Five Things You Don’t Know About Terry Fox: May 27, 6:30pm

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:

Terry Fox Was an Activist
Terry Fox: A Unifying Influence on Our Nation?
Terry Fox was a Rock Star
Terry Fox Mania

I hope to see you May 27!

Debating Femininity with Nancy Greene

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.

Nancy Greene at Sun Peaks in 2000. Public Domain.
Nancy Greene (2000). Public Domain.

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.

Five Things You Don’t Know About Terry Fox: 27 May 2015

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.

Research: “Court Aids Terry Fox Fund”

Terry Fox, 12 July 1980. Photo by Jeremy Gilbert. Source: Wikipedia.
Terry Fox, 12 July 1980. Photo by Jeremy Gilbert. Source: Wikipedia.
I’ll be giving a paper on Terry Fox at the Versions of Canada Conference this fall. The paper looks at references to national unity in letters to the Prime Minister, newspaper coverage and House of Commons discussion of Terry Fox during 1980-1981.

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: Historical Perspectives on Obesity Stigma

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.

The details:

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.

‘New’ Research Confirms Long-Term Weight Loss Impossible: CBC Health News

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”:

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.

Feminism and Technology @ The Berks

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.

Hayley Wickenheiser: Flag Bearer, Standard-Bearer

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.

hayley2

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.

The Edmonton Commercial Graduates Basketball Club

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.

EdmontongradsDuring 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.