Trash Talking and Peacocking

Following the success of Lindsey Vonn and Liz Stephen this season, a professional Nordic skier considers the sexualization of women in her sport.

by Annie Pokorny

(photo courtesy of UnderArmour  featuring Lindsey Vonn, world champion downhill skier and spokeswoman for “I Will What I Want” campaign)

“I have a story for my feminist daughter,” my dad declared over his shoulder as we navigated a downhill turn on the Nordic ski trails in Spokane, Washington. We’d been here before, strapped into our cross-country skis, following each other up and down climbs and descents. It was our bonding time, a chance to strengthen our hearts and father-daughter relationship. 

“So, after Langlauf this year,” he began, describing the race that is the end-all be-all of the local Nordic scene, a 10-kilometer trek through the national forest trails that earns the winners fame and glory until the next year. “I just barely edged out the women’s winner, and, at the finish I was like ‘Man, I almost got girled!’ and, she, like, got all upset.” He was referring to an ex-professional skier, Deb Bauer, who still dominates races all over Washington.

Dead silence followed the anecdote, the kind that infiltrates the room after a bad joke, when the audience shifts in their seats, praying that the comedian planned another punch line, that that couldn’t be it. That day on the trail, where snow takes silence and multiplies its dullness and density, that was it.

“Dad!” I said.

 He slid to a halt, trying to decipher my reason for stopping mid-workout. “What? I was congratulating her!”

At this point, I had no choice. I had to take off, pick up the pace and escape the scene where a sexist father had the nerve to disappoint his feminist daughter. I sped past him, pushing and gliding my skis as fast as they would go, using every muscle, tendon and ounce of energy in my body to free myself from his ignorance. In a final burst up a steep climb, I dug deep, wrenched my quads for whatever anger they had left, and beat him to the top. He pulled himself over the crest and bent over his poles.

“What’s wrong?” he asked, catching his breath.  

“Nothing.” I replied “Just trying not to get guyed.”

The slight didn’t have nearly the effect on him I’d hoped it would. The unmoved look on his face told me that he wasn’t familiar with the feeling. The one that accompanies the phrase “getting girled.” The one that degrades the hard work an athlete has put into her training, health, nutrition and mental game. The one that implicates inferiority as a result of your femaleness.

Maybe I was being oversensitive. As a writer and an athlete, I define my experience in sports by the words that surround it. I love power mantras and team slogans. I’m motivated by chants and will cheer almost anything that rhymes. I am also acutely aware that many of those slogans, cheers and mantras are gendered and masculine, no matter for whom I’m cheering. I first recognized it last summer during a difficult training session. As I skied past my coach, he worked to motivate me, telling me it was time to go “balls to the wall!” It struck me that I also had to make “ballsy” moves, hit my competitors “below the belt,” take “violent” strokes and “man up.” Something didn’t fit.  

Reclaiming “Like a Girl”

The first thing cultural and social anthropology scholar Rachael Joo teaches to her Middlebury College sports media students is that sports are divided by sex/gender. “You can’t even analyze sport until you recognize that it is divided up by sex,” she told me during an interview at her office in Vermont. “Female sports always being the thing that has to catch up, rather than being equally important.” The question remains as to which is the best way to catch up: adopting the male precedent and throwing our balls to the wall, or forging a new female path?

According to Forbes, only three of the Top 100 paid athletes are female. At number 34, Maria Sharipova finds herself among some of the top paid male football, baseball and basketball players. Maria Sharipova is also sexy. According to Joo, as far as creating femaleness in athletics, sex has sold.

“Many of these female tennis players are very sexualized,” she says, “but the problem with that is that it’s the only way a woman can get anywhere close to making the amount that a second tier football player would get in earnings.”

The sexualization of women’s sports trickles down even to the layered, snowy ranks of cross-country skiing. As a teenager, I wore makeup, straightened my hair and applied glitter for race day. I was peacocking. I wanted to ski fast, but I needed to look good. Now, in order to gather a greater following for our sport in the US, my teammates and I, among other young professional skiers, have adopted a new mantra: make skiing sexy. Last year, a photo of us in our sports bras was our title sponsor’s most visited image, and in a sport that is, for lack of a better term, desperate for attention, we’re willing to try anything.

The whole sexy-sporty thing seems to be working for surfers, curlers and other skiers, but are female athletes as a whole that desperate? Is sexualization our only shot at equality?

“It can get depressing, but I think you see some change,” Joo told me, after noting that the broadcasting of female athletics recently decreased from 5 percent of all sporting coverage to almost none on major networks. On the bright side, she pointed out, America no longer considers female sports broadcasters to be totally out of the norm, despite 90 percent of sports journalists being male. Women such as Linda Cohn or Lindsay Czarniak are considered top experts on sports and remain regular personalities on ESPN while Meridith Viera was the first woman to host the Olympics primetime report last year. Alongside that trend comes sports empowerment campaigns such as the Always Like A Girl or I Will What I Want from UnderArmour in which women reclaim negative phrases as motivational mantras and use athletics to defy the labels others have given them.

“Train like a girl, race like a girl” recalled Chandra Crawford, 2006 Olympic Gold Medalist in cross-country skiing, when I asked if she remembered any negative gendered phrases from her time as a professional athlete. “It meant that under no circumstances should males train with females. It was unfair to be so dismissive and paint our involvement as such a negative.”

Today, Crawford is President and CEO of Fast and Female, a sports advocacy organization that works to connect young female athletes to mentors and provide a source of support for keeping girls in sports through high school. In addition to support and mentorship, the list of ways to keep girls in sports includes rewriting negative terms to include a positive message.

“It’s not idealized for females to be powerful,” she told me between motivational speaking gigs. “I work on a daily basis to change the wording around insults.” To do so, she and her contemporaries created a slogan with a completely different message, specifically geared toward young women.

That slogan is “Spread the Love, Dominate the World” and it’s not as fuzzy as it sounds. Through these words, Crawford and her team approach the two keys to being a successful female athlete: social belonging and competitive tenacity. Although it might be changing, negative social stigma still surrounds sports, especially for adolescent girls. Fearing failure, muscled stature and questioned sexuality, young women often stray from athletics. According to Fast and Female, by age 14 girls drop out of sport at two times the rate of boys.

At every Fast and Female event, attendees will find a confluence of mentors, noncompetitive activities and a good deal of glitter, to create a safe social space for girls to practice sport. It allows for communication, support and ownership. Once those feelings are established, the second half of the mantra comes into play: dominating the world.

“’Spread the love’ tackles social belonging while ‘dominate the world’ speaks to confidence, excellence and going for it,” said Crawford, who hopes that her organization will not only keep girls in sports, but also will elevate level of female athletics in general. “You need to go for it while not being tied up in female-prized traits like being deferential and less powerful.”

Better athletes turn into better mentors and coaches. While women equal or outnumber men in numbers of athletes in sports like soccer or skiing, and win the majority of medals at Olympics (63 percent of US medals in London), Joo pointed out that they remain severely outnumbered in coaching positions. In a world with a specific female culture of sport, would “balls to the wall” be replaced by “tit it to win it”?

Not likely, thinks Joo, due to our country’s tireless and longstanding devotion to tradition. “I think it’s hard to change habits and the American ideal of sports tradition,” she said, noting that football and baseball, held dear to our culture, are both exclusively male sports. However, with more female athletes participating and consuming the performances of professional female athletes, we can create the demand necessary to make space for women in our sports tradition. As Crawford and Joo show, raising participation in sports necessitates a shift towards inclusivity, a process that appeals to many women better than their own sexualization.

Getting female athletes into sports is the first step, but once they’re involved, they face an entirely different battle of expressions.

The Paradox of Playing Like a Man, Like a Lady

Every athlete knows that the best way to reach the top of the podium is to mimic those who have already stood there. The fittest, fastest, strongest and oftentimes winningest athletes are generally male. Thus women halt at the crossroads where they are told to adhere to a masculine standard while still maintaining their feminine expectations.

My teammate and I were running through the woods when we received one of the greatest compliments I can remember. About an hour into a two-hour run on a chilly autumn day, she and I had broken from the girls pack and were catching the boys, although we didn’t know it. All that we knew was that the light and the trees weren’t keeping up with us, that the crunch of the leaves beneath our feet went unheard as we abandoned it in our wake.

We felt good.

“Jesus,” our coach erupted when he caught up to us, “You girls are running like men.” We looked at each other and smiled, flattered and energized by the comparison.

To run like men meant something within a tradition that prefers to call us “ladies.” Nearly every start list I see refers to my female competitors and me as ladies, while our male peers race as “men.” Many figure skaters, runners and gymnasts might relate to the confusion that follows when one is asked to be strong, fierce, like a man, but still act like a lady.

“It has a lot to do with men allowing women to play sports but still wanting to insist that they’re ladies and not peers because they need to protect them in some kind of way,” explained Joo of the “lady” phenomenon. “So this whole argument goes: ‘OK, well girls can play too but they should play a lighter version because they don’t want them to hurt themselves or affect their fertility in any kind of way.’”

She explained that today, the assumption that a woman’s fertility may be negatively affected by sport is outmoded, but its remnants are coded into the word “lady.” It asserts that female athletes must hold themselves to a sports standard different than males, or at least be more gentle and sensitive. Outmoded as it may sound, 40 years ago the administration at my mother’s high school stopped the women’s track team from running the 800-meter, for fear that their ovaries might fall out. Today, she reminds me how lucky I am to be on a team with men, to have the opportunity to train with them and mirror their approach.

Therein lies the paradox that I continue to sort out. How am I supposed to be a strong, tenacious competitor while also remaining true to the image of womanhood in America? How can I be the best while also being a networker? How do I emulate male athletes while still understanding that we are different?

“I think masculinity is still the norm, and women and athletes who are competitive are still expected to see male athletes as the standard bearers for their sport,” Joo told me.

Andrew Newell and Liz Stephen are the American standard bearers in cross-country skiing. The two have attained a great deal of success and recognition for their results and technique in sprint and distance skiing, respectively.  Despite their similarities, the ski community chooses to describe them in quite different terms.

A 12-year member of the US Ski Team and two-time Olympian, Newell is the kind of guy that makes sports look easy, and beautiful. He’s the kind of athlete that everyone wants to work with: He’s coachable and full of wisdom, while also being indubitably cool. The kind of cool that skateboards and rarely wears shirts. The kind that makes cross-country skiing manly and powerful, something to be imitated by men and women alike.

And then there is Liz Stephen, whose style and ease exudes grace and discipline. One of the best hill climbers in the world, Stephen often receives the comparison of a dancer floating up a hill, whether or not she’s on foot or skis. Yet, as a national trail running champion and two-time Olympian, she’s no stranger to all-male training environments: because she can almost always keep up with, or beat, the guys.

“Beating men has always been positive,” she responded when I asked if she had experienced flak from “girling” someone, which she does on a regular basis. Her mantra has always been “strong to the end,” so training with men, whose brute physical strength allows them a definitive final kick into the finish line, has benefited her. However, she recognizes the difference between the social climate of male and female training.

Newell has trained much of his career on mixed gender teams, but he sees the difference between the all-male and all-female training atmospheres, like those at yearly training camps, by the words he uses. “People are less worried about hurting each other’s feelings at guys’ camp. The table manners are worse and people don’t beat around the bush,” he said, adding that he consciously works to be more sensitive and less insulting with his female teammates, which shows that even on duel-gender teams, a sense of protection remains.

Stephen sees it a different way. “It might be a guy thing or a girl thing, but men don’t have the same friendship and general wanting to make each other better that the women have.” She referred specifically to how the women’s U.S. Ski Team functions, where teammates regularly reach out and give each other positive feedback, recognizing that the faster their teammates get, the faster they will be. The current women’s US Ski Team is the physical manifestation of Crawford’s dream for Fast and Female: a collection of women who have created a safe social space to properly attend to kicking ass, donning matching knee socks and glittered cheeks along the way.

I asked Newell if he had any mantra phrases, or words that struck him as definitive of his time on the snow. “Put the hammer down,” he said, which means letting it all go, wringing your muscles for every ounce of energy they have left, regardless of how much longer you have to go before the finish. To me, “hammering” up the hill sounds more manly and violent than “dancing” up one, both of which I have been told to do. Newell, however, has only ever “hammered.” I wondered if, having grown up in a spandex clad sport, he had experienced negative hits on his masculinity. He wasn’t sure.

“I think I’ve always had a little bit of a chip on my shoulder,” he admitted, remembering minor teasing for his spandex in grade school, “but I don’t know if that was a hit on masculinity or not. Either way, now I don’t really care.”

Newell also created Speed Camp, the male counterpart to Fast and Female events, where young male athletes strap on rollerskis (skis with wheels designed for summer ski training) and perform agility workouts with professional sprint athletes. Creating the event was a challenge for Newell, though, because he needed to design something that would complement rather than compete with Fast and Female.

“It’s not like you can have the same themed event for men,” explained Newell from a training camp in Canmore, Alberta. “You can’t hold a macho manly fest and have the same appeal as Fast and Female, because there’s already so much macho-ness in sport.” Instead, his clinics focus on high-speed skill development on rollerskis, which includes practice on pavement and attention to road safety.  

In essence, the goals of Speed Camp and Fast and Female are the same: create a safe space for young athletes. One is simply rooted in physical safety, and the other social. With this similarity in mind, it seems possible to have a gender-neutral sporting vernacular.

Male and female athletes are not only physically different, but socially different as well. Through a mix of tradition and progress, we have created a sports language that reflects the distinction and confuses female athletes maneuvering through a male arena. But that doesn’t mean that we don’t have overlap. Phrases like “have heart, the one my mom always shouts to me from the side of the trail, connects my person to my passion, not my gender.

So, why not me?

At this point, we can see a shifting in the way we use our language in athletics. Whether it’s in the name of empowerment or sensitivity to gender difference, we’ve become aware of the impact words have on our athletes, particularly those who are female. While I think this awareness is a good thing, I yearn for the day when words will no longer be gendered, when we can say things how they are rather than how they should be, when we focus on what we do, rather than who does it.

In addition to staying strong to the end, Stephen has one other race day mantra, one she adopted before it was popularized by Emma Watson: “Why not me?” Stephen, for her part, feels that she hasn’t been significantly held down by the negative words of sport, but perhaps that’s because she’s had the gumption to take what could be a restrictive situation and turn it into something constructive. Last season, she wrote the phrase on her hand before races to remind herself that, in the end, there was no tangible reason she couldn’t be the best. This season, she has already made history, placing higher than any American woman ever in the Tour de Ski (5th) and World Cup distance race (2nd). Her US Ski Team Alpine teammate Lindsey Vonn has also willed what she wanted by breaking the record for most World Cup wins ever, for men or women, earlier this month.

Newell makes sure there’s no other choice but being the best. Tattooed to the side of his body is the phrase “All In Without Hope.” “Some people think it’s a negative thing to be without hope, but I think it’s a positive because you’ve eliminated all sense of hoping to do well,” Newell said, showing me the bolded script on his side, “Someone who is all in without hope [has prepared as well as they possibly can] to get to the start line.”

That preparation has to do with using what you have. Adopting what works, disregarding what doesn’t, moving forward without holding others back, pursuing a passion, working hard.

“I don’t care if you’re a girl, a guy, whatever’s in between,” Stephen jumped in, as she told me what the Fast and Female mantras mean to her, “Find something you’re passionate about and go for it. That’s how you spread the love and dominate the world. You’re a person. Go for it.”

Back on the mountain, as the sun set on that snowy December evening, my dad and I caught our breath and continued our ski, gliding and turning through the winding trails in the steady silence that we’ve come to know through the sport. Our breathing alternated keys and rhythms, reverberating off the sleeping trees and heavy branches.

“Annie,” my dad whispered, wary of shattering a silence born of angst or forgiveness. “I want you to know that I’m proud of you. You do incredible things with your skiing, no matter what challenges you’ve encountered. I’m proud of who you are.”

Those words were the most influential of my athletic career. And they didn’t even rhyme. In the end, men, women, boys or girls–we are athletes because it makes us better people. Even though I’m still sifting through what terms motivate, degrade or empower me, I do know this: to challenge yourself, push your body and positively impact your teammates is what it’s all about, no matter how you say it. 

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Annie Pokorny is a professional Nordic skier for SMS T2. She also moonlight as a student at Middlebury College in Vermont, philosopher, poet, comedian, drama queen and waffle connoisseur. She grew up in Spokane, Washington, but has dabbled in Utah, Colorado, Idaho and Vermont. She spends a great deal of her year on the road, chasing snow, competition and meaning in my sport. Follow her on Instagram @anpokorn and Twitter @AnniePokorny.