Tuesday, March 2, 2010

In which my passions for parenting, politics, and cycling all coalesce

I got a Facebook update today from Brooke Miller, a woman I've met several times and have come to admire a great deal. She holds a PhD in Evolutionary Biology from UC Santa Cruz AND a few stars and stripes jerseys as both Road and Crit national champion:

We met several years ago, when I was racing for UC Davis and she for UCSC. My daughter Abbey was pretty taken with her and the rest of the female racers, so whenever Brooke was racing as a pro nearby, I'd usually take Abbey along to say "hi."

Brooke has been a great ambassador for women's cycling, so when she posted about a letter on the Velonews website, I took a look:
I think this is bullshit, so I wrote a response:


In my letter, I failed to admit an additional bias: I want Abbey and Katie to have as many opportunities to compete as their talents allow.  I don't have sons, so perhaps I'm blind to some of the reverse discrimination that Title IX supposedly causes; men's wrestling, tennis, and the like are getting cut on some campuses becasue football creates such a huge disparity of male to female participants. Some athletic departments are forced to favor women's tennis over the men's game in order to offer as many spots to women as they do to men. Title IX, however, promises access, not equality, but some administrators like to use it as a scapegoat to defend their budgetary decisions.

So, I think that media should cover women's sports in order to grow them. One of the only reasons they aren't more popular is a dearth of coverage motivated by an ideology which teaches women not to play sports because they aren't athletic enough. Of course, some anthropologists think a female's slower and weaker physiology (compared to men) is culturally (ideologically)  determined, and that in a truly gender-neutral culture, the women can be just as fast and strong as men.

But, and butt: the ways in which we market or cover female sports is often just as sexist as a total absence of marketing or coverage. I call this the "Liz Hatch Effect":

I know that Liz is a looker. She conforms very closely to one of the new standards beauty found in our culture. And I think that glorifying a healthy, athletic body type is much better for young women than trying to emulate the "America's Next Top Model" ideal. And, I'll admit, I like to look at bodies. I'm not a prude. There's nothing "immoral" about Liz's willingness or ability to create these kinds of images. She's marketing herself and her sport. She's empowering herself by taking ownership of a thing about herself that others would like to exploit. That's a good thing, Right? But why is Liz so much more known and admired by male cycling fans?  Why do we pay more attention to women who pose for provocative pictures than we do to women who kick ass and win races without baring their bodies outside the competitive arena? Why is the hot tennis player more famous than the average-looking one? When I see images culled from the Cycle Passions calendar pasted next to exploitative motorcycle posters on the walls of bike shop service areas, I start to ask myself if maybe we haven't lost the plot. 

So, yeah. I think a woman on a bike is the sexiest thing there is. I love watching women race, and a small part of my enjoyment stems from how they look in spandex. But a wise young woman I used to know once taught me that while third-wave feminism offers women ownership of their own sexuality, it certainly doesn't demand that they sell it.

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