former Olympian; Jordan, a U.S.-born African-American, is a former collegiate football player. Their subject cohort was exactly one player, and the promise of the title – "a student-athlete's path to the NFL" – was not realized. If they're midway through a research project, they should say so.
Jordan drew upon his subject's experiences and his own in describing the various subtle frauds the U.S. college football system plays on new recruits, particularly black recruits, who, based on Jordan's and the subject's friends, are given treatment different from white recruits. There is the standard buttering-up and showering of attention most of us are aware of, of course. We knew that, but that's barely the beginning. The university courting the athlete's attention plies sophomore or senior athletes into service to sell the recruit on the program, and these sell jobs are carefully managed: Only black players who can put a positive gloss on the experience are dispatched to entice black recruits.
In the subject's case, the recruiting college is in the U.S. midwest, with a negligible black population indigenous to the area or on campus, a fact the use of a black sophomore concealed. The subject felt very much disconnected from modern urban black culture and, moreover, felt pressure to keep the rap music turned down and to simply fit in with all the white boys on campus. Racial issues came up in dating, too.
After some time at the university, the subject learned the hard way that the early showering of praise was all for show: As a rookie on the team, you're at the bottom of the totem pole, and neither the coach nor the seasoned players will let you forget it. The subject remembered very little cohesion between the black rookies and the black senior players, except that most of them, over time, did admit that being one of the few coloured folks way out in the middle of nowhere is disappointing and frustrating.
I have to return again to presentation style here. Jordan did a poor job of separating his own experiences from the subject's. This could have been quite easily done with some simple overheads or slides: Discuss the issue, the subject's experience of the issue, and then your own. Every so often I felt myself backtracking a sentence or two to figure out just who Jordan was talking about. And despite having just lambasted academics for being too theoretical, there was too little theory in this presentation, or, failing that, too little social analysis. Chepyator-Thomson's very intense vocal style would have worked powerfully here in discussing a theoretical or social framework. It would also have boosted Chepyator-Thomson beyond the realm of MC: All she ended up doing was giving a short intro and extro for Jordan.
I also question the wisdom of a single-subject cohort. Americans are notoriously uptight and blinkered in discussing race, and in talking about issues of sport and race, Americans seem to think there are exactly four races: white, black, Latino, and everything else. Also, there is in general too much attention paid to male athletes. Football is a prestige sport in the U.S. Given all these facts, it is perhaps of limited interest to follow the experiences of a black football player in isolation. A far more interesting study would consist of a black player in each of the Big Four U.S. sports, football, basketball, baseball, and (yes) ice hockey. These players' experiences would differ by sport and in ways relating to race, and if the research were done well and were carried out patiently over some years, the result could be a fascinating Studs Terkel-like book for a popular and an academic readership. But I guess I think big.
Next up: Marianne Vydra's "Lesbian and Gay Student Athletes: Voices of a Unique Experience." Being as I am the listmanagerboy of the LGB-Sports mailing list and the writer of a large corpus of journalistic articles on gay-sports topics (including the only Toronto newspaper coverage of Gay Games IV in 1994), I was all ears.
Vydra is an out dyke at Oregon State University. She is director of athletic services, no less. Her presentation wasn't really based on research, but I dig that; I just wish she weren't such a rambler. Vydra recounted the tale of an out gay swimmer at the University of Maine who had his locker trashed. "Go shower with the girls, you faggot!" was scrawled on his locker. (If my notes are to be believed, Vydra's current boss dealt with that case.)
In 1992 at Oregon State, Vydra's supervisor told her not to be out because the other athletic director would disapprove. (A later supervisor was more open.) Vydra went ahead and warned other administrators that out queer athletes were eventually coming. (And where are they? Remember, we are dealing with the crème-de-la-crème of the sports-playing minority of the lesbian and gay minority. It may take a generation for more than a handful of out athletes to show up.) The Lesbian Avengers direct-action group apparently attended an Oregon State basketball game in 1995.
"Going through human subjects was an event," Vydra told us. There were eight subjects; two are still in school. Six female, two male. ("I think I was fortunate to get two men to talk to me" – but they did so only after graduating.) Half the subjects had actually quit their teams! (They didn't get cut, they quit, Vydra emphasized.)
Question to subjects: Are you out?
No subjects volunteered that they were out to their dads, which of course is no surprise.
Problems the athletes suffered: "Social isolation." (Welcome to homosexuality.) Fear of harassment, with guys worrying about getting beaten up. Do gay athletes opt out of sports early, Vydra asks? (They rarely opt in.)
The men were ambivalent about college and felt free outside sport, not in. Both were closeted and did not actually test their freedom or lack of it. The women looked forward to college and felt free to be out on the team. In fact, the lesbian players looked forward to meeting other lesbians and were generally accepted by their teammates, though coaches were "a pain."
Drugs and alcohol were ever-present. All eight drank; seven smoked pot; two used crack. The goal was escape, not pleasure. Some would drive home drunk from the gay bar in Eugene, Oregon. One attempted suicide in high school; four contemplated it (three in high school, one in college); three were mildly depressed.
With her handwritten overheads and a presentation that grew from diaristic to hard-news, Vydra ended up being quite impressive. There's very little research on the actual experience of out varsity athletes, in part because there aren't more than a handful of them who are in fact out. Who will be next to study this group? Or, more pressingly, what will we do to help them? They need real-world assistance more than they need to be studied.
Next, a flawed discussion of sexual harassment in sport by Karin Volkwein of West Chester University ("Sexual Harassment in Sport: The Female Student-Athlete's Experience"). Starting off, Volkwein told us that getting your hands on funding for academic research is difficult, and sexual harassment is one topic being funded these days, and voilà, research begins.
One big issue, as ever, is deciding what constitutes sexual harassment, and, as ever, there is an assumption that female victims are more important than male. (A female murder victim is just as dead as a male one, and a woman who has her car stolen is just as much a robbery victim as a man who does, and you'd never suggest either was more important, would you?)
The subject cohort was student-athletes, all female. Though many students might consider, say, being asked by a coach about your plans for the weekend or being invited to lunch to be harassment that might "interfere with team or individual performance," only a small minority show "negative emotional characteristics." Um, then why is it a problem?
As an example, in her preamble, Volkwein used the results of separately-conducted research among the General Public to show that 14% of male subjects had experienced sexual harassment, but since that number is low, it is "not problematic," she told us. Murmurs were audible from the audience. Later on, in her own research, Volkwein disclosed that only 15% of her female athletes found the situations aforesaid offensive, but the reactions of those 15% were sufficient to trigger sexual-harassment re-education for the alleged perpetrators.
If 85% of your subject cohort doesn't object to their coaches' behaviour, how can this be described as sexual harassment? Not only is the behaviour a victimless crime in that case, it's not a crime or an offense at all. (If I drive home late at night, with no vehicles whatsoever on the road, and slip into my driveway without a turn signal, where is the infraction?) This sounds like an imposition of theory on real-world experience that does not match the data. And obviously the data must be wrong, not the theory, right?
If 15% of female complainants are enough to be taken seriously while 14% of male complainants are "not problematic," what are we really doing here? Fighting sexual harassment ain't it.
Is Karin Volkwein unwittingly perpetuating stereotypes – that women are oppressed, that coaches lasciviously oppress their female athletes, and that women need veto power (retroactive, pursued through university re-education committees) over every detail of the expression of male sexuality?
On questioning, Volkwein countered that sexual harassment exists on a continuum and builds up from "innocent" actions to more serious ones. But her research did not show that athletes who are asked out for a lunch date later are raped. The research did not prove that female athletes experience this kind of textbook sexual assault. Volkwein's claim of a slippery slope to assault actions was not backed up with a research reference.
Athletes experience sexual harassment. That is true by virtue of being human first of all. Volkwein's study has actually been published; as orally presented, it lacked balance, real-world relevance, fairness, commen sense, smarts, and original thinking.
In the afternoon, my spirits improved mightily at the "Border Crossings of Sport and Disability" symposium, which was almost completely successful, if sparsely attended. (Crip jocks are too weird even for academics, apparently.) First up was Beez Schell: "Powerful or Pitiful? Competitive or Courageous? Athletic Excellence or Human Interest? A Critical Analysis of CBS's Coverage of the 1996 Paralympic Games." Schell, a Texas Women's University grad student, has roughly the stage presence of Madonna and presented the most confident and fluent session of the entire conference – without notes, no less.
The '96 Paralympics were Schell's first exposure to disabled sport, she told us. She attended les Jeux paralympiques herself and taped, for later review, the four hours of TV coverage CBS showed in the United States; her presentation focused on the TV coverage. Schell made a wee mistake first off by identifying the coverage as CBS's per se; in fact, a consortium including the Atlanta Paralympic Organizing Committee and a consulting firm bought the time from CBS and put on their own show.
Schell recapped some reasons (i.e., excuses) why the Paralympics had not previously been aired on TV:
Schell's conclusion was inescapable: That the CBS coverage was, in fact, human interest, not sports, that the athletes were shown to be pitiful more than powerful, more courageous than competitive. And she's pretty much right-on all the way here.
During Q&A, however, I did point out that the CBS programs were shown on a Satuday and a Sunday afternoon, where American network television has a history of human-interest sports coverage. (This has changed with the advent of all-sports cable networks.) Viewership is heavily female, and the events shown tend to be nonviolent, soft, or even girly sports like gymnastics. These programs are, in fact, taped and scripted. Anyone with a story of human interest tends to be highlighted – for example, I watched a 15-minute Wide World of Sports segment one day on gymnast Vitaly Shcherbo, whose wife barely survived a car accident – just the sort of thing to tug at the heartstrings of a Middle America housewife. The Paralympic coverage, then, was par for the course in this specific respect.
Further, while the telecasts were occasionally guilty of focusing on the more extreme disabilities (the Chinese swimmer aforesaid has no arms, a fact readily apparent when wearing swim trunks), it is perhaps also interesting that the programs didn't lovingly photograph the only disabled athletes deemed palatable for daily-newspaper coverage, superelite sexy paraplegic wheelchair racer boys (sic – wheelie grrrlz attract next to no coverage). And there were certainly enough of them hanging around to be photographed. This buttresses Schell's contention that existential anxiety hummed just beneath the surrface.
Next up was Jill Le Clair of Toronto's Humber College, who deployed a mixed read-it-from-notes/add-impromptu-comments expository style that worked quite well. In fact, it worked so well that I paid rapt attention to her and didn't jot down a single word about her presentation, "The Disabled and Temporarily-Abled Subject-Assumptions about the Body: Arnold Schwarzenegger to Christopher Reeve." Apologies to readers and presenter.
Closing the afternoon's presentations was Alan Aycock of Cardinal Stritch University with "Border Crossings on the Web: Rhetorics of Sport and Disability." The title, I admit, initially left a bad taste in my mouth: Internet analyses are simplistic and, in my experience, evidence of laziness. Not so with Aycock, who worked from exactly one metatext – the Yahoo disabled-sport index – and examined the differences between mental- and physical-disability Web sites.
Adopting an extemporaneous style with a few overheads here and there (and employing the distraction-reduction technique of watching the floor half the time), Aycock described the pronounced distinction between mental and physical disabilities. There's a "denial of game," Aycock told us, expressed in the minimized range of possibilities: Just as girls' sports are seen as limited by the girls' very girlhood, disabled athletes are seen as limited to disabled sport. (What is it that media critics say? Men play sports and women play women's sports?)
Another theme at work is assimilation vs. pluralism; while this distinction is at play in physical disabilities, where there's an ongoing debate between fitting into the Olympics or standing out with the Paralympics, it's mental disabilities that really are segregated. Ironically, the hyper-segregated and only-vaguely-athletic Special Olympics are mainstream darlings, well-funded and the beneficiaries of extensive public pity. And only the 1996 Paralympics featured significant, if small, participation by athletes with intellectual disability.
Crip-sport issues are heavily contentious and centre around issues of body, performance, politics, and status; sharp researchers ought to educate themselves on this field.
Day 3I missed the discussion on wymmynz hockey due to sleeping in. Also missed "The Gay Games and Cultural Festival: A Queer Identity Event?" and the whole "Fixing the Gaze: Lesbians in Sport" symposium, which, I would note, were put on simultaneously in different rooms. (Get with the program, NASSS.)
I rolled in late to Liv Jorunn Kolnes's "Looking at Masculinities in Sports Films," but felt I had not missed much given that Kolnes's research has not even really begun. Her plan is to interview males from 15 to 25 years of age, possibly cross-culturally, on their reactions to certain films.
As a fan of sports cinema (though I hate baseball moves as much as I hate baseball), this caught my attention, but as presented the plans disappointed me. Keith Harrison of U.Michigan and I (a matter/antimatter combination if every there were one, since he's a big black loud American football-player type with a Ph.D. while I am a nondescript white loud Canadian milquetoast type) sashayed up to Kolnes afterward and quizzed her on her plans, discovering that she's not massively up-to-date even on the sports films of the '80s and '90s. Focusing on that era for a moment, showing films like Raging Bull, Rudy, White Men Can't Jump, Bull Durham, and Tin Cup to young men in Norway, Canada, Australia, and other lands where English is more or less spoken could lead to interesting results. Everything depends on what questions are asked, and Kolnes could have filled us in a bit on what she intends to investigate.
I later zipped over to Heather Sykes' not-unimpressive speech entitled "'Hey, Miss! Are You Married? Lesbian? Or Queer?': Life Histories of Lesbian and Heterosexual Physical-Education Teachers." The title describes the organizing motif of this UBC researcher's interviews with six P.E. teachers, noting that the issue does seem to have shifted from being married to being lesbian to being queer. For a P.E. graduate in the '60s, married meant "not single and not lesbian," Sykes told us. The distinction was between married and everything else, which did not itself have a name.
One of Sykes' subjects, with decades of hindsight, thought back to a late-1950s tourney and noted that 60% of the team was queer – but none of them drummed up the chutzpah to attend a mixer where women were dancing with each other. (There were such things in the 1950s? Shock!) Another informant recalled how, in the 1970s, she was quite close to her female roommate, a fact that started rumours even though both were straight.
Question: When was the first time you heard the word lesbian?
Another subject thought back to 1988, saying that playing broomball is "where I basically came out." Team sports, Sykes says, gave players access to "lesbian subjectivities," an ambiguous term I think Sykes intended as "lesbian rather than feminist," i.e., you could find lesbians on the team rather than "mere" feminist straight women. Three of the interview subjects self-identified as feminist; a 29-year-old decried excessive politicking and the showiness of demonstrations. (Is she one of those post-feminist feminists?) Only the feminists spoke of homophobia in physical education; one did anti-homophobia teaching.
Sykes was absolutely incomprehensible on the topic of queerness.
Elsewhere, I heard the closing half of Lesley Fishwick's delightful, humane, and erudite "Utopia Gym: Femininities and Masculinities at the Local Health Club." She followed a group of "average" men and women (that's my term) as they progressed over several months attending a health club, which was "a special place. I belong here," said one informant. There's no idle chatter at that gym, unlike every gay gym you could point to. Neither men nor women dominate; the gym is not "a macho sweatshop" or "a Lycra palace." It seems that the subjects were seeking out a gym for what it is not (Fishwick cited Sartre's name here), and settled on a club that met their needs in this unobvious way.
Age, and stage in the informant's life, were more important than gender in deciding to attend the health club. Men did so mostly due to experience in competitive sport, while women were a mixed group, with no such experience or maybe a little.
The gym is seen as a Get Out of Jail Free card: You can live however you want, then head to the gym, as if to compensate. Women saw this as license to eat what they wanted, men to drink. This is certainly true of every weightroom and health club on a Monday (doubly so on the Monday following a long weeekend), when everyone makes up for the baccanal of the weekend.
Attendees "deconstruct messages and make sense of them in their own terms." They're all aware of the body-beautiful image, but they either ignore it (note that!) or adapt it to what they want. I would explain this as, say, working to develop Calvin Klein abs while retaining Joe Clark bodily hair (again, note that). The self, Fishwick told us, is something being constituted, or built up – "active agents constructing their [own] lives." (See? Academic jargon can make sense.)
Gymrats here undergo a self-transformation, moving from wearing baggy shirts and shorts when new to the gym to preferring tighter clothing – Lycra for women, "vests" (tank tops? Aussie-rules-football shirts?) for men. (Note that.) All the regulars could not imagine a time when they would not go to the gym. Fishwick made use of rather humourous and charming overheads and, though reading more or less verbatim from a script, managed to come off as learned and droll at the same time.
And now the biggest nightmare of the conference: Marjorie Holman's "The Hidden Meaning of Attire." Holman opened her presentation on what could have been a very strong chord, reflecting on 25 years' experience in coaching girls' volleyball. What we were stuck putting up with, though, was a 20-minute litany of dusty, discredited, misapplied feminist dogma read from a script with all the liveliness of a rusty robot. Maybe she didn't put her heart into it because she didn't believe what she was saying.
Here goes. Attire complements femininity at the expense of physical capability, we were told. Attire came to "be oppressive, sexualizing the female athlete while denying physical competence." Holman claimed we are uncomfortable if females playing men's sports are not dressed in a feminine way. Men's attire is sexual camouflage; "male athletes are doing gender simply by doing sports." (Oh, and women aren't? I thought men didn't have gender any more than white people have race.) "If I wear my Spandex too often," Marjorie quotes one player as saying, "athletes from other teams will think I'm gay." (Is that a male or female player?)
Female athletes must look beautiful as well as be competent. Looking feminine (girls) or masculine (boys) acts as an assurance of heterosexuality. "Attire becomes a tool for erasing the contradiction" of femininity and athleticism. Women are "taken seriously as sexual beings but not as athletic beings." Sexiness depersonalizes. Holman quotes another author on depersonalization: We wear a uniform because of a good-faith expectation that we will benefit somehow.
What about sports where male and female uniforms are the same? They're falsely generic, Holman asserts. Girls wearing these outfits have no way to identify themselves as female, so they add hair ribbons.
Holman complained about beach volleyball's "dental floss for uniforms." Women are trivialized if they wear clothing accenting femininity. She concedes it's "really positive" that new sportswear actually assists performance. We should seek "comfort with out own bodies without being a slave to outside influences."
OK, now my turn. First, I admit I have no immediate image of women's court-volleyball uniforms. I gather the shorts they wear are Lycra and often really are short. Now let's discuss Holman's points, almost none of which hold water.
She could consider sexy vs. unsexy uniforms as they apply equally or differentially to men and women. Luge is sexy for men and for women.
Similarly, Holman did not consider men's sports in which the male body is put on display, either nonchalantly or with some libidinous pride. We could consider wrestling, swimming, waterpolo, bobsledding, and Aussie rules here. Why are sexy girl athletes oppressed while sexy boy athletes aren't?
Holman didn't do the smart thing and rely on her own experience and her common-sense instincts. She also didn't ask around outside the incestuous cabal of feminist sport sociologists. Had she done so, she could have spoken to several generations of gay men who felt traumatized by gym class, specifically shirts-vs.-skins games and any occasion where any kind of nudity or disrobing was necessary. We knew we were interested in other boys' bodies and knew ours didn't measure up. We were wary of other boys' looking at us the way we looked at them. Body-image issues are not restricted to women. Fat kids can tell you of similar traumas. Even fit gay adults feel tremendous pressure to look like circuit-party clones, as Michelangelo Signorile describes exhaustively in Life Outside.
These issues persist to adulthood, as I, a person living with body hair, have discussed elsewhere. You absolutely will never catch me in a tank top or shirtless in public. This kind of bodily modesty is the central issue Holman addresses. She more or less let this slip by mentioning one specific volleyballeuse she coached who spent as much time pulling the hem of her Lycra shorts downward as she did spiking the ball. The issue is not that all female athletes are oppressed by volleyball uniforms; the specific individuals who do feel unduly exposed need to have their issues addressed. Who knows? This may require overthrowing the volleyball dress code, but that's a longer-term issue. Start by assisting the athlete in question. (I would suggest reading Lois Shawver's And the Flag Was Still There for an examination of how various professions address modesty.)
On the topic of beach volleyball: What's taken place is a change in what straight guys consider sexy. All of a sudden, strong, muscular, athletic women are considered glamourous. Chalk it up to Gabby Reece, the statuesque and fully capable beachvolleyballeuse who moonlights as a model. This can only be seen as a positive thing. If you disdain Gabby Reece's brand of sexiness, then you're saying that only traditionally unglamourous women should play sports – and should not expect guys to fancy them. Remember, most female athletes are straight. Unlike sport sociologists locked away in their academic ivory towers, some people actually like to integrate all aspects of their lives. Maybe a beach volleyball player likes having her boyfriend in the stands rooting for her. Maybe she likes showing off for him, both in what she does and how she looks. What's wrong with that, exactly, if it's her choice?
One would think back to Heidi Eng's question about why male and volleyball players wearing more or less the same thing (as evidenced in slides she presented) are viewed differently. Of course, this all depends on who's doing the viewing. Strangely, Holman and her ilk seem to adopt the viewpoint of the tawdriest, most animalistic straight man imaginable, one driven wholely by id and unaffected by ego or superego. Are we projecting, professor?
Most fundamentally, don't go telling girls, boys, or anyone else how they should or should not dress. And heck, Fishwick's research directly contradicts the implicit I'm-forced-to-be-sexy schtick Holman backed: As people got more fit, they preferred tighter clothing.
The scene in the conference room after Holman's presentation was as tense as a SALT missile negotiation. The moderatrix, Leslie D. Haravon of Iowa, asked for questions. No one put up a hand, so I did, and spoke for about two minutes, summarizing what I talk about here. I was a few sentences away from shutting up for the day when Haravon interrupted me and insisted that other people be given a chance to speak. Whoa, I replied. We've come a long way to this conference and – I looked at my watch – we have plenty of time. I was about to say that I was nearly done anyway when Haravon interrupted again to say "I disagree."
A woman in the back row, her eyes burning with righteous anger in the wake of my assault on her dogma, mentioned other research showing that female boxers are required to wear sexy satiny uniforms. Um, hold on, I interjected. Male boxers are also dressed sexily: They're wearing less, and what they're wearing is also satin traditionally. Further, amateur boxers wear more or less the same thing whether male or female and aren't sexily attired. I asked her to give me the reference, eliciting the smug reply "I just did."
Lesley Fishwick pointed out that Holman might have profited from basing her paper on her own experience rather than theory. Pirkku Markula of Waikato University talked about her inability to find any kind of aerobics tights that weren't a thong. A man seated next to her (never got his name; had difficulty speaking English) offered polite but sweeping criticism of sport sociologists, who, in effect, tell athletes how to live and what to do.
I pointed out that I too suffer from showing-the-body "issues." There was a lull in commentary. We all seemed to be decompressing a bit, and we had reached some kind of consensus about basing our research on lived experience. More tense silence. Haravon thanked us for attending and ended the session. "Don't shush people you don't agree with," I told her pointedly. Markula, the man next to her, and a few others and I then chitchatted pleasantly for a while, Markula pointing out that guys do tend to aggressively question presenters at meetings like this. I replied that, at a big conference, you need to be able to defend your statements even against really pushy, obnoxious questioning, which more or less summarized my performance there.