For the last few days I've been tearing pictures out of magazines—Shape, Runner's World, Sports Illustrated— collecting photographs of women athletes. I found a great shot of Gail Devers, Olympic gold medalist in the 100 meters, bounding out of the starting blocks, and I ripped out an ad for running shoes that shows two women striding side by side, silhouetted against an enormous blue sky.
I am pinning up these pictures on a bulletin board in the basement locker room of my old high school, Madison East, where I coach girls' track. East is one of those big, fortress-like public high schools you might mistake for a factory—or a prison. Concrete walls and floors, and the bleak, locked-up look of the building contribute to a general feeling of gloom.
I decided to make the bulletin board at the beginning of this year's season, ostensibly to provide information—weekly announcements, work-out schedules, team records, etc.—but also for sneakier reasons. One is to do a little public relations for track (gym classes pass through this locker room every day, and I'm hoping to win a few new recruits). Another reason is to boost the girls' morale. The bulletin board I captured runs the length of one wall of the locker room. Covered with purple and gold paper and glossy photos, it stands out. My hope is that it will reflect a picture to the girls who walk by it of energy and optimism and strength. Hence my hunt through magazines for inspiring images of women in sports.
They're not as easy to find as I thought.
I have mental images of women sports heroes from when I ran track—Mary Decker Slaney kicking to the finish line with steely determination, Florence Griffith Joyner with her powerful legs and her outrageous long nails and lace tights. When I started my bulletin-board project, I thought of my contemporary, Suzy Favor Hamilton (I raced against her—behind her, I should say—as a student at East and again in college). Favor Hamilton was featured on the cover of Runner's World a couple of years ago. I thought it would be easy to find a more recent photo, and hundreds of other good shots of female runners.
But as it turns out, the great pictures I remembered were mostly from stories that only appear every four years, during the buildup to the Olympic Games, and from a few memorable Nike ads. Beyond that. the pictures of women I want to find— strong, beautiful, serious athletes—are not so easy to come by.
As I began flipping through a stack of sports magazines I had around the house, I found that the images of women fall into two categories. There are the heroic portraits I've been tearing out. Then there are the more common pictures—sports cuties.
I am fascinated by the gap between these two types of images.
In Shape and other high-circulation "fitness" magazines, a plethora of ads for aerobics tapes and exercise equipment focus on female models with no faces, just body parts. A recurring theme is a leotard-clad rear end. "No Buts About It..." one of these ads quips. A similar ad shows a full page set of buttocks, and below it, a much smaller picture of the owner, dwarfed by her own back-side, and the slogan, "A Small Price To Pay for Perfection...."
Shape is a typical women's magazine, with articles on diets, relationships, and thin thighs. The fitness hype blends right into the rest of the fashion and beauty market. It is tyrannically trivial: exalting physically "perfect" anatomical features over every other human attribute, quirk, and endeavor. Page after page features anonymous bottoms, bellies, and breasts— nary a whole woman to be seen. Spending a lot of time looking at these faceless fragments is a rather weird and alienating experience.
On the other hand, it is a relief to see, here and there among the health and beauty pages, entire women—faces and all—playing sports. Since I was a kid, more and more women have become involved in sports, and women athletes have become more visible.
Running magazines are clearly the best place to find the pictures I want. Running is a uniquely egalitarian sport. Female runners get coverage that is almost as good as men's, and there are women at every level of competition, including professional athletes. It is also a radically individual sport: People of all shapes, sizes, and ages get their pictures taken crossing finish lines—hometown heroes setting new records at local road races, old women and men winning masters' competitions, adults and kids alike celebrating personal triumphs. But that's in the relatively small, hard-core running publications.
As running has gained popularity— pulled along by the yuppie fitness fad— Nike, Reebok, and other companies have been floating ads aimed at women, first for running shoes and now for all kinds of trendy athletic gear in the mainstream magazine world—that sea of body parts and marketing ploys.
In the beginning there were the words: Just Do It, and Nike launched its ad campaign, creating its own images of women, running, jumping, looking tough, cavorting in expensive shoes.
Market research must have shown that women like being treated as whole human beings, because the new ads have caught on, spun off, and developed into a whole new genre with a sophisticated "feminist" appeal. Aimed at affluent, athletic women, they combine hip, conversational ad copy with full frontal photographs of smiling, active women. They promise not just well toned body parts, but health, happiness, attitude, and "lifestyle." Small wonder they're a hit.
Of course, the companies themselves are not nearly so p.c. as the ads. Some— Nike in particular—are major exploiters of their (predominantly female) Third World workers. Their sole purpose in life is not to raise consciousness but to peddle their products, just as other companies peddle nylons, diet pills, and cigarettes.
But the new ads do reflect a significant demographic change in attitude and self image among American women. It's a change that has everything to do with more women playing sports.
Women's Sports and Fitness—a big, glossy magazine aimed specifically at women athletes—is another good indicator of this change. As the official publication of the Women's Sports Foundation (which, among other things, helps fund girls' sports teams and supports female athletes fighting sex discrimination in their schools), Women's Sports and Fitness is a kind of Sports Illustrated for women. It is full of stories about women excelling in sports, matter-of-fact profiles of Olympians and other world-class athletes, and advice for weekend jocks. I was practically bowled over the first time I saw it. Here is a slick magazine full of strong, beautiful women who look like people. No condescending beauty tips, no gratuitous cheesecake pictures. Reading it, you'd think women were a bunch of human beings— better yet, serious athletes. I love it. And so do a lot of other women, apparently. It has a paid circulation of 140,000.
Most of all, I see the change in women's images of themselves on a daily basis among the girls I coach. The other day at practice, some girls on my team were talking about the hard-body heroine of the movie Terminator 2. One of the girls said she watched the movie with her boyfriend, "He said he wouldn't mind having a body like that, but he doesn't find her physically attractive," she said.
"Well, excuse me, but I find her physically awesome," one of the other girls remarked, to noises of assent from her teammates.
I like eavesdropping on these conversations.
Last year, at the beginning of the season, the girl who considers the Terminator woman awesome didn't want to lift weights, for fear she would get too "built."
That was before she became freshman city champion in the half mile. Now she's hooked. She worked hard to earn her varsity letter in cross-country and showed up for pre-season weight-training for track. She and the other runners on the women's team have developed a touching camaraderie over the past couple of years, as well as a kind of jock swagger that has subsumed some of the cloying cuteness a lot of high-school girls cultivate.
Still, the girls who come out for track and other sports at East are far outnumbered by those who do not. (The same is true for boys, but to a lesser degree.) This fact was driven home to me at the beginning of the season, when more than 100 boys showed up for practice, as compared with about thirty girls.
My own experience as an athlete has been so rewarding, and so central to who I am now, that it pains me to think of all the girls in school who might never discover the pride and confidence that come from challenging themselves and excelling in a sport.
Shortly after I moved back to my hometown, I went to see a neighbor of mine compete in a high-school gymnastics meet. I remembered her as a little girl, doing cartwheels and splits on the sidewalk outside her house. While I was away at college, she had grown up into a state-ranked gymnast. Watching her at the meet, surrounded by other girls in ponytails and sweats, warming up, getting nervous, and focusing fiercely as they got ready to compete, brought back a flood of memories. That's when I decided to coach.
It was all there, the way I remembered it, when I first returned to a high-school cross-country meet. Tough girls with French braids from small Wisconsin towns (whose numbers used to include Susie Favor) warming up together, striding side by side in intimidating packs, their nylon pants and jackets rasping as they moved in unison. The smell of Icy-Hot and nervousness. One new girl on my team wept in terror before her race, begged me not to make her do it. She did it. She threw up. She couldn't believe she made it. At the end of the season I gave her the Team Spirit Award because she improved so dramatically, became a cross-country zealot—full of pride in herself and joy— and was her teammates' biggest booster. That feeling of elation, of victory, comes over and over again from testing yourself and surviving the test—kids sprinting their hearts out and throwing themselves across the finish line.
For me it continued into college, where I made some of the best friends of my life among the other runners on the track team—men and women alike. We traveled together, shared hotel rooms, dragged term papers and books with us on the road, pushed each other, and partied afterward.
The guy who lived across the hall from me was also a distance runner. We used to come home and hit the showers on our floor at the same time, gossip, compare workouts, sing duets. One time after a meet he brought a wine cooler with him and we passed it back and forth over the top of the shower stalls. Whatever else anyone says about male bonding, women, and sports, I'm happy to know from being a runner that that kind of camaraderie exists.
The other day in the weight room, one of the shot-putters , who is also on the girls' basketball team, was doing squats. A member of the boys' team came over and demanded to know why girls' basketball hadn't made it to state. He'd been watching the week-long tournament on TV, and he was disappointed when he didn't see East.
"We just didn't make it, okay?" the basketball player said.
It was a completely unsatisfactory response. "Why not?" the boy wanted to know.
"Hey, how come you're so concerned now," one of the other girls on the team chimed in, helping her friend. "Where were you during the rest of the season?"
"I don't know. If you guys would've made it though, I would've like to see it," the boy said.
Maybe next year he will. This was the first year that the girls' tournament got prime-time coverage, and there was an overwhelmingly positive response.
Slowly, over the past several years, Sports Illustrated has begun to recognize the appeal of women' s sports, and to present women as sports heroes, the way it has long presented men. In a recent issue of the magazine, there's a good story on a women's collegiate basketball game between rivals Vanderbilt and Tennessee. The game sold out weeks in advance, according to the article, and generated more attention than any game in the history of women's basketball. Even Vice President Al Gore felts compelled to comment.
On the other hand, the same issue contains a two-page photo spread of the Dallas Cowboys' cheerleaders, prone on a football field, white booties pointing skyward. On another page there's an ad featuring the Budweiser girls.
It's startling how slippery these images of women are. One minute you're a role model, the next you've been disassembled into body parts.
Last year, and old friend from high school came to the indoor city track meet, where I was watching my team. I was lost in the competition, getting nervous before the gun went off, taking times, chewing my nails. Then my friend started talking to me about the girls' bodies as they stood on the starting line. "Don't you think her arms are too big... Her legs look fat...Those girls have great bodies, though. Maybe I should have run track."
In March, Playboy magazine announced that it is recasting its centerfold as athletes. Twenty-two Playmate sports teams will be competing in various exhibition events as part of a campaign to attract new advertisers. "Executives insist that athletic prowess will now be a real factor in selecting future centerfolds." according to an article in the Toronto Star.
"All of this comes at a time when the lines between the worlds of sports and racy entertainment are blurring," the article continues, "Some say the Dallas Cowboys' cheerleaders began the trend, and that the Laker Girls took it to a new level.
"'It's simply a marketing project that happens to have the Playmates as the product,' said Michael O'Hara Lynch [Playboy's vice-president of marketing]. It's really no different than marketing soap..."
So there you have it. No matter how much progress women make toward equal opportunities and accomplishments, someone can always make a buck selling us to men as sex toys.
That Playboy image of women as compliant sex kittens is such a far cry from the experience of being a real, active human being in the world. It's the difference between being a passive, pillow-like object and an engine, hurtling around the track.
You can see it in the way Playboy presents pictures of women in hardhats, military uniforms, or athletic gear, as if these occupations were a kind of titillating drag —buxom bunnies masquerading as real people. The sex appeal and the put-down are intertwined in these images. They are supposed to be funny—like cute pictures of children dressed up as adults, playing up the contrast between the hapless female and a serious, adult occupation.
I knew a woman at Yale who posed as one of Playboy's "Women of the Ivy League." She also happened to be the girlfriend of a runner on the cross-country and track teams. I remember seeing her at a cross-country meet. A groups of us were standing at the finish line, covered with mud from running, cheering as the men's team came in. She came tripping across the grass, looking radically out of place in a fur coat and high heels, sinking into the soft ground, and waited on the sidelines for her boyfriend. I remember feeling sad when I saw her, outside the circle of happy track people, hugging and laughing, filled with shared, post-race euphoria. She could hardly walk, much less run, and she seemed infinitely far away from taking part in that event.
I felt grateful for my muddy shoes and sweat clothes, grateful that I could be there fully and freely participating, not as a kind of crippled ornament standing on the sidelines.
So that's why I'm busy covering the wall with sports pictures and recruiting girls to run track. If I have anything to do with it, when I'm an old woman I'll be running road races with a crowd of other women, young and old, and every single one of us will be awesome.