You've got your mother in a whirl
cuz she's not sure if you're a boy or a girl.
- David Bowie
I wish we lived in a world where gender was irrelevant. Where folks didn't have such anxiety over our daughter's "boy" track suits. I see the confusion and mild panic on their faces. Which pronoun do I use? Is this baby a boy or a girl? Our daughter's sweet track suit and the gender anxiety it creates is a mild point perhaps, but it speaks to the heavy weight of just how important we make gender out to be. From day one, it is the presence or absence of a penis that dictates so much of a child's identity.
There are almost no female weightlifting coaches present at National events in Canada. Many times I have been the lone female in the warm up area and last year I believe there was one other woman, but she was relegated to changing the weights for her province's athletes. At Junior Nationals I had a coach from another province come up to me and ask me if I was competing. Now I like to think I have discovered the fountain of youth, but really, is it more plausible that I am under the age of 21 than it is that I might actually be coaching! He meant well, and I suppose it was his way of starting up a conversation...
Oh to remain a girl. In many ways, becoming a woman means the world of possibilities actually whittles away, rather than expands.
Girls typically love weightlifting at Flux until they hit high school. In our youth weightlifting class we actually have more girls than boys but as they grow older the trend reverses. Once they hit high school, girls often face harsh ridicule, including violent and homophobic remarks. Girls who weightlift upset normalized gender roles and identities and the insults that are hurled at them are an attempt to put them in their proper place.
I will give you another story. Once again, this story takes place at Junior Nationals. A heavyset girl is on the platform. She is a terrific lifter and is well known for her talent, having competed at an international level. As she lifts, a group of young men start heckling her, making pig noises and other derogatory gestures. Everyone around can hear them. I want to grab the kids and shake them. I am so angry. I won't get into all of the details, but I call them on their behaviour and end up speaking to their coach. Once again, a young woman has challenged gender ideals (not on purpose mind you, she is just simply being who she is) and she is met with a collective cruelty.
The double standard in weightlifting is tiresome and quite frankly, tedious. The big men in weightlifting wear their girth like a badge of honour. They are applauded for their strength and size. If you are a woman, forget it. Get ready for the jokes and insults. I have been told by parents that they worry that their daughters will quit lifting once they hit high school. And I know that some girls at the Flux weightlifting club simply keep it a secret from their peers. This makes me sad.
I want to pre-empt the liberal and banal argument that such gender troubles would simply go away if there were more female lifters and coaches. If only it was a simple game of numbers. It isn't. The problem is rooted in culture and a messed up value system that places at a premium a particular brand of masculinity. I wrote an article awhile back titled, Real men do pirourettes. Here I discussed a gendering of movement that continues to happen. The violence at the root of such gendering serves to shut down the movement potential for both girls and boys. The irony is that even our male junior lifters are harassed for taking part in the sport of weightlifting. Other males see weightlifting as a threat to their own fragile masculinity. As something they cannot live up to.
When Ido Portal first came to Flux we were met with a great deal of resistance and or disinterest. The key words movement and mobility were not yet the signposts of an enlightened physical culture that they have now become. The most common response was that it was too much like dance. A more honest answer would have been, " I find such movement difficult and it makes me uncomfortable." For gosh sakes, even mobility work is gendered!! There seems to be a fear that if you gain some mobility, ovaries are soon to follow. This is not a man versus woman argument. As I have mentioned, it is a value system or a culture if you will, that tries really hard to make sure boys and girls and women and men perform their appropriate gender script. And no one wins.
Strong is the New Skinny
We have got to throw this mantra out. Hidden behind this liberal, feel good statement is a really nice and polite way to dictate women's actions. It is couched as progressive because it is an invitation for women to get strong. And absolutely, girls need strength training! When I think of the cruelty some female weightlifters face, "strong is the new skinny" is a potent response. But that's not the whole story. Again, we have to think in terms of value systems.
This mantra is nothing more than an invitation to women to uphold a dominant masculinity. It isn't revolutionary in the strict sense of the word. It doesn't provoke a revolt against the dominant ideology. What would be more exciting would be if we would simply stop gendering movement and place in high esteem a physical culture that celebrates dance, movement complexity, mobility and that gave the same leverage to strength training. If this were to happen, boys and girls would be equally enthralled with weightlifting, dancing, acrobatics, etc. Movement would be celebrated on its own merits, not which gender category it should fall under.
I watch the kids at Flux and I experience bittersweet emotions. Many of them have spent more than half their lives with us. There is no talk about boy versus girl movements. They all do mobility work. They all strength train. They all learn capoeira and floreio. There seems to be an honest appreciation for movement in general. But Flux is not a bubble. Some girls and boys perform with very little confidence and they hide inside their bodies. Let's work together to make gender irrelevant to movement.