where have all the women gone?

At the risk of sounding like a broken record, here’s another:

Sweaty Women

As the Olympics approach, it feels wonderful to watch the sporting gods and goddesses prepare to dominate. The elite of both genders capture the world’s imagination, and excite the senses. I wonder, though, where the women’s rugby was as the Six Nation’s men’s team ploughed down competition? And when the women’s cricket team won the World Cup, where was the coverage? Oh yes – focused on the men as they lost. And when summer swings around, and picnics and rounder’s start to replace winter TV evenings, who do you think will be leading the family team? Alienation is something women have seen a lot of throughout their turbulent history – and this is also true in the world of sport.

A recent study showed that whilst 40% of men regularly take part in organized sporting competition, the percentage of competing women stands only at fourteen. Clearly, within the general public, there is an undeniable gender divide. When asked, women I know gave a myriad of reasons, from the mental to the biological – fear of failure, lack of testosterone, the unavoidable ticking clock located in the womb. It seems that often, where men will think of the supreme glory of winning, women dwell upon the shame of failure. One woman told me ‘I wasn’t competitive at all for the first couple of years of doing sport… but now that I’ve settled in and understand more and feel relatively comfortable in what I’m doing, I am becoming competitive,’ implying success was necessary to encourage and spur her on.

It is often perceived that competitiveness in females is in some way unnatural, or unattractive. Sports magazines are always located next to men’s magazines in the shops, whilst ‘healthy living’ and diet magazines cling to the space where women are meant to linger. Keeping fit is a great reason to train, but it is naive to believe it is the only goal. Usain Bolt doesn’t win races to keep skinny. In fact, skinniness is a hindrance for many sports – many believe its women’s higher body-fat ratio which makes them naturally better swimmers, and female team sports competitors won’t be aided by little limbs.

This nurturing of women who are ashamed of their competitive nature could be one of the key reasons behind women keeping their noses out of sport. I myself, now a keen runner, swimmer and cyclist, never discovered my aggressive side until I entered my first charity race. Chugging along the course, months of training under my belt, I still perceived that I was ‘only taking part for fun/for charity/to get fit’. It was only when I crossed the finish line, and discovered I was only the eighth person to do so, that I got my first taste of sweet success. Almost a year later, and i’m still chasing after the rewards that come from pushing my body, and succeeding. Succeeding against others is merely a confidence boost, or a push to be better, depending upon the results. Competing against the self is where the pleasure comes from – setting a goal and working, working, working, until I am capable of something I couldn’t do before- that’s a buzz better than any drug can provide.

Once I’d weaved my way into the world of sport and athletics, I found attitudes towards competition totally changed. Whilst friends and family stood bewildered, and wondered if I might be mentally unstable, sporting people totally understood. Within the world of athletics and competition, women athletes have a huge amount of respect, from both genders. Champions such as triathlete Chrissie Wellington compete amongst men, and win. When asked about her success, Chrissie explains “I’ve always been very focused, very driven. I love pushing my body to the limit. But I’d never have known if I hadn’t done endurance sports.” This, I believe, is the key – without giving sport a go, women will never find their potential.

Women who train do so for the same reasons as any man. Some men and women meander along, at a gentle pace, and are happy, others want to storm the finish line with all they’ve got. Runner Allison O’Neill described her time spent away from her sport as a time of withdrawal, and reminisces sadly about the ‘dark times’ spent in her room when she thought she’d ‘never run again’. Following injury, she tells me ‘I spent ten years in pursuit of the holy grail – a buzz to match that of competitive running… I finally faced up to the truth. I simply couldn’t live without it.’ There is a huge rush that comes from competing, from winning, from freeing your body from the repulsive chains of everyday existence. Women can find that drive within themselves, if only they could forget the sexist messages that pulsate from nearly every form of media, that to be competitive is not to be sexy. Winning is sexy, and even if it wasn’t, who cares? I often catch sight of myself in a mirror at the gym. I can tell you, sweat patches, bright red face, hair slicked back – I might not look the picture of feminine beauty, but it feels great to know I’m on my way to a new PB.
The current attitude that is holding women back needs to be laid to rest, along with those that are now considered laughable, such as ‘a woman’s place is in the kitchen’. With the female sex rife with body image concerns and self consciousness, what women really need is to learn how to use their bodies as a tool for empowerment. Female ambition is lurking just beneath the surface, if they would only drop the fear of sweat and public perception, and race to the finish line of gender equality.

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