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Forced Femininity: The Perceived Dichotomy of Female Athletes

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Here you can find some of my brief thoughts and earlier blog posts. Most of my writing is now available under the "Published Pieces" tab.

Forced Femininity: The Perceived Dichotomy of Female Athletes

Anna Nti-Asare

This past week of being a Gender Studies graduate student has been filled yet again with amazing conversations, readings, and guest lecturers. For instance, on Monday we discussed Jack “Judith” Halberstam’s book: “Female Masculinity.” Halberstam explores the ways in which women who are perceived as masculine are often subject to criticism and sometimes violence for deviating from the gender “norm,” but demonstrates what these women provide to a world that relies too much on harmful and oppressive binaries. His book reminded me of a paper I wrote my freshman year about what many perceive as the dichotomy of the “female athlete”. A topic I want to return to today. First, a quote:

“Public acts of femininity like applying make-up tend to rely on an underlying message of female inadequacy. There is a problem to be corrected, a basic improvement to be made. This experience of inadequacy means no woman is allowed to say or to believe ‘I am beautiful’…

Despite the fact that each woman knows her own belabored transformation from female to feminine is artificial, she harbors the secret conviction that it should be effortless. A “real woman” would be naturally feminine while she is only in disguise [...] hence the tools of transformation are to be hidden away as carefully as the “flaws” they are used to remedy.

-Wendy Chapkis, Beauty Secrets: Women and the Politics of Appearance

Everyone is told from an early age how she or he is to act based simply on gender. More specifically, as women, we are often left feeling a need to improve on our appearance in order to show our womanhood, to prove to others and to ourselves that we are valuable by adhering to social rules/roles of femininity. If we fail to adhere to these we are reminded of our flaws and told we are in need of fixing. When these roles are challenged, necessary action is taken to restore the “natural” order. Historically and in contemporary times, women have been explicitly taught how to remain “true” to their gender when they are at risk of moving too far away from it.

For female athletes, who provide a useful illustration of the idea of a required “fixing” in order to restore one’s womanhood, these teachings have come in the form of required attendance at beauty and charm schools as well as classes dealing with etiquette training; they have also appeared in the form of female athlete “makeovers” where women appear hyper-feminized and sexualized. The 3 following examples help to point out some of the issues of assuming that all women should be, or should want to be, “feminine.” They also force one to question why people care so much about protecting socially constructed categories. Furthermore, they briefly introduce the need to consider diversity in feminist discourses.

1)    The All-American Girls Professional Baseball League (1943-1954)

In order to retain fan attendance, it was formed in 1943 when men’s minor league teams were falling apart due to the war. The AAGPBL official website illustrates that: “femininity was a high priority [...] After their daily practices the women were required to attend Rubensteins [Beauty Salon] evening charm school classes” (“League History” 10). These classes taught “the proper etiquette for every situation and every aspect of personal hygiene. In an effort to make each player as physically attractive as possible, each player received a beauty kit and instructions on how to use it” (10). The women were also required to follow “Rules of Conduct” which included: “ALWAYS appear in feminine attire [...], Boyish bobs are not permissible [...] Lipstick should ALWAYS be on” among thirteen other rules (“Rules of Conduct”, AAGPBL Official Website). The emphasis on displaying the femininity of the players is virtually impossible to ignore.

2)    The “First” Women’s Professional Basketball League (1978-1981)

These female athletes were also forced to attend beauty schools. Their experiences are documented in Kara Porter’s Mad Seasons where one player describes: “Here you have a bunch of jocks who don’t know the first thing about modeling going in there. They taught us how to walk down the little runway and turn around, and how to get in and out of a car with a dress on. They showed us prettier ways to cut our hair” (Porter 96). More specifically, California Dreams owner, Larry Kozlicki, thought his girls would be “grateful for the chance” to learn important skills such as “make-up techniques”. This quote shows a belief that female athletes have in some sense missed out on important features of being women… like putting on makeup?

The presence of forced and taught femininity in order to “fix” a woman who has steered away from a comfortable norm, continues to exist now maybe more than ever. We constantly see female athletes being told how they should look, what they should wear in and out of competition, how to act appropriately. And when you add race to the discussion the rules get even more restricting and disturbing. Leading to the 3rd example -

3)    Caster Semenya

Semenya is a middle distance runner from South Africa who competed in the 2009 World Championships. Semenya easily beat her competition and won gold in the women’s 800 meters. Following her victory, however, she was withdrawn from competition and was subject to gender testing, she was unable to compete again until 2010 when it was proven that she could be considered a woman. In the midst of the controversy a new image of Semenya arose, published on the cover of South Africa’s “You” magazine, which gained positive feedback and world popularity. In the image, Semenya looks feminine (wearing jewelry, a dress, and with manicured nails and hair); she embodies the “belabored transformation” referred to in the opening quote.

Although Semenya was not explicitly told she must dress this way in order to compete, like members of the AAGPBL were, femininity was in fact forced upon her when her ability to compete was taken away. She too was pushed to conform to a more “acceptable” image of a woman by international spectators and World Championships organizers.

Caster Semenya’s case is quite unique but in some ways it is also a generic one. It is not uncommon to see other female athlete “makeovers”. Most often on magazine covers where these women appear hyper sexualized and staged. The notion of pushing women to conform to a societal standard in order to compete and gain the recognition she deserves remains the same today. Female athletes who present themselves in hyper sexualized ways gain positive feedback in media attention, a larger fan base, and in turn more support.

This post is not to castigate women who choose to subscribe to what society defines as being feminine, but is instead about disrupting what we can come to see as natural. When we don’t question categories of social construction we limit the choices of individuals and risk harming them, sometimes emotionally, physically, mentally, all of the above. It calls for the acknowledgment that as women, we each possess several unique and diverse qualities, which make us who we are. The focus should move to fixing backwards beliefs, which have been, and continue to be, unfair to our gender and which limit the lack of understanding and compassion we share even between women. It is time we realize that the only thing in need of fixing is an outdated belief that all women should follow one definition despite unique backgrounds, experiences, and passions.