Several years ago, my
volleyball team competed in a tournament with three other teams. One of the teams represented a Christian school that did
not allow their team to dress in the accepted cultural uniform of the day: short, tight spandex shorts and a sleeveless or
short-sleeve fitted top. This particular team wore what was more akin to a basketball uniform with knee-length, loose-fitting
shorts and a loose t-shirt. All indications and scouting reports from my and my assistant coach’s perspective were that
we matched up well with this team, but we believed our team had the advantage because we were the taller, stronger, and more
They were our last match
of the day, and as we both took the court for pregame warm ups, I noticed our team glancing at the other team, making cracks
to one another, and judging them based upon their uniforms. I saw it all unfold and actually warned against it: the judgment,
the comparison, the illusion of what a “real” volleyball player looks like, and then how that idea comes back
to hinder your performance. You see, that team played very well together, with heart, with passion, and desire. They had gotten
past wearing the shorts, but we, we just couldn’t get past seeing the shorts. That team’s shorts beat us that
day, because we were never in the game. We had no excuse but to look in the mirror…
… which brings me
to the present day and current issues of uniforms, sports, and women that I find offensive and challenging to me as a woman,
an athlete, a coach, health educator, and mother of young men. I can’t get past the shorts – or the lack of them.
I can’t get past the shoes, or the airbrushed photos. I want to see past the illusions when the rest of the world wants
me to buy into the illusions. Let me explain with three recent examples.
The Super Bowl. Don’t
we all look forward to the Super Bowl? I love the Harbaugh brothers, having known them and their parents when their dad Jack
was the football coach at Western Michigan University. I was looking forward to the real “competition” or, as
Sportuality would define it, the “working with” each other to create a gripping and exciting contest. We watched
it at a resort in Mexico, which was countercultural by itself, but I’m increasingly finding the halftime shows distracting
and unnecessary, because where exactly does Beyoncé fit into football? A nearly naked Beyoncé, to boot? If anyone should have
entertained at halftime in New Orleans, it should have been native son Jimmy Buffett, who most likely would have kept his
clothes on, and simply needed a guitar, a few amplifiers and some plastic palm trees. This line from his song Only Time Will
Tell is particularly interesting given the state of both government and football: “Are we destined to be ruled by a
bunch of old white men, who compare the world to football and a program to defend? I’d like to see a princess or a non-terrestrial,
who is neither boast nor bashful, is there really such a girl?” For the sake of our daughters, I hope so.
Shoes. Is it just my inability
to wear these 6” platform heels that makes me dislike them so? Orthopedic surgeons make a living on the broken bones
that happen as a result of falling off these fashion trends. Women are experiencing long-term, negative health effects of
fashion, often designed by men who don’t wear them. A slideshow on WebMD graphically illustrates what women’s
footwear does to the body: http://www.webmd.com/pain-management/ss/slideshow-worst-shoes-for-your-feet. “But I need
to have those shoes to complete my outfit!” may be a woman’s last words before visiting the ER with a sprain or
a fracture. We just can’t see past the shoes.
Swim Suits. Our household
Sports Illustrated Swim Suit issue just came this week, to my husband’s and son’s delight. And for some reason,
we received two copies. Years ago, as newlyweds, I had defaced the photos with a black marker before my husband saw the magazine.
So I came home to “Jeanne Hess’ Edited Copy,” defaced with a Sharpie. While it was funny on the surface,
after 30 years I am still angered that this magazine, which, for 51 other weeks of the year, has football, baseball, basketball,
golf, or an occasional woman or Olympic athlete on the cover, sinks to pornography to sell subscriptions. Many men will say
that “these women are athletic” or “they are simply putting out there what you see on the beach.”
I can’t remember the last time I saw anyone wearing a painted-on bikini on the beach. And if I were going to go swimming,
most of these suits wouldn’t stay on during any sort of water workout. The only sport here is the airbrushing Olympics.
Kate Upton, the cover model, was quoted on the Today Show saying “My body was shutting down” during and after
her shoot in Antarctica. In a country where body image disorders are at epidemic levels, it seems that a sport magazine might
want to work toward greater health with its articles and images. Images … illusions … I just can’t get past
this pornography disguised as sport.
Sportuality would ask
that we hold ourselves and our culture to a higher standard, that we honor our opponents and our games, and that we consciously
participate in creating the vision of equality by women throughout the centuries. It is evolution, not de-volution we need.
Title IX has made too many strides in 40 years to get lost in illusions of beauty, entertainment, and us vs. them competition.
We must begin to look past the shorts, and into our hearts and souls.
Jeanne Hess is the author of Sportuality: Finding Joy in the Games. She is a native of Detroit, Michigan, and was a varsity athlete at the University of Michigan in the 1970s. She
has been a volleyball coach, professor of physical education, and college chaplain at Kalamazoo College for nearly 30 years,
and is the wife of a coach and the mother of two professional athletes. She lives in Kalamazoo, Michigan, with her husband,
Jim, whom she met in a gym.