In today’s society it seems impossible to break away from how our culture has socially constructed being male or female. In reflecting in my own experience growing up, there were many indicators that those involved contributed to gendering my body.
One aspect that was emphasized in my family was the perceptions of males and females in relation to athletics. Growing up I was introduced into sports like gymnastics and dance. I was encouraged to try different things, and if that was not the thing for me, I was allowed to quit. There was not much emphasis placed on athletics from either of my parents, and my performance was based on the effort not the skills.
Looking at how my brother was raised, the circumstances are completely different. My parents were not wasting any time when they signed my brother up for his first tee ball lesson at the age of three. They even went as far as going to another town, because our town did not offer a program for his age. Until recently at the age of 19, his desire to play baseball has slowly diminished. Although for the last 3-5 years it seemed as if he played sports more so because my father wants him to, instead of himself wanting to do so.
One major difference between my brother and me, is the amount of pressure put on my brother to do well in sports. Throughout his life, my parents have put him in the best programs to provide him with instruction to do well in sports. My father is constantly critiquing my brother’s performance in sports, whereas I was praised for just participating in something. Now that he is in his senior year of high school, he has a great amount of pressure to receive an athletic scholarship for college. Trying to get into a college that you want to attend is hard enough, but to than have an additional pressure to receive a scholarship must be overwhelming.
When looking at these differences, I believe that if I would have been born as a male, my perceptions regarding my body and athletics would be very different. Instead of having no pressure to succeed or the expectation to even be in sports, I would have been pushed and molded into the sports that my father likes to watch. For example, the sports my father played growing up were baseball and basketball, which correspondingly are the first two sports my brother played. From birth my parents already had assumptions on what sports my brother would be playing and successful at. What if my brother hated the traditional male sports like football and wanted to try something like ballet? My guess is that my brother wouldn’t have expressed his feelings to do so, in fear of disapproval from his father and our culture.
So how do my brother and my own experiences with athletics illustrate a correspondence to how our culture socially constructs men and women’s bodies? One instance is the selection of sports my brother played versus the ones I was briefly involved in. My brother was involved in tremendously competitive, aggressive games, which are qualities that are associated with being male. Whereas if I were to join the same sport, it would be looked at as deviant for a woman to display those same behaviors. There is a narrow look on how our bodies should appear and if one moves outside of that view, they are seen as violating the gendered norms regarding it. Let’s say that my parents were open to the idea of my brother participating in sports that have been deemed feminine, for example ballet. Would our culture be ok with a slender male in a leotard, or would they suggest he was a sissy for doing so?
How does this notion of gender bodies in athletics relate to health? According to Lorber and Moore, “As a result of the competitive pressure to win these prizes, athletes enhance their physical performance with extreme exercise, ultra-specific dieting, and ingenious body-enhancing drugs” (Gendered Bodies, p. 71). What this is referring to is how popular the sports industry has become and the significance associated with winning. Professional athletes also illustrate unrealistic images of the male body and therefore there is more pressure on males to achieve this sense of masculinity in appearance. Are there not consequences to both men and women’s health in regards to these unrealistic notions of our bodies?
One aspect that greatly differs is that amount of stress athletics put on my body versus my brother. Let’s just concentrate on my brother’s involvement in baseball again. Not only did he play in a league growing up, he also played for the school and traveling teams during this summer. He would have weight training, special diets, and additional training (e.g. going to the batting cages a few times a week). In high school, this large amount of work he had put into his body started taking a toll; he tore a muscle in his shoulder and was unable to participate in the sport anymore. It can be noted, that although my brother was in a great deal of pain, he refrained from showing it. Does this tear from over working his body reflect the amount of pressure for male athletes to perform well or what’s deemed as acceptable as male behavior? I believe it does. If he had not been pressured by my parents, peers, coaches, and society to look a certain way as an athlete, maybe he wouldn’t have injured himself in the process.
My fear is that when I chose to have children that, although I am completely open to gender equality in sport, my children will still have the same amount of pressure my brother did from the media, their peers, and coaches to look and act a certain way depending on their gender. How is it possible for us to move forward as a culture and illustrate gender equality in terms of our bodies? Once we move past the idea of what it “should” be, we can allow everyone to become whom they “want to” be. This is something I hope in the future will be different. But as for now, our culture is still embedding ideas into young children’s minds on what is deemed as acceptable in terms of their bodies.
Lorber, J., & Moore, L. J. (2007). Gendered bodies: Feminist perspectives. Los Angeles, CA: Roxbury Publishing Company.