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Clara Hughes: Changing the Conversation About Sport and Health

November 27, 2013   

Fifteen for Section 15 #4

What makes a great athlete? For me, it is someone who is accomplished but who has also shaped or changed the cultural conversation in some way. In his book Celebrity: Fame in Contemporary Culture, David Marshall likens the place of the “celebrity” in contemporary culture to Roland Barthes’ conception of the “sign”. Marshall argues, “like the sign, the celebrity represents something other than itself” (56). Celebrities, or for the purposes of this post, let’s say celebrated athletes, are those in who have some kind of cultural currency.

Clara Hughes is one of only four athletes to win multiple medals in both the summer and winter Olympics. Hughes won two bronze medals for cycling in the 1996 Olympic games, then switched to speed skating, winning a bronze medal in the 2002 5000 metre race, a gold and a bronze in speed skating in 2006 and another bronze in 2010. In what was (apparently) her final Olympic race, cycling in the 2012 London games, Hughes placed fifth, close, but 32 seconds away from a medal.

In 2011 Hughes made an unprecedented move in her personal life, becoming spokesperson for the “Let’s Talk,” a Canadian mental health awareness campaign. Hughes has appeared in ads for “Let’s Talk” and spoken to the media in-depth about her experiences with depression. In 2014, she is doing a cross-Canada bike tour to raise money for the campaign and to raise awareness of mental health issues. Hughes also does outreach with other organizations, including Right to Play, and has had other sponsorships.

Depression, and mental health in general, are perceived (by some) as weaknesses and can be a taboo topic for discussion. Talking about depression, as the campaign’s title suggests, is a way to de-stigmatize mental health issues. Joining “Let’s Talk” is much more impactful than typical athlete outreach or sponsorships. It is a pun-y thing to say, but Hughes really changed the conversation about her career, and also about mental health. She is proof that physical strength doesn’t preclude mental challenges. And at the same time she offers a face, maybe a coping model, maybe hope, to Canadians experiencing mental health issues.

And Hughes makes me think of David Marshall’s book because she has done something that other celebrities don’t often or can’t do: radically transform how we know her in a short period of time. This ups Hughes’ cultural currency because she has made her legacy about more than her titles and records. And yes, this is a campaign sponsored by a media corporation, so Hughes benefits even as she gives back. Still, it seems to me that Clara Hughes could have traded on her accomplishments or her beauty in the search for sponsorship, but instead she has chosen a more complicated path.

Barbara Ann Scott: No Fragile Mamet

November 18, 2013   

Fifteen for Section 15, #3

Written accounts of Barbara Ann Scott, the 1947 and 1948 European and World Champion women’s figure skater, and 1948 Olympic gold medalist, offered exhausting descriptions of her appearance. A 1948 Time magazine attempt extended to a paragraph:

Barbara Ann, with a peaches-and-cream complexion, saucer-size blue eyes and a rosebud mouth, is certainly pretty enough. Her light brown hair falls pageboy style on her shoulders. She weighs a trim, girlish 107 lbs., she is neither as full-bosomed as a Hollywood starlet nor as wide-hipped as most skaters. She looks, in fact, like a doll which is to be looked at but not touched. But Barbara Ann is no fragile mamet. She is the woman’s figure skating champion of the world (2 February 1948, p. 35).

The Barbara Ann Scott doll, from www.civilization.ca

Scott retired from amateur skating and turned professional in the early 1950’s. She became the headliner of North America’s largest ice skating show the Hollywood Ice Revue in 1952. In addition to the estimated $100,000 she earned each year from professional skating, she held endorsement deals with Canada Dry, Community Silverplate and Timex. Eaton’s also produced a Barbara Ann Scott doll well into the 1950s. Scott donated at least some of her earnings to a charity she founded, and in her spare time she was a pilot and an accomplished golfer. She married in 1955, but had no children. She raised horses for the rest of her life, and appeared from time to time at public events, including as an Olympic torch-bearer for the 1988 and 2010 games. Barbara Ann Scott died in 2012, at the age of 84.

I’ve always loved Barbara Ann for her seeming contradictions. Scott’s public image, as a pretty teenager, belied the more complicated and impressive reality of her life. Her success is a reminder of the different roles female athletes negotiate in their work as competitors and entrepreneurs-mothers–spokespeople. Scott’s appearance really lent itself to advertisers’ vision of femininity in the 1950s but her life story is a reminder that there is always much more beneath the surface of an athlete than her public image. But, Barbara Ann Scott makes my Fifteen for Section 15 list because of her success. She is the only Canadian singles skater to win gold at the Olympic games, she was a three time winner of the Lou Marsh Trophy (1945, 1947, 1948), a two-time World Champion, successful professional skater, entrepreneur, philanthropist, pilot and icon.

The Runners (1907): Leaky Hegemony

November 5, 2013   

Fifteen for Section 15, #2

Three women running a race, Toronto Island. - [1907?]

The City of Toronto has many great archival images of sport, but this one of women running on Toronto Island c. 1907 is my favourite. I love it because of the juxtaposition of the runners’ clothing with their facial expressions. The runners’ determination is clear from the strain on the faces. These women are going all out, skirts, stocking feet and cinched waists be damned.

Another reason I love this image is that it challenges our perceptions of female athletes in history. One truism often repeated in stories about female athletes is that women’s sport has finally arrived. Today, as compared to in the past, women can pursue sport without fear of social sanction or lost femininity. While it is true that female athletes had fewer opportunities to play in the past, this narrative makes it seem as though women discovered sport in the last thirty years. This just isn’t true, and this image of runners from 1907 is evidence that women have always been fierce competitors, even if their athleticism or activities don’t look the same as they do today.

Historian M. Ann Hall argues that “the history of women in sport is a history of cultural resistance…the very presence of women in the male preserve of sport is evidence of ‘leaky hegemony.’” Recognizing “leaks” in the system, women have sought out opportunities to participate in sport, pushed to form their own teams and leagues, asked for physical culture programs in school, embraced riding bicycles and (numerous other new sports), and so on. So it isn’t that times have changed and it is now okay for women to be athletic. Rather, generations of female athletes have pushed at the boundaries of sport and carved out the spaces that women and fans enjoy today.

On my Fifteen for Section 15 list, “The Runners” represent the unheralded and invisible work of Canadian female athletes of the past.

Fifteen for Section 15 (& Nine for IX)

October 25, 2013   

This summer ESPN released nine documentaries about women’s sport, in honour of the thirtieth anniversary of Title IX. Title IX is a section of the Education Amendments Act (USA, 1972) that requires federally funded schools to provide equal opportunities to girls and boys. Applied to sport, this provision has resulted in increased opportunities and funding for girls and women. Nine for IX focuses exclusively on female athletes and issues in women’s sport, including branding, objectification, female journalists in the locker room and the intersection of sport/politics. I like these documentaries because women’s voices and experiences are central to the narrative. Watching Nine for IX got me thinking about Canadian female athletes, and the pioneers, issues, and victories that have defined women’s sport in this country.

Section 15 of the Charter of Rights and Freedoms (kind of) offers Canadian women similar protections to Title IX. Known as the “equality provision” Section 15 states “every individual is equal before and under the law.” Canadian feminists have used this provision to challenge polices that excluded girls from playing on the same sports teams as boys. In honour of Section 15, I’m compiling a list of women and events that have shaped the history of sport in this country. In the next few months I’ll share fifteen of theses stories and my (highly subjective) take on why they matter.

First:

I. Justine Blainey

Blainey_CourtCaseJustine Blainey won a spot in the Metro Toronto Hockey League in 1981, but league regulations prohibited girls from playing and she didn’t get to stay on the team. This was legal at the time. In 1985-6 Blainey successfully challenged section 19(2) of the Ontario Human Rights Code that excluded girls/women from playing on boy’s/men’s sports teams. Section 19(2) was struck down because it contravened Section 15 of the Charter of Rights and Freedoms. Blainey’s “test case” effectively made it illegal for amateur sports teams to discriminate on the basis of gender. After five years and a legal battle supported by L.E.A.F. and CAAWS, Blainey won the right to play on a boys team. This set a legal precedent and Canadian girls and women are now allowed to join boys/men’s teams.

The question of whether elite girls/women should play with boys has been divisive for sports feminists. Some feel that gender segregated teams will foster a stronger sporting culture among girls and women. Letting girls play with boys, by comparison, will stunt the growth of girls/women’s sport in Canada. Others feel it is better to let girls play with the “best,” regardless of gender. The real victory, in my opinion, is that Blainey’s case has established that “equality” for girls and women can include both access to boys’ teams and to separate girls’ teams. Skill, rather than gender, should determine where women compete.

Last year the CBC interviewed Blainey on the occasion of the thirtieth anniversary of The Charter.

The Halton District School Board has a learning resource on Blainey for elementary students that can be found here.

And, hey, if you live near Brampton and need a chiropractor, why not hire Justine Blainey?

Canadian Bulletin of Medical History, Issue 30.1

June 17, 2013   

An image from one of my projects is featured on the cover of the current issue of the Canadian Bulletin of Medical History (30.1). It is an illustration by Dr. Ingrid Laue who was the editor of “The Bolster, ” the newsletter of Vancouver fat acceptance organization Large as Life (LAL). LAL was active in Vancouver between c. 1981-1985. The group organized fitness classes, swimming nights and fashion shows for fat women only. About 120 women were members over the years, and “The Bolster” had 500 subscribers.

Bolster Cover March 1983

Laue used clip art to put together this cover. What makes it special is that the two foremost figures, the woman in black and the golfer, have been enlarged by hand. Laue wanted the images to reflect women who were actually “ample.” Since it was not easy to find clip-art of large women she instead added to the images herself.

The desire to enlarge clip-art to make bodies larger is indicative of the erasure of images of fat women in contemporary culture. Fat bodies aren’t a part of the stock images stored, photocopied, cut and pasted into documents to illustrate fashion, parenthood, childhood and work. Large-sized clothing is rarely stored in archives, displayed or studied by fashion historians. And, beyond greeting cards and post cards poking fun at fat people, it is still rare to see large bodies displayed as art in contemporary society.

Laue’s images also help us to see that women respond to images of beauty and health in unexpected ways. Rather than use an image of a smaller woman or no images at all, she chose to enlarge and sketch images herself. This, to me, is a modest example of the ways that women talk back to popular culture and body norms. Laue and other members of LAL were not willing to accept the erasure of fat women from popular culture and so they chose to create images of women, as well as social sites and services (aerobics and dance classes, clothing swaps), for fat women.

When we talk about popular culture, in this case I’m talking about the media, beauty and fashion industries, we tend to assume that women are the victims of the monolithic and uncreative images of femininity presented in mass media. But Laue’s images are a reminder of the creative responses women have to culture. And, they are also a reminder of women’s desire to expand our culture’s understanding of beauty to include different shapes and sizes.

Why I’m not surprised by the Geoffrey Miller Twitter controversy

June 3, 2013   

Earlier this week Geoffrey Miller, a Stanford-educated NYU lecturer with a permanent appointment at the University of New Mexico, tweeted the following:

“Dear obese PhD applicants: if you didn’t have the willpower to stop eating carbs, you won’t have the willpower to do a dissertation #truth”

Miller subsequently deleted the tweet, apologized, and has since said it was part of a research project. His actions caught the attention of Jezebel and media commentator Jay Rosen who rightly criticized Miller for “fat shaming.”

Fat shaming is a relatively new way of describing the longstanding social stigma attached to being overweight. In the 1960s and 1970s some activists referred to this as fat oppression, and more recently health studies scholars have referred to it as obesity stigma. What these terms are describing is the assumption that fatness is an indicator that a person is weak, lacks willpower, has a poor knowledge of nutrition and is undisciplined.

I’m not surprised by Miller’s tweet because fat shaming has been a part of our (Canadian/American and “Western”) body culture for hundreds of years, if not longer. It is a reflection of the our deep-rooted belief in “mind over matter,” i.e. that a rational person should be able to control their bodies and their will. Slenderness, conversely, is taken as a sign of discipline and self-control. These broad generalizations about fat/thin are reflected in media representations, diet culture, and public policies which seek to curb the so-called “obesity epidemic.”

More than this, though, I’m not surprised by Miller’s tweet because there is plenty of evidence that weight has been used as criteria for admission to universities in the last forty years. I conducted interviews with fat activists in Canada, two of whom were told they needed to lose weight in order to get into nursing school (c. 1970s). Bill Fabrey, the founder of the National Association to Advance Fat Acceptance, has said that he started the organization, in part, when he discovered his girlfriend was rejected by Cornell University based on her weight (c. 1960s). More recently (c. 1990s), research has suggested that obese people are less likely to be accepted to elite colleges and universities.

Universities are just one social institution among many – gyms, health clinics, bars, clothing stores – where fat people may face shaming and stigma. Regardless of whether or not it is an experiment, Miller’s tweet reveals the #truth about our fat phobic culture. Concern about obesity is currently couched in terms of the health of larger people, but it is also often about aesthetic and moral disapprobation of larger bodies.

Ethics of “Obesity Epidemic” to be Examined at International Workshop

October 12, 2012   

A group of 20 international experts on obesity will gather in Kitchener-Waterloo on the weekend of October 20-21, to share insights into the social and cultural dimensions of obesity in Canada. Attendees will reflect on the ethical and equity issues that arise in the treatment of people deemed obese.

“As the obesity epidemic and critical responses to it reach the 10-year mark, this planning meeting brings together scholars whose work expands upon and complicates understanding of fatness and the obesity epidemic in the Canadian context,” says Wendy Mitchinson, Canada Research Chair in Gender and Medical History at the University of Waterloo and co-organizer of the conference.

One participant, Michael Gard of Australia’s Southern Cross University, examines Canadian weight statistics during the last thirty years, and questions whether the rhetoric of “crisis” is warranted at all given the recent plateau in obesity rates.

Other experts will examine obesity stigma, a problem that may deter people from seeking medical care, and isolate them in social situations. Obesity stigma is defined as the negative treatment and discrimination experienced by people who are considered “fat”. Other visiting scholars include:

• Charlene Elliott (University of Calgary) who asks who is “responsible” for childhood obesity, and considers the implications of government programs aimed at youth.

• Deborah McPhail (University of Manitoba) looks at obesity stigma in working class and poor populations, specifically in rural areas

• Gerry Kasten (Public Health Dietician) and Lawrence Mroz (University of British Columbia) who focus on eating and body management practices in gay male communities.

• Jenny Ellison (Mount Allison University) who will talk about critical responses to obesity stigma by Canadian and American “fat activists.”

As well as critical perspectives, participants will hear innovative suggestions from scholars like LeAnne Petherick (University of Manitoba) and Natalie Beausoleil (Memorial University of Newfoundland), who explore new modes for obesity education that would promote self-esteem and healthy body image in children.

Organizers of the workshop received funding from the Canadian Institutes of Health Research (CIHR) for work in the area of health ethics. The work done at the meeting will result in a published collection of articles.

For more information, contact me.

Betty Draper Joins Weight Watchers

June 1, 2012   

Weight Watchers (WW) was created by Jean Nidetch, a self-described “fat housewife.” Nidetch felt embarrassed and ashamed about her weight, especially after a bad experience with a “skinny nazi” diet instructor at a New York “obesity” clinic. Nidetch felt it would be less intimidating to diet with her friends and so she organized a support group. Between 1961 and 1963 Nidetch turned her dieting model into a business. In her 1970 autobigraphy, Nidetch said that she believed the strength of her approach was that it offered a safe, snack-free space where women could talk about what they ate, why, and how they felt about it. She wrote, “I don’t guarantee that losing weight makes life beautiful. I don’t guarantee that it’s going to give you the success in life that you want.  But surely it’s going to make you confident that you are capable of controlling your own body, that you are not a victim.”  

read more …

International Women’s Day

March 5, 2012   

I am preparing a talk for International Women’s Day (IWD) on fat activism. Why does it exist and why does it matter? In casting about for a way to explain this to members of the Mount Allison community, I came across this quote from Breakfast of Champions. I think it is a good one. I know that Vonnegut (1922-2007) was definitely not talking about fat activism here, but Kilgore Trout’s epitaph does speak to the important relationship between “health” and equity issues.

Fat activism is a demand for fair treatment and social inclusion. This might include recognition that a person can be healthy at any size, or the development of programs that acknowledge different cultural perspectives on nutrition and health. Like other groups who demand equitable health care, people who organize groups and develop social sites for fat people want to extend the definition of well-being beyond the physical body to the social, cultural and economic realm.  This movement, therefore, serves as a reminder to put humane treatment and equity issues at the forefront of health policy and discourse.

The Fat Studies Journal, vol. 1, 1.

January 20, 2012   

The first issue of The Fat Studies Journal is now available in print and online. I’ve contributed a review article on exercise options for fat people, and I’m very pleased to be part of this new project. Building on The Fat Studies Reader (2010), the FSJ will examine the historical, social and cultural fascination with the body. I thought I would take this opportunity to post about the field, since I’m frequently asked what it is I study and why it matters.

What is Fat Studies?

Like Disability and Queer Studies, and Women’s Studies before these, Fat Studies is an activist and academic project. Scholars interested in fatness want to break down taken-for-granted understandings of fat/thin, and the relationship of fatness to health, fitness, sexuality, gender and ability. “Fat,” in this case, is not used to make fun or put down. Fat is a descriptive term for body size, and I use it to signal my participation in the project of deconstructing the medical and social history of the body.

Is fat healthy?

Fat Studies scholars approach this question from two angles. The first, as I’ve posted about before, is to suggest that fatness isn’t necessarily unhealthy. There is plenty of data to suggest that medically “overweight” and “obese” people with low cholesterol and blood pressure, and good cardiovascular capacity, can live just as long as people with a “normal” BMI. A second approach to this question, which I am exploring in my new research on body morality, examines how “obesity stigma” – the rhetoric of the obesity epidemic, the medicalization of fatness, and targeting obese children – is problematic. Given the evidence that people can be healthy at every size, this research suggests public health policies should focus on improving overall health outcomes and not on weight specifically.

read more …