You know he’s a national hero, but what did he add to the national conversation? As he became a hero Canadians were inspired by Terry Fox in ways you might not expect.
Come see me talk at the Toronto Public Library at part of the History Matters lecture series. Danforth-Coxwell Branch, May 27, evening. More details soon.
After reading hundreds of letters written to Terry’s family, Douglas Coupland wrote, “I thought that after I’d spent a few hours of sifting I’d become immune to the sentiments expressed inside them, but no, I never did and I doubt I ever will.”
I also find this to be true. There is a wealth of love and affection in commentary on Terry Fox that I haven’t encountered in previous archival work. There are, however, also curiosities. In the past I’ve found songs, scrap books, and elaborate plans for fundraisers sent to the government in memory of Terry Fox. The newspaper research is likewise yielding oddities at every turn. This morning’s find is from from The Globe and Mail, October 24, 1980, page 10:
A Kitchener man who pleaded guilty to causing a distrubance at a McDonald’s restaurant was ordered to make $200 restitution to the Terry Fox Marathon of Hope in the name of McDonald’s. Provincial Judge Robert Reilly gave R– M–, 21, a conditional discharge, noting that he had no previous record and was under the influence of liquor when he caused the disturbance.
Terry Fox’s Marathon of Hope had officially ended more than a month earlier, but his efforts were still very much on the minds of Canadians in the Fall of 1980. I want to know if it was Judge Robert Reilly or McDonald’s that came up with the plan for a donation to the Marathon of Hope? Is this really legal? I suspect the judge’s decision had something to do with the fact that the convicted man and Fox were close to the same age. Based on other newspaper coverage, I can imagine a stern lecture on hard work, “youth today” and perseverance. Fox was seen as a role model at a time characterized, according to another Globe and Mail editorial, by a “dreary degree of selfishness, nit-picking and meanness observable on so many levels.” For many English-Canadians, Fox was an inspirational story during a crisis in national unity.
Tomorrow afternoon I’m speaking at the Canadian Obesity Student Meeting (COSM) in Waterloo, Ontario. My talk, “Historical Perspectives on Obesity Stigma” examines how the problems that we associate with obesity have shifted over time, from religious (sin) to moral (poor character) to health issues. Obesity’s history means that, when we try to engage the public in a conversation about weight and health, we’re working against a deeply ingrained cultural belief that what you see on the outside is a reflection of who someone is on the inside. Looking at this cultural history, I believe, helps us to better understand the depth of obesity stigma in the contemporary context. People experience their health, fat or thin, not with discreet dividing lines between medical and social settings, but immersed in a culture that is fascinated with better managing the body.
When: 4:00pm on June 18, 2014
Where: In the Lecture Hall at St. Paul’s University, University of Waterloo
Who: The talk is intended for graduate students in the health sciences, so my focus will be on how historical literature on obesity helps us to think about contemporary clinical health practices. But, everyone welcome.
Why: Because social scientists and scientists should talk to each other!
Check out the full program, including lots of panels on obesity stigma.
Click on over to Fit is a Feminist Issue (FIFI) and read my guest post on fitness fashion. I argue that finding cute fitness clothing is a feminist act. Yes, really.
FIFI is a blog started by two feminists and philosophers, Tracy and Samantha. It started a site for them to reflect on the implications of their fitness goal, which is to be in the best shape of their lives when they turn 50. But it also asks what it means to be fit and how this goal relates (or doesn’t) to women’s liberation.
The findings of a research study can often be distilled to an amazing headline. And when that research is on a popular health topic like superfoods or cancer research, it can draw a lot of interest. But popular health reporting has drawn critiques from academics for presenting individual studies out of context, misleading and confusing the public about what is and isn’t healthy. Blaming the media isn’t really my game, since health consumers are also complicit in this game of seeking out new and (sometimes) untested solutions, like cleanses, for old problems, like feeling fat. I do, however, feel compelled to comment on the historical dimensions of a story that appeared yesterday on CBC outlets about the potential for long-term weight loss, “Obesity Research Confirms Long-Term Weight-Loss Almost Impossible”:
Obesity research confirms long-term weight loss almost impossible http://t.co/KDQaBeMBj6
— CBC Health News (@CBCHealth) June 4, 2014
Medical Science Reporter Kelly Crowe explains new research suggests long-term weight loss is statistically unlikely. Only 5 to 10 % of people who try to lose weight will ultimately succeed. Crowe writes that “[o]ur biology taunts us, by making short-term weight loss fairly easy. But the weight creeps back, usually after about a year, and it keeps coming back until the original weight is regained or worse.” While the tone of this bothers me (“worse” makes it sound like being fat is a huge threat), Crowe goes on to quote the author of the study, Traci Mann of the University of Minnesota, who explains that it is possible to be obese and healthy. “You should still eat right, you should still exercise, doing healthy stuff is still healthy…it just doesn’t make you thin,” explains Mann. The story also hints that this is a bit of an open secret among obesity researchers who either don’t accept or refuse to acknowledge this data. So, other than the fact that the story is accompanied by a “headless fatty” image and makes being fat seem like a horrible fate, this article is a bit of a win for health at every size believers. It reminds people that health isn’t determined by weight, and also, kind of, sort of, calls out obesity scientists for their denial of the numerous studies suggesting long-term weight-loss is difficult and unlikely.
But, but, but…this data about the ineffectiveness of dieting has been around since the early 1970s. Fat Power: Whatever You Weight is Right (1970) by Llewellyn Louderback, is the first book to provide an overview of medical research on the question of fat and health. Arguing that fat people are socially and economically discriminated against in the United States, Louderback expressed disdain for medical professionals. “Advising a fat person to see his physician,” he claimed, was akin to “telling a mouse to go see a cat.” Louderback’s frustration stemmed from his own failed attempts at weight loss. Despite the polemical tone, Fat Power is based on a comprehensive analysis of medical studies up to 1960 that showed that long-term weight loss is unlikely and also that dieting was itself unhealthy and could contribute to malnutrition, further weight gain and heart damage. His point, of course, was that social and cultural distaste for fatness had influenced medical approaches to fatness, and scientists were irrationally tenacious in their pursuit of a “cure” for obesity. Sounds familiar, right?
Canadian researchers Janet Polivy and Peter Herman, of the University of Toronto, also published a pioneering study on the limitations of dieting. Breaking the Diet Habit (1983) suggests that weight-loss programs are ineffective and may contribute to many of the long term health problems attributed to obesity. Dieting, Polivy and Herman’s research showed, could lead to complications such as gallstones, low blood pressure, muscular aching, abdominal pain, kidney stones, anaemia, headache, cardiac problems and depression. Where Polivy and Herman departed from earlier research was in their claim that “stable, lifelong overweight is probably the natural and optimally healthy state for many people.”
More recent research, which I’ve talked about on this blog and this one, has also called into question the relationship between obesity and health. In short, this research has been out there for over forty years. So, why do we think it is “new” and exciting that another study has called the effectiveness of dieting into question? Part of the reason is surely a combination of cultural amnesia and the unbelievable volume of available information on dieting and obesity. But my research suggests it is more than this. People don’t want to give up on the dream of being thin, and they don’t want to let go of their belief that being fat is a moral or personal failing. So much of our culture’s approach to the body is grounded in the belief that health is visible, i.e. that you can see what wellness looks like from the outside. Calling this into question is scary because it challenges our reasons for eating well and exercising. It also undermines numerous scientific research programs and the health and beauty industries that are built on the assumption that if we all eat right and commit to exercise, slenderness will follow. But we can’t, as a society, seem to get it right and tend to blame individuals for their “failure” to lose weight.
I’m not a conspiracy theorist, nor am I a health scientist, I’m someone who has studied the impact of obesity stigma and the persistent dream of slenderness on Canadian women. My research speaks to the social and cultural experience of fatness, to the impact of the long-standing tension between the goal of being thin and the lack of concrete scientific information about how to achieve a slender body. If health is really the goal, then Crowe’s article and Mann’s study, show that we need to continue to push to detach the concept of wellness from personal appearance. I’m gratified there is another study by an established scholar that complicates our understanding between diet-exercise-weight-health and frustrated/optimistic about the possibilities for a shift in popular perception of this issue.
I wrote a post over at ActiveHistory.ca about feminism and technology at the Berkshire Conference of Women’s Historians.
The Berks starts this week and, as part of my work for the media committee, I felt compelled to think a little bit about the history of feminism and technology. Feminists have sometimes felt uneasy about technology, but have found lots of creative ways to harness various forms of “technoscience” in their activism.
There are lots of digital/technical/scientific things happening at the Berks. If you’re going (or thinking about it) check out this information on the Digital Lab and the Wikipedia Hack-a-thon.
And, if you’re interested in technology/digital/social media, join me at the Twitterstorians meet-up Thursday night. Details here.
After the conference I’ll return to Fifteen for XV with a post on sports feminism and the Canadian government.
Fifteen for 15 #7
Silken Laumann’s was the first name I wrote down for Fifteen for 15. She stands out to me because of her physicality and the way it has been used by advertisers, which I’ll talk about below. Her tenacious comeback from injury to win a bronze at the Barcelona Olympic games is also very memorable. Because I’ve studied Laumann and I remember her career so well, I jumped at the opportunity to read her new book, Unsinkable: My Untold Story when HarperCollins offered to send me a promotional copy.* The book is often surprising and very personal. Reading the book hasn’t changed my reason for putting Laumann on my Fifteen for 15 list, but is has challenged me to revisit my thinking on athletes’ bodies and their status as role models.
I try always to refer to female athletes by their last names. As all Intro to Women’s Studies students learn, professional and high-profile women are often called by their first names. This linguistic pattern reflects our society’s tendency to diminish women’s power and authority. And yet I find myself wanting to refer to Laumann as “Silken” because she seems so approachable. I know that, like many great female athletes, Laumann’s approachability is only one part of a more complex story of discipline and determination, but even then…
The Coles notes are this: Laumann competed in four Olympic Games (1988-1996) for the Canadian Rowing Team and medalled in Los Angeles (double sculls), Barcelona (single sculls) and Atlanta (single sculls). She was also World Champion in 1991 and medalled in numerous other international events. Many Canadians will remember Laumann best for the 1992 Olympic Games when within only a few months she recovered from a horrific accident that shredded her lower-leg to win a bronze medal. They may also remember an embarrassing incident where she was stripped of a Pan American Games medal after taking Benadryl, which contained pseudoephedrine, a banned substance at the time. If you’ve encountered Silken Laumann more recently it is likely in her role as motivational speaker and life coach.
Laumann is memorable to me because of her advertising campaigns for Subaru and IBM from the 1990s. Studying these ads, what stands out is that they are different from earlier representations of female athletes. Ads from before 1990 tended to really (really, really) feminize athletes, picturing them with vases of flowers and emphasizing that they had soft skin (1970s) or were skilled with housework (1950s). By comparison, Laumann’s Subaru campaign was very gender neutral, depicting her in a power suit standing in front of a car. Likewise, in her IBM ads she wore her rowing uniform, as opposed to in everyday clothing, which is rarely the case for ads prior to 1990. These images are different, even, from those of her contemporaries Marnie McBean and Kathleen Heddle, who were depicted wearing crisp white shirts, in close-up, and heavily made up (in one memorable example).
So, part of Laumann’s significance to women’s sport lies in her very powerful public image and muscular form. Visually, her ads point to a change in in the way we view female athletes, in that she looks more like herself in advertising campaigns than do athletes of earlier generations. My sense is that representations of Laumann are not anomalous, but she doesn’t represent a complete cultural shift in the way we visualize female athletes, either. She did pave the way for women like Catriona Le May Doan and Clara Hughes whose physicality has also been prominent in their campaigns for Cheerios and Bell.
One of the reasons Laumann’s physicality interests me is because she has made candid comments about the way sport has shaped her body. Though I had to look back at my notes to get the quote, I remember being struck by Laumann’s comments to a Toronto Sun reporter in 1993. When asked about her body, she replied: “when I started becoming muscular as a rower, I really had a problem with it. In the beginning, I thought, ‘Oh this is ugly.’”** Talking about her perception of herself as an adult, Laumann said in another interview, “I love being strong…it’s a feeling of power, the feeling of being strong and looking strong is so great.”*** I like the candor of these quotes because they capture the way that our feelings about our bodies can shift, over time, and sometimes in the same day.
Unsinkable is a surprising read. Laumann has a much darker past than I imagined. She had and has a complicated relationship with her mother, who was verbally abusive to “Little Silken” who feared bringing friends home from school and, at times, believed she might come to physical harm. Laumann also speaks candidly about her ongoing struggles with body image and mental health, as well as her divorce and current family relationships. I’m not sure why these parts of Laumann’s story surprised me. Athletes are only human, after all. And yet, Laumann’s candor was unexpected. I thought, perhaps, the book would be written more along the lines of a self-help tome (though there is a fair share of talk about “her journey”). Or, perhaps that it would offer greater detail on her sporting accomplishments (it has that for sports bio junkies, you know who you are). But mostly the book is surprising because it frames Laumann’s successes by talking about the not-so-great moments when she wasn’t as inspirational, perfect, or even as normal, as she might seem. I won’t give everything away, but I was left with a feeling that I know “Silken” and also that she is a lot more like the rest of us than we might think. She’s working on it and this process is her new brand: life coach, writer, mom and human.
A question the book raised that I am still trying to answer is: why do athletes become our models for health and well-being? Why did I assume Silken Laumann was such a super-human that she wouldn’t struggle with food or body image like so many women? Athletes are required to be disciplined, they endure so much pressure, that they seem like they can manage any kind of mental stress. Certainly this is why Laumann and so many athletes turn to successful careers as motivational speakers. This perceived perfection must also relate to the bodies of athletes, because they seem to have so much power and control over their physicality. It is an interesting turn of events, then, to see Laumann and Clara Hughes talk publicly about mental health and depression. In doing so both women are helping to change the conversation about these topics, and perhaps also our perception of what it means to be successful. There is a gender dimension here, for sure, in that in Canada it is the high-profile women coming out with their experiences. It also seems that many of those athletes who do speak publicly about depression do so only after they’ve retired from competition (Hughes being an exception, she competed in 2012 after joining the “Let’s Talk” campaign).
I am curious to see how this link between mental health-public advocacy and sport plays out. I hope it matters to people and I hope it makes a difference that athletes are choosing to share their stories. Reading this book I realized that I had an overly simplistic view of Laumann and I’m still finding it hard to grapple with how this personal information informs my “academic” view of the rower. The book is a reminder that the “afterlife” of famous athletes can really shift how we understand what they accomplished during their careers. My reasoning for putting Laumann on my list hasn’t changed, and neither has my understanding of those advertising images from the 1990s. But, I think the book does shift how I, and others, will read future representations of Silken Laumann.
*Note: I was contacted by a HarperCollins publicist and asked to review Unsinkable. I accepted the book because no conditions were placed on what I decided post.
**Moore, Micki, “Smooth as Silken,” The Toronto Sun, 7 February 1993, 18.
***Olver, Bob, “Silken Steel,” The Toronto Sun, 13 July 1991, 48.
Fifteen for 15 #6
This morning Hayley Wickenheiser will carry the Canadian flag into Fisht Stadium in the opening ceremonies of the 2014 Olympic Games. My first thought on hearing Wickenheiser was going to be flag bearer was, great choice! My second thought was, she’s competing in another Olympics? Hayley Wickenheiser has been a member of the Canadian Women’s National hockey team since 1994. She first competed in the Olympic Games in 1998 (Nagano), where the team won silver. Since then the Canadian women have won three consecutive gold medals in 2002 (Salt Lake City), 2006 (Turin) and 2010 (Vancouver). These accomplishments, and her numerous accolades, are detailed on her website.
Wickenheiser has rightfully been credited with contributing to the growth of women’s hockey in Canada, at the elite and recreational level. 1998 was the first year women’s hockey was an official sport in the Games, and now we have a generation of young women who have grown up watching our team compete, and dominate, at an international level. This is unquestionably a good thing for the sport and for players who, as Wickenheiser demonstrates, are can play elite hockey for longer, and on a bigger stage, than ever before.
I’ll be watching coverage of the opening ceremonies, and profiles of Wickenheiser closely over the course of the games. She is unquestionably one of the most accomplished, toughest, and unapologetic female athletes in Canadian history. Her representation in the media and ads follows a trend I’ve observed since the early-2000s, which is that female athletes are increasingly presented in more complex and less cloyingly feminine/heterosexual terms than their predecessors. As I’ve written before, in the past ads and news coverage has tended to focus on what else an athlete can do. For example, “XX” is an athlete, and also a wife! “XX” is incredibly skilled, but her kids come first! “XX” competes like a man, but looks like a woman! There is nothing wrong with looking or acting feminine, however, my research suggests that this focus on what else female athletes can do is about trying to reconcile or make people comfortable with their perceived gender non-conformity.
And yet, in the last five to ten years we’ve seen some important changes in the way female athletes are presented to the media. In advertisements and promotional shots they flaunt their muscles. Wickenheiser certainly does this in several images on her website. And, the women’s hockey team, as an example, gets taken very seriously by sports commentators who have documented developments on the team, roster and coaching changes in great detail in the lead up to the games. Tensions remain, however, about what female athletes can and should do. The hilarious controversy over the Canadian women’s hockey team’s celebration, with cigars and booze, at the 2010 games being one notable example.
On the ice, all that should matter is the game. Wickenheiser and her teammates are players first and their femininity and life choices don’t matter. Off the ice, female athletes need not be apologetic for their sexuality or their self-presentation. The challenge is to find ways to talk to, and about, athletes without reducing them to one thing, as historically a lot of sports coverage has done. My hope is to see complex portrayals of Wickenheiser that depict her as a competitor, an Olympic veteran, a mom, and possibly a future physician. It is all of these things, plus, you know, talent and years of training, that make Hayley Wickenheiser an important figure in women’s sport.
Fifteen for Section 15 #5
With a winning average of 95 percent, The Edmonton Commercial Graduates Basketball Club, “The Grads,” are among the most successful teams in sport history.
Basketball was a relatively new sport for girls when the Grads formed in 1915. Unlike gymnastics and military drill, which were usually offered to school-aged girls, basketball was a fast paced, competitive, team sport. The game was growing rapidly in North America around this time with girls clubs and leagues forming in many major cities. Basketball was an ideal sport for working class women who could not afford to join the more elite curling, golf and tennis clubs of Edmonton. The team practiced two evenings a week at local school gymnasiums and on a military base. Members of the Grads were, primarily, graduates of McDougall Commercial High School in Edmonton, Alberta. As a “commercial” school, McDougall offered students vocational training. The Grads were mostly white working-class women from Edmonton’s “north side,” who were employed as secretaries and stenographers in local businesses. Most players came to practice and games after finishing work for the day. They had to request time off to travel to tournaments, though many local businesses felt it was desirable to have a Grad on staff, and offered team members flexibility to travel.
During the Grad’s heyday, physical educators were divided about whether girl’s basketball should have separate rules from the boy’s game. Middle class female educators with specialized training tended to prefer the “girl’s rules” that were standardized in 1899. In the girl’s game, players were restricted to either half or one-third of the court and physical contact was discouraged so as to prevent undue demands on players’ vitality. Many female physical educators also wanted to discourage competition among girls, stressing “play for play’s sake” instead of the commercially oriented games and tournaments more common to men’s leagues. Girl’s rules were most common in Eastern Canada and the United States, where university educated, female professionals, acted as coaches to young women. In the western parts of the continent, including Alberta, there were fewer trained female physical educators and so male coaches, who lacked specialized training, worked with female players. Grads coach J. Percy Page initially trained his team using girl’s rules, but switched to boy’s rules in 1923 so that his team could play against competitors from the western United States. To counter local critics who felt the men’s game was too vigorous for women, Page had players get clearance from a medical doctor. When pressed on the safety of girl’s playing by men’s rules, Page would tell reporters that many former Grads had healthy babies.
Between 1923 and 1940, the Grads held, at different times, the titles of provincial, national and world champions. This success is particularly striking given the economic uncertainty and high unemployment rates of the 1930s. Despite these limitations, not to mention the cost and slow speed of travel in this era, the Grads attracted numerous Canadian and American teams to play in Edmonton. These tournaments attracted large audiences. On more than one occasion the city’s phone lines crashed due to the volume of calls to a local “hotline” reporting their game scores. Also remarkable is the extent to which the Grads travelled in North America and Europe. While Basketball was not an Olympic sport, the team twice competed in Europe at the “women’s games” organized by the Federation sportives féminine internationale. The team also played demonstration basketball at the 1932 Olympic Games in Los Angeles, and were recognized as part of the Canadian Olympic delegation in 1936 in Berlin.
The Grads officially disbanded around 1940, mostly due to World War II. The team’s training spaces were needed for members of the military. Most Grad team members went on to excel in other sports, including baseball, golf, curling and bowling. The Grad’s reunited frequently both before and after Coach Page’s death in 1973. Eventually, the team even established a newsletter and appointed an archivist whose job it was to respond to media requests and keep track of Grads documents. Their legacy is documented in The Grads are Playing Tonight!” by M. Ann Hall, which I have reviewed for a forthcoming issue of the Sociology of Sports Journal.
Women’s sport generated a lot of excitement – among players and fans – during the 1930s. This era is sometimes known as the “Golden Age” of women’s sport in Canada. I’m wary of declaring era better than another, because we know that girls and women have been seeking out opportunities to play for many decades. Still, the Grads are particularly noteworthy for their dedication to the game and popularity.
I’m volunteering with the media committee of the Berkshire Conference of Women Historians, which is being held in Canada for the first time from 22-25 May. The “Big Berks” brings together scholars from different fields interested in the history of women, studies of gender, sexuality, bodies, colonialism and feminist theory. Anyway, this, plus a few new projects are the reason I’m just getting back to Fifteen for XV this week.
Among the cool features of the conference will be a screening and talk with Sarah Polley about her fantastic documentary Stories We Tell. The film documents Polley’s exploration of her life history, and it speaks to the contradictions that emerge from studying personal experience.
I’m also excited for “Teacher’s Day,” a series of talks on using gender (past and present) in the classroom.