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What we read: December 20, 2019

It is literally Christmas. Basically. Yet, the newsreel keeps going and so do we. We’re tired, yes, but we aren’t going to stop.

Much of the news that I follow is sports-centric, specifically women’s running-specific. This week, there’s been a few developments in some stories from the past year. I’ll start with a quick overview of those stories to bring us up to date (this overview doesn’t do justice to the intricacies of the impact of gendered policies and practices on women and non-binary athletes—consider this a primer of sorts): 1. The IAAF and NCAA have historically had policies that, at best, silence and ignore women and, at worst, subject them to invasive and humiliating tests to determine sex. 2. While the NCAA seems to have more inclusive policies regarding transgender and intersex athletes (seems being the operative word), the IAAF implemented a new policy this year that defined womanhood for competitive purposes according to testosterone levels despite research that has been largely inconclusive. This meant, along with the deeply problematic legislating of womanhood, that several successful woman athletes of color would have to undergo unpleasant hormone treatment they didn’t actually medically need to compete as their identified gender (and, for some, their gender assigned at birth) in IAAF competition. 3. Nike, oh Nike, has been breaking everything. First, Oregon Project coach Salazar was banned for doping after years of allegations. Then we hear about his coaching practices that systemically told women competitors that they needed to lose weight to perform, causing some like Mary Cain to develop disordered eating patterns. Plus, it seems Nike had placed ridiculous standards for performance on pregnant women including discontinuing pay during leave and requiring a certain level of performance for women returning from leave (which they now say they are reversing). 4. Don’t forget the reports that came after the Cain Op-Ed of decades of abusive coaches and coaching practices that not only reinforced troubling ideas about ideal body weight but have also led to allegations and convictions for sexual abuse. 5. And, finally, we finally started talking seriously about that fact that most of the scientific research being done on sports performance had been done on men. In some cases, this meant the advice being given was just not applicable to women. In other cases, however, it was downright dangerous incorrect advice. In summary, the entire track and field engine has systematically marginalized, abused, and neglected women and non-binary athletes.

And leads us to this week’s news. One of my research areas is eating disorders, specifically how unrealistic body and beauty expectations are gendered methods of subjectification and control set by capitalistic and neoliberal discourses of individual responsibility. This means that women are told they can be successful but only if they look and act a certain way and, importantly, that it is their own fault if they can’t achieve an unrealistic ideal. We see echoes of this is running that impacts all genders but women more acutely because women are already under pressure to look a certain way and and because women are often told they must accept and obey power figures like doctors and coaches. This means that even if coaches are not actively telling women runners to lose weight, they still perpetuate those norms if they don’t actively contradict them as Grace Staberg explained in an article for Trail Runner. The problem is systemic and deeper than a few “bad apples” in coaching positions.

Next, it seems the NCAA really really cares most about money. Apparently, the NCAA allows athletes found guilty of sexual misconduct to transfer to and compete for another university. They often can’t for, say, accepting financial awards (although there seems to be some loosening of that policy) or drugs, but the NCAA leaves those disciplinary proceedings up to the schools, leaving the possibility that an athlete convicted at one school can for and compete (and assault?) at another school.

These issues are all symptomatic of a gendered structure within a gendered society that seeks to control a woman’s body through overt and subversive methods of control. In many ways, track and field is a microcosm that reflects the same gendered policies and practices in western society. These discourses manifest themselves in different and grotesque ways in different contexts and women’s running is just one context, but these same discourses are prevalent across society. They are important to address in running-specific ways, but we can start or end there. This requires, at the end of the day, large-scale structural change that doesn’t just focus on improving the outcomes of white women runners.

Speaking of the gender bias in scientific research, more research come out about how man scientists are more willing to self-promote. This is important yet not at all surprising stuff, but the solution isn’t to tell women they should act like men (ahem, Lean In). The system itself is gendered, and yes we need more women and non-binary scientists, but we also need a structure that validates, empowers, and includes them. The current system is built on discourses and norms that rewards self-promotion and require neoliberal individual outcomes that neglect the collaborative nature of scientific research and may feel hostile and unwelcoming for anyone who doesn’t “fit.”

Related, from Language: A feminist guide, a primer in the ways women are often described. This may, in the US, be symptomatic if why we haven’t had a woman president yet. Despite seemingly unlimited role options for white women, women in and pursuing power are often still reduced down to one of four archetypes that doesn’t allow them to achieve high-ranking positions (and if they do, to be forced to weather gender penalties). It’s been much easier (but still not without challenges) for white women to navigate them but that has come at a serous cost as women are forced to embody masculine behaviors (see Lean In) to be accepted (although never fully) and, in some cases, made them feel like they need to marginalize and push down persons of color to stay in those tenuous positions of power (see white women calling the police on black bodies for existing). How do we break out of these pre-set molds? It requires structural change, of course, but an easy way to start is for media portrayals to stop describing women by putting them in one of those boxes (how about “woman wins marathon” instead of “mother of four wins marathon”).

And finally, at the end of the day, if someone tries to tell you how many minutes you need to run to burn off that cookie, tell them that’s not how any of this works, and eat the damn cookie.

Oh and in case you somehow missed it:

Round up of all the “end of a decade” posts coming next week in the last post of 2019. BE EXCITED.

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