Category Archives: fitness and sport
Last week my new co-edited collection was released by the University of Ottawa Press. Please, judge this book by the fantastic cover image: it is a challenging, myth-busting, inclusive and fun-loving analysis of hockey. Available online and at academic bookstores.
For many Canadians, hockey is the game. While the relationship between hockey and national identity has been studied, where does the game fit into our understanding of multiple, diverse Canadian identities today? This interdisciplinary book considers hockey, both as professional and amateur sport, and both in historical and contemporary context, in relation to larger themes in Canadian Studies, including gender, race/ethnicity, ability, sexuality and geography.
Contributors to this book reflect upon all aspects of hockey in Canadian life: play, fandom, sports broadcasting, and community activism.
I received invites from a couple of groups to come talk about curating. How could I say no? I love my work, and I will tell anyone who will listen.
Curious about curating?
September 20, 6:30-8:00pm
414 Sparks Street
Five Things I’ve Learned About Working in Public History
October 2, 12:30-1:30pm
…and I’ll also be talking museums and sport at an upcoming conference:
Hockey: where do we place the accent?
October 14, 9:30am-11:00am
150 Ideas That Shaped Canada
Check out the program!
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 Danforth Coxwell branch of the Toronto Public Library,May 27, 6:30-8:00pm in the Program Room (upstairs). This event is part of the History Matters lecture series.
The talks will expand upon (yes, there’s more) my recent blog posts for Active History. I’ll talk upon some unknown aspects of the runner’s life story and how he fits into the story of Canada in the 1980s.
You can find my April 2015 ActiveHistory.ca series on Terry Fox, marking the 35th anniversary of the Marathon of Hope, here:
I hope to see you May 27!
Fifteen for 15 #8
Eight years ago I was seeking permission to use an advertising image of Nancy Greene for an article. Getting permission to use old ads and images is sometimes hard. After getting the run-around from the brand I decided to contact Nancy Greene’s “people” to see if they could help. I found a number and dialed. Greene answered the phone.
I was caught off guard and impressed that Nancy Greene answered her own calls. This was before she was Senator Nancy Greene. But still. Greene was named Canada’s “athlete of the century” by the Canadian Press in 1999 because of her gold and silver medals at the 1968 Olympics, World Cup wins in 1967 and 1968 and numerous Canadian titles. She also operates a ski resort in the B.C. interior, Cahilty Lodge, with her husband Al Raine. Greene didn’t seem like someone who would have the time to be answering public inquiries.
True to one of her nicknames, “Nice Nancy,” Greene was down to earth and chatty. I explained that I was looking for permission to use an ad that appeared in Chatelaine for an article on female athletes and femininity. I’m paraphrasing here, but her immediate reaction was a chipper but firm “no, no, no, you’ve got it all wrong.” Greene told me that there wasn’t any need to debate athlete’s femininity or feminization, it was a non-issue and people shouldn’t make a bit deal out of such stuff. She “was what she was” and there was no need for analysis.
The ad in question is one of my favourites from my study of images of female athletes in advertising. It shows three images of Greene, posed in her ski gear, beside a vase of flowers, and in a kicky, striped sleeveless dress. The copy compares two women “Mrs. Raine” and Nancy Greene, and the challenges of keeping their skin hydrated and soft. In the end we learn that Nancy Greene is Mrs. Raine! It employs a common trope of pre-2000s images of athletes: comparing their sport with other more stereotypically feminine activities. You can see and read more about these ads here.
I was taken aback when Greene told me flat-out that I was wrong to study female athletes and femininity. I can’t remember what I said in response to her challenge, other than stammering out a meek defense of my research. Looking back I can see this as the first time one of my research participants challenged the academic process. I now know this is a common experience when writing about living people. They talk back.
Greene chuckled at my reply and then agreed to let me use the image. Cool, right?
Last week I was in Banff, Alberta and saw a panel about Greene in a display about Canada’s best skiers. She was one of only a few women featured. It made me think back to our phone conversation. At the time I felt charmed by Greene but unsettled that she didn’t want to talk about the gender dynamics of sport. Since I hadn’t expected to talk to Greene I had not thought about what she might say if she learned I was analyzing her public image. After reading Silken Laumann’s biography I can see that such inquiries probably hit a bit too close to home or are perceived to take away from an athlete’s accomplishments.
Off the ski hill Greene was known as “Nice Nancy,” but on the slopes she was called “Tiger” because of her aggressive skiing style. That this all happened in the late-1960s and early 1970s when femininity as subject for public debate is interesting. This was the era of the Royal Commission on the Status of Women and a time when female athletes successfully lobbied for a women’s program within Sport Canada. Greene didn’t see herself as a sports feminist and didn’t join other female athletes in attempting to reform Canada’s sport system. But she still helped advance women’s sport in Canada because of what she achieved. So in this sense, Greene was right, she “was who she was,” and it worked.
Still, I think the question of femininity is an important part of Nancy Greene’s legacy. The ad was sexist and a relic of the 1970s. It is a lens we can use to understand the past and think about gender representation in the present.
Fifteen for 15 is a series of blog posts I’ve been doing since 2013 about women’s sport in Canada. Inspired by ESPN’s “30 for 30” and “Nine for IX” television documentaries, I’m thinking about athletes, teams and watershed moments in Canadian women’s sport history.
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.
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.
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.