Not For Your Viewing Pleasure: What Sport Taught Me About Agency
In 2011 I was 17 and I was mad fit. I was the kind of human who goes for a run for a chill thing to do. That's me on the left in the photo above, pouting in the sunshine, which is something I think I did often. I look back on that time as a blur of treadmills and team colours, and the most pervasive memory: a burning love for my teammates and for my sport. This is the backdrop.
It was a warm evening, and I’d been running. I’d just smashed a personal best time and I was pacing around outside my house, trying to stretch it out and resisting the urge to lay down on the cool concrete. I took a moment to soak it up - I was really proud of myself. When I came inside I went into the bathroom and looked in the mirror, and what I saw was momentous. I lost touch with the idea of beauty in my reflection and saw my body only for its power. I was overcome with a soaring, victorious appreciation for what it could do for me.
Do you understand what I’m saying here? I don’t mean all that “live love laugh~love your body~healthy is beautiful” bullshit. I’m talking about a moment where I TRULY, unconditionally, loved my body, because in my mind it became devoid of aesthetic function. It existed only for me: it would do what I asked it to do. In that moment my body was a well oiled machine - the idea that it could exist for someone else’s viewing pleasure seemed laughable.
That same year I remember a moment where I got into the car with my mum after training. She looked at me and exclaimed, with complete admiration, “My GOD look at those big cyclist thighs” and I didn't get offended - I beamed with pride and told her I'd been doing squat jumps. There cannot be many seventeen year olds in this world who wouldn't tense up at a comment about their thighs. In retrospect, I had some very sheltered and very privileged teenage years. I won some sort of lottery where I had enough people around me telling me that my body was my machine that I managed to block out the entire rest of the world telling me that my body existed for the male gaze.
It didn't last. I soon entered the real world and dealt with some of the unpleasant repercussions of existing as a young woman. Self loathing isn’t fun, and I’m talking about your standard, run-of-the-mill, cis white girl self loathing. If I could, I would wrap my metaphorical arms around the girls growing up who have to deal with the compounded pain of girlhood and racist, cisnormative and every other type of normative messages about their bodies.
Let's fast-forward to 2016: I’m watching the Olympics and imagining I’m still sportif (don’t get me wrong I’m 22 and proud of where I’m at, but it would be sick if I could still run a few kilometres without stopping). Suddenly, watching the athletics, I find myself taken aback to see female runners in makeup. Now let’s HOLD UP right here - I promise you I am not one to call out makeup. Those memes about makeup being “false advertising” make my blood boil. We do what we freakin' want with our face! So when I did a double take at athletes in makeup I realised I had to activate feminist-questioning-my-attitudes mode. I went on a reading spiral of think pieces about it. What I read was what I expected - makeup can be empowering, it makes us feel strong, we’re here to show femininity does not exist in conflict with athletic power, and most of all, this is about choice, just like the choice to shave or not to shave. I’m all for it.
I guess what had made me double take was the idea that feeling pride in our appearance should affect us on the sports field. I had thought of that place as a little safe haven where we get to feel pride in our uniform, our ability and how far we’ve come, rather than our face and body shape. But of course it’s not. Elite sport is not what I thought it was when I was a fitness-loving teen. Most women spend their entire lives trying to reconcile their appearance with a world that tells them a woman’s body is everyone else’s business, so it’s natural that to psychologically prepare ourselves for big moments like races many of us feel the need to look our best.
We know we’re here to compete, but every time we do so we’re stepping into an arena where our body shape, our hair and our makeup is a factor in how we are judged. Think of three-time gold medallist swimmer Leisel Jones and the extensive body shaming carried out against her by tabloid newspapers. And for some compounded injustice, take a look at the way people speak about non-white female athletes: gymnast Gabby Douglas is a two-time Olympian (that's a big achievement in gymnastics) and, like Jones, a three-time gold medallist. But in response to winning performances she's had to endure racially-charged critiques of her hair and nose, plus assertions that she should smile more.
In light of shit like that, who the hell am I or anyone else to expect women to just go out there and not care about how they look? The idea that all women should go makeup-free is problematic because it demands that we be carefree about our appearance in a world that is constantly critiquing us based on it. Even when we're in the spotlight for something clearly unrelated like, um, I don't know, COMPETING IN THE OLYMPICS?
These athletes have pushed the limits of their physical capabilities. No doubt each of these women would know what I mean when I describe that moment of pride I had when I was seventeen. Sport gave me a moment of respite where I left the the real world, a world in which women’s bodies are aesthetic objects, and I was on my very own planet. All I could see in my reflection was a powerful machine: the sweat, the muscles, the goosebumps on my arms: they all had a purpose. It was all for me and my team. My body was no one else’s business. The 17 year old me - that pouty little athlete in the photo - she actually knew a lot about agency. I'm learning from her now.
So when we see those women on the track and on the gym mat, let's tell ourselves this: she just won gold, and in this moment, just like in any other, her body answers to no one but herself.
And then let's say the same thing about ourselves when we look in the mirror.
Banner photograph by Genevieve French, 2011. Her current work features a little less pouting and can be found here.