Tuesday 31 October 2017

#feminism? and Women's Distance Running.

Most of us are by now at least dimly aware that the phenomenon known as "feminism" has passed through a number of different phases, from the movement known as "progressivism", which brought North Americans things like alcohol prohibition and improved public health, to suffragism (the movement to enfranchise women), to the "women's liberation" movement of the 1960s and 70s, and, finally, to the so-called 2nd and 3rd "waves" of the movement, which have focused on things like women's sexual liberation and racial, ethnic, and gender-identity inclusiveness. Despite their different areas of focus, what unites these various historical movements under the same banner is an abiding concern for women's complete self-actualization as citizens of nations and as fully-fledged human beings. They also share an understanding of women's liberation as human liberation. What has made feminism the radical challenge to the status quo that it continues to be is its promise that gender liberation will ultimately free all human beings from the strictures of prescribed gender roles, and from the domination of the "masculine" over the "feminine" in social life, positing a fundamentally new way of organizing our relations with one another and (in some variations) with the non-human world. Indeed, only a movement and a set of ideas this visionary and bold could provoke the kind of vicious and sustained backlash from conservative and reactionary quarters that feminism has endured since its first enunciation. Indeed, feminist and their male allies have evinced a kind of rigour and seriousness proportional to the violence of the reaction their ideas have tended to provoke from the guardians of the status quo, be they presidents, men of god, bosses, or simply just individual husbands threatened with loss of control of their wives as providers of labour and sexual services.

Our merely dim awareness of the radical continuity of feminism over the past century is attributable to the success of the backlash against it in distorting its meaning and erasing its real legacy. But, commercial forces simply looking to make a buck by enlisting feminism's powerful appeal in the cause of shilling products and personae (people as products) have also done much to confuse us about what feminism is and where it came from. The large scale commercial use and abuse of feminism probably began in the 1920s, when Sigmund Freud's nephew Edward Bernays used the old man's insights to addict millions of newly liberated women to cigarettes And it continues today in the form of ad campaigns like Dove's cynical "Real Beauty" series (cynical because the parent company Unilever also makes millions from the sale of products that promote the fakest of fake beauty-- diet drinks and skin-whitening products The net affect of feminism's incorporation into advertising and marketing has been the creation of a kind of faux version of the ideology-- one that erases its origins as a movement for social structural transformation in favour of a preoccupation with individual, personal "empowerment" within a world whose dominant structures remain firmly intact. Once reduced to a run-of-the-mill kind of pop psych "self-help", feminism can then become almost anything anyone interested in promoting or selling something in its name wants it to be. As long as the message or the product is directed at women, it is seen to be vaguely "feminist" or at least "pro-women", even when it perpetuates women's reduction to isolated, gendered consumers looking for personal freedom via a product or an idea-- that is, even when the thing being shilled neither brings women together in a real movement, challenges traditional conceptions of femininity, nor upsets the social and political status quo in any fundamental way.

Serious distance running is a tiny subculture in North America; but, it exists within a vast and lucrative leisure and sports industry-- one that provides a degree of opportunity for a few of the sports top performers to make a real living during and after their competitive careers. Most "pros" have availed themselves of the fruits of this vast industry without doing much more than wearing a particular brand while racing (including the now obligatory self-brand social media promotion). A few more enterprising types, however, have struck out on their own, attempting to create small personal product lines, but more often simply by promoting their distinct personal brand images, using visual cues like tatoos, haircuts, unique posturing, and running outfits. And a few have used social and political causes, including feminism, to delineate their brands.

With a few notable exceptions, serious athletes in any sport are not known for venturing outside their athletic purviews to comment or act on larger political issues. The exceptions to this general rule in North American sport have been women and black athletes (and their white, male allies), simply because they have had to confront barriers to equal participation in sport, as in other areas of social life, in order to become athletes in the first place. Race and gender-based activism continues today, in the form of things like "knee-taking" and t-shirt messaging protests against police violence in the U.S. by pro athletes in the WNBA (which pioneered the latter), NFL, and NBA. In stepping outside their designated roles as athletic entertainers, these athletes have taken significant risks to reputation and livelihood in the form of a fan base that, if upset, is capable of responding with devastating force, sometimes aided and abetted by the wealthy and often conservative owners of the companies for which they work. The sport of track and field, and of distance running in particular, has produced some of the most courageous and celebrated examples of sports activism-- including: the boycott of the Berlin Olympics by American sprinter Herman Neugass; Tommie Smith and John Carlos "black fist" protest at the 1968 Olympics in Mexico City (supported at great personal expense by white Australian Peter Norman); and, Katherine Switzer's banditing of the 1967 Boston Marathon-- but it has tended to adhere to the apolitical rule for athletes rather being part of the noble exception, particularly in the past 30 years.

In the specific case of distance running, the one notable exception-- the direct appeal to "women's empowerment" that we now find in explicit and implicit forms everywhere, and that has helped propel road race participation numbers to unprecedented levels in North America-- serves to prove the apolitical sports rule. Ironically, the faux feminism of "women's empowerment" has thrived to the precise extent that long distance running has been "de-sportified", or, reduced to a largely non-competitive form of personal hygiene and emotional therapy. This is ironic, and telling, given that the demand of women and their male supporters for equal participation in distance running as a competitive sport created the foundation for women's mass participation today (to say nothing of the creating equal opportunities for women to win athletic scholarships and prize money alongside men). Instead of enjoining girls and women to consider becoming serious athletes, and to collectively embrace one another as a strong community of risk-takers out to challenge still dominant conceptions of women's interiority, passivity, and fragility, today's promoters of women's distance running address women and girls as already weak, fragile, and generally uninterested in challenging themselves physically through competitive sport. The implied flip-side of messages of women and girls' empowerment through running, such as "head-up, wings out" and "girl power"-- phrases for which there is no masculine counterpart in sport-- is that women and girls are, by default, unsure of themselves and in need of emotional support in the face of competitive physical challenges. As such, so-called "empowerment" messages have the perverse effect of limiting girls understanding of and belief in what they can achieve through the pursuit of serious, competitive sport.

Even when delivered by bona fide elite runners (e.g. Alexis Pappas*, who encourages young women to be "bravies"-- a term just one Freudian degree away from "babies"), self-promotional "empowerment" messages to girls and women often address them as only aspirationally strong and brave (thereby as, by default, weak and fearful). Even the gender specific emphasis on female elites as "role models" for women and girls (something their social media messages, and responses to those messages, frequently emphasize) implies that girls and women runners are in need of a kind of support and guidance that male athletes are not. Male elites are also very active on social media these days as part of their professional self-promotion, but they rarely present themselves-- or are asked to present themselves-- as "role models" for boys and men. (And you would certainly not expect them to address their male followers as anything like "bravies"). Male elite athlete self-promotion often emphasizes themes of renegade "bad-assedness" (see the beard and head-scarf of someone like Ben Blankenship, or the hyper-masculine posturing of a Matthew Centrowitz), or quirky individuality (see the long hair and sunglasses of someone like Noah Droddy

The point here is not to unfavourably contrast elite women's social media messaging with that of men; it is that, when the focus is sport promotion, the faux-feminist "empowerment" message of some female elites actually risks discouraging girls and women from thinking of themselves as potentially lifelong, serious athletes-- as, like their elite role models, risk-takers who actually relish and enjoy serious competitive challenges, rather than as seeing these challenges as something for which they must summon a "bravery" that goes against their inherent gender character. In other words, implicitly assuming that women and girls aren't already "brave" enough to embrace competitive sport reinforces the old stereotype that competitive sport is not for the average women or girl; that the average girl or women has to buck-up if she wants to be any kind of athlete. As a stark example of how entrenched the belief in inherent female frailty and insecurity has become, and of how thoroughly some contemporary elites have lost sight of the radical potential of women's sport participation to challenge old gender stereotypes, consider the recent words of current marathon world record holder and infamously tough racer and trainer, Paula Radcliffe, on the ostensible differences between male and female runners:

"The mindset is different in terms of how you would coach and motivate a female athlete to how you would coach a male athlete. Men tend to get more fired up so if you are coaching a man you might say 'you're not good enough, I know you can do better than that, you need to run faster', whereas if you say that to a woman they will just hear 'I'm not good enough' and walk off the track in tears.

"You have to say 'I know you can do this' or 'I think you can do this really well'. [You have to focus] much more on encouragement and building them up, particularly with young girls.

"It's not that you're being mean to the guys, it's just that they hear 'you're trying to push me harder and I'm going to show you', whereas women will hear 'you think I am not good enough'.

"Women will flourish and do better under somebody who really builds up their confidence. Whereas a male will do better under someone who fires them up."

"I think it's the emotion as well. Women really find it hard to turn off the emotional side of things, whereas men don't really tend to get upset. You never see a guy walk off the track in tears. I don't think it's weakness, it's just different and in some ways it makes women stronger."
(The Independent)**

Reading this, one wonders whether there ever would have been a Paula Radcliffe in the first place had this "wisdom" about the differences between male and female distance runners prevailed in the early years of the women's participation.

Alongside with the theme of "bravery" and "role-modeling" in elite women's social media messaging we find that of "health" and "healthy participation". Elite and sub-elite women's social media messaging abounds with talk and imaging focused on food and diet. And while it's true that men and women have somewhat different dietary requirements to sustain high level training, the differences are nowhere near proportional to the differences in social media content about food and diet between female and male distance runners. Once again, the obsessive emphasis on food, diet, and health, while oftentimes well intentioned, creates the impression that serious distance running is far more risky for women than it actually is. (And, in spite of the well documented problem of disordered eating among female distance runners-- prevalence among men is woefully under-researched-- distance running is not a particularly dangerous sport for girls and women, particularly when compared with speed and power sports, which often present grave danger to the long term health of their participants, male and female, in the form of things like head injuries and complications from the use of banned drugs. Furthermore, there is no evidence that disordered eating is more common among female runners than among female non-runners). It is worth noting that the disproportionate emphasis on women's diet and health in distance running that we find in media content directed at female runners is continuous with messages from an earlier era that warned women of the risk of sport to their "femininity", and to their reproductive capacities in particular. Today's messaging may say that these risks can be faced and overcome; but, that the risks of women's participation in sport are still being disproportionately foregrounded-- including by some elite participants themselves-- would seem to indicate how little things have changed. Girls and women are still encouraged, even if only implicitly, to consider their health in relation to sports participation in ways that boys and men rarely are.

We can see the real nature and effects of faux-feminist "empowerment" on women's distance running as a sport no more clearly than in the recent debate about women's XC racing distances at the high school and collegiate levels here in Canada. Challenges to the gender-unequal status quo exposed significant reserves of old-school sexist reasoning (e.g. that shorter women's distances were "fine", or that women and girls didn't actually want or need to run the same distance and men and boys in XC, regardless of the accepted practice of equal distance on the roads and in track). But, it also provoked an unusual response from at least one notable and very high profile distance runner. Outspoken former American elite and Stanford grad Lauren Fleshman, in a remarkable blog post last year, deployed her understandings of "female athlete wellness" and "feminism" in a defense of unequal XC distances for women. Mandating equal distances in XC, she argued, would entail failing to honour the special history and legacy of women's distance running, and would be a form of admitting the inherent superiority of the longer "men's" distance (as if a measure of space could be inherently gendered). In this way, she portrayed a straightforward and far from unprecedented (to say nothing of long overdue) equality measure as a form of sexism, because it supposedly failed to honour women's "uniqueness" as athletes. Of course, it turns out that this narrative of "uniqueness" is very similar to the old social script according to which women are understood to engage in sport in pursuit of things like "wellness", rather than, like their male counterparts, to challenge themselves and to take risks. Fleshman's kind of "feminism" amounts to pandering to women and girls; it encourages them to accept whatever feelings of weakness, fear, and passivity they might be feeling in the face of competitive sport as inherent to their gender-- even tokens of their gender "specialness" to be validated and embraced. This message is, of course, in distinct contrast with the early and original feminist exhortation of women to take up competitive sport on equal terms with men as a direct challenge to prescribed gender roles. The pioneers who fought for racing distances longer than 400m for women; who fought for equal scholarships and prize money for women; and, who eventually brought us the women's Olympic and World Championships marathons, would be hard-pressed to find anything remotely "feminist" in Fleshman's case for continued unequal distances in XC running. It comes as no surprise that Fleshmen is now a budding entrepreneur in the running business, having created a nutritional product (Picky Bar) marketed to physically active women. She is also a brand ambassador for Oiselle***, an active-wear clothing line marketed to women. As such, it is understandable that her kind of "feminism" is not out to genuinely challenge anyone's preconceptions about women, and certainly not about to dismantle any structures of male privilege, there being significant risks to the business model of selling products to women in either of those endeavours.

Finally, the danger of the faux feminism of "women's empowerment" in distance running is that it affords support to a still male- dominated coaching and administrative structure (to say nothing of a still demonstrably sexist male fan base, as displayed in all its colour on message boards like that hosted by Letsrun.com), which takes no active interest in the promotion of women's competitive participation. We would do well to bear in mind that the reason women's XC racing distances remained at approximately 50% of men's for decades was not that male decision makers where being respectful of the "unique heritage" of women's shorter racing distances; they opposed, or refused to even consider, increasing women's XC racing distances from their introductory levels for the same reason they had always opposed women's equality in sport-- because many had never really believed in it, and saw a chance to preserve the one remaining instance of gender-based inequality in the sport. Today, when these same decision makers-- be they administrators or coaches-- hear ostensible women's sport leaders like Lexi Pappas, Paula Radcliffe, and Lauren Fleshman fretting about girls and women's fear and fragility in the face of competitive sport, they are liable to be confirmed in their view that there is no further need for active promotion of women's distance running. What they should be hearing from female elite distance runners and their male allies is a steady drumbeat of demands for complete equality of opportunity for women, including the active encouragement of girls and women to challenge themselves as athletes and not just "participants" equally concerned about their "health" as with their performance. In Canada, the one frontier in women's distance running that remains to be fully explored is that of the longer distances-- 10k to the marathon. As a nation, we managed to produce some promising success in the early, heady days of women's long distance running-- the 1980s; and, we have continued to produce large numbers of girls and young women with real aptitude for this event range. Yet, in spite these successes, and in spite of a truly massive increase in rate of recreational participation by women in races of this distance, our competitive depth in them is all but non-existent today. Until we understand the importance of dismantling harmful stereotypes about the unique physical and psychological fragility of young female distance athletes, and until we stop indulging young women in their own socially determined feelings of weakness and fear around competitive long distance running, and instead start challenging them to "step up", as we do with young male athletes, this frontier of excellence will continue to go unexplored, to the detriment of everyone who loves this sport.

*Pappas, an intelligent and articulate Ivy League grad, who is also a hardcore distance veteran, projects a self-consciously waifish personal style, and her faux feminist social media entreaties to girls and women athletes verge on the infantile.

**This remarkable series of quotes largely speaks for itself. Among other things, it reveals an astonishing practical unfamiliarity with distance runners, male and female. Anyone who has worked for any length of time with runners of both genders will know that women are no more inclined to be sensitive about a poor performance than men; and, that if there is any difference at all in their overt behaviour in this regard, it is owing to the greater social license women are granted to display their sensitivity. A coaching style based on Radcliffe's "insights" on gender would produce a prison-house of forced masculinity for male athletes and an open invitation to displays of emotional fragility on the part of female athletes.

***Canadian Oiselle athlete Sasha Gollish also intervened in the equal XC distances debate, but ambiguously and, ultimately, non-committally. Her expressions of concern for the "whole athlete" when considering the question of XC racing distances, however, sounds familiar to anyone versed in the faux feminism of "women's empowerment". While purportedly concerned with both male and female student athlete "well-being", she did not offer her insights on the issue until the question of girls and women's distances was raised; and, she conveniently ignored the fact that male student-athletes had been racing twice as long as women for decades, with no discernible ill-effects on their overall "well-being" (the questions of men's "well being" as distance runners never having been raised in the first place!)