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.

Silken Laumann: Unsinkable

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.

unsinkable-cover

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.

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 Runners (1907): Leaky Hegemony

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)

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

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.