From the editor A question of culture and gender

From the editor
A question of culture and gender

Is it wrong, or offensive, to call athletes who are girls "attractive"" I don’t think so.

Last Friday, I was caught off guard when a woman called the news office, upset about an over-line on one of our sports pictures. It showed a dozen members of the Albany Capitals — fit girls who looked to be 10 or 11 — flanked by their two coaches; each posed with a smile on her face.
The over-line said: "Attractive Amateur Athletes."

Although the caller didn’t identify herself, I assumed she was the mother of one of the girls.

Thinking there must be some sort of unfortunate typo — not unheard of as we lay out our paper in the wee hours of the morning — I rushed to get a copy of the paper as the caller told me how offended she was. I told her not to worry, we always correct mistakes in the next issue.

But, there was no mistake, unless the words themselves were a mistake.
I asked her what the problem was. She said the word "attractive" was the problem. It might be appropriate to use over a picture of girls in a beauty contest, she said, but not over a picture of athletes. She felt the girls weren’t being taken seriously as athletes if they were labeled attractive.

Most of our over-lines are created by our publisher, James Gardner. He does our darkroom work and spends hours laboring to make our prints crisp and defined. He also has a knack, after helping the images emerge in the dark, of coming up with a phrase that captures their essence.

I tried explaining to the mother that our publisher is a man in his sixties, a man who comes from a generation that considers it a compliment to call girls attractive; no harm was meant.

I realized, even as I spoke those words, they were a cop-out. I am the editor of the paper and responsible for the words that appear in print on its pages, every last one.

I turn 52 this week and came of age in this country’s second great wave of feminism. I went to a women’s college, Wellesley, and fought to advance women’s rights. To push the envelope, my college nominated me to be a Rhodes Scholar in an era when only men were considered. You needed to be an athlete to apply; I was co-captain of my college’s ski team and rowed crew.

It was an era when many, both men and women, still felt it was unfeminine, not attractive, to be an athlete. Men could sweat; women glistened.

For centuries, athletic males had been considered attractive. Only men could compete in the ancient Olympic Games in Greece, setting the standard for centuries of competition. Each Olympic victor was entitled to erect a statue to ensure a record of his achievement; they were portrayed in the nude, because that was how they competed. These statues of athletes, like the anthropomorphic statues of the gods, spurred emulation.

Females had no chance at victory and no need to keep their bodies in perfect condition. The Greek statues of females, even of goddesses, show women in less-than-ideal physical condition. The Greek female statues, and the medieval and Renaissance art that followed, did not portray the same well-conditioned muscle that the male statues did. By contrast, the women have soft, rounded bodies, unfit by an athlete’s standards.

Women’s bodies weren’t meant to be shown off like men’s; they wore clothes. As far back as the Seventh Century B.C., the Greeks had been sculpting kouros and kore statues of naked young men and clothed young women respectively. These were probably copied, in turn, from the earlier Egyptian statues. The first known Egyptian pair statue is Mycerinus and His Queen, in which, as might be suspected, the male Mycerinus, is portrayed in hard, angular forms while his queen, Kha-Merer-Nebty II, is portrayed in soft, rounded tubular form.

For centuries, art historians, reflecting society’s views, stated this soft, rounded form was the nature of female bodies, rather than the look of a body that is not well exercised. Muscular and fit was long considered male, and not attractive for a female.

I wasn’t able to express these thoughts to the mother complaining on the phone. Perhaps that is why I am writing them now.

I did tell her about a Guilderland physical-education teacher I had interviewed earlier in the month and asked if she had read about her. She is about my age but, because she exercises daily, looks many years younger — she has a lean, attractive figure and well-toned muscles.
Like me, she grew up before Title IX ushered in an era of women’s sports. She had guts enough to tell me, on the record, for our interview, that, although she had always known she wanted to be a teacher, she "wanted to fight that image of jock."
So she started her college career in elementary education but then realized, when teaching her first practicum, "I had music going; we were moving...I couldn’t be contained in a classroom and sit still."

She became a physical education teacher after all and loves it. Now, I believe, she is a role model for girls who aren’t ashamed to be athletic, who can see that they can be attractive by being good athletes.

There is, I fervently hope, no longer a trade-off.
But maybe we’re not there yet. If this mother viewed "attractive" as offensive, maybe we’re not at a point, as a society, where we can praise a girl’s attractiveness without diminishing her athleticism. But how will we get there if we ignore what’s right before our eyes"
It’s true that we probably wouldn’t label a similar team picture of boys as "Attractive Amateur Athletes" because boys have always been admired and considered attractive for their athletic prowess; it’s a given; there’s no need for such a declaration.

Boys don’t hesitate to join a sports team for fear it might make them seem less masculine; on the contrary, it enhances what is considered attractive for their gender. Some girls, however, do hesitate to participate in sports for fear they will seem less feminine, less attractive.

My sister gave me a book this week for a birthday present — Legends: Women Who Have Changed the World, Through the Eyes of Great Women Writers. I paged through the elegant volume and perused the portraits of 50 women — from Mother Teresa to Princess Diana.

Two of the 50 were athletes — the first I’d never heard of; the second was very much a part of my coming of age.
Babe Didrikson Zaharias, writes Susan E. Cayleff, was "one of the most gifted athletes of all times" who "dominated track and field, winning two Olympic gold medals and a controversial silver in 1932 before going on to compete in baseball, bowling, basketball, tennis, and particularly in golf." And yet she is described as having "unladylike" bravado and showing "unconventional behavior."
"She was a sports hero in a century when sports heroes were nearly always male...She was unfeminine, coarse, and loud — all the things that make for a female antihero." Her household name, writes Cayleff, was "used both as a compliment and a derisive put-down."

Nearly a half-century later, the American public was still ambivalent about female athletes, but was in the midst of a grand awakening. The book’s second athlete, Billie Jean King, was not superb in many sports like Zaharias, but she changed the sport of tennis and the American consciousness.
"Her first cause was to take tennis out of the country clubs and straight to the public," writes Sally Jenkins, "and she became a significant force in changing the culture of the sport from old-time elitism to modern professionalism...Then came the Pigs versus Libs debate."
I remember being packed around a dorm TV at Wellesley College in 1973, watching King’s "Battle of the Sexes" victory over Bobby Riggs: 6-4, 6-3, 6-3. We cheered rapturously, not because the tennis was great — it wasn’t — but because King’s victory meant something.
"Before that," Jenkins reports King as saying, "women were chokers and spastics who couldn’t take pressure. Except, of course, in childbirth."

A third person who is profiled in the book, not an athlete at all, represents the shift in the Western ideal of feminine beauty in the last half-century — Twiggy, the oh-so-thin model.
"In the 1960’s, the average fashion model was 15 pounds lighter than the average woman; in the 1990’s the average fashion model is 35 pounds lighter and four inches taller," writes Susan Cheever. "Our ideal has left the average woman in the dust. Even Twiggy was a harbinger of the low self-esteem to come...Many of us have jeopardized our health and sanity in a desperate struggle to be thinner."

This new ideal isn’t one that encourages athleticism and its muscle either. And the desire to emulate such a model begins young; 20 to 30 percent of fourth-grade girls — girls the same age as those in our picture — go on diets.
In my phone conversation Friday, I finally asked the upset mother what she would have me do. "Promise this will never happen again," she said.
"I can’t do that," I told her.
After she hung up, our sportswriter, who had heard one side of the lengthy call, suggested we run a correction. "We can say we made a mistake; that these girls are not attractive after all. They are ‘Just Plain Amateur Athletes,’" he quipped.

The reason this quip caused laughter is because it seems the world has been turned upside-down when a mother considers it an insult to have her daughter termed attractive. But I knew it was more complicated than that.
Certainly the mother who called wants the best for her daughter and she considered "attractive" a put-down, an insult. Just as certainly, I do not wish to harm her daughter or her teammates but rather to celebrate them. I hope she can understand this.

We at The Enterprise hope the Albany Capitals continue to pose for team photos with the same sort of confidence, and the same sort of beautiful, radiant smiles for years to come. They are girls; they are athletes; they are attractive. We say bravo and play on!

— Melissa Hale-Spencer

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