*Feature Image: Vogue
The Tokyo Olympics was a reminder of how politically charged and culturally representative sports really are. Whether we talk about Jesse Owens, Sha’Carrie Richardson, Caster Semenya or Colin Kaepernik – in all honesty, we don’t recognize these names for their accomplishments in their respective sports, as much as for the politically and socially relevant debates that they sparked. The idea that sports are tainted by bigotry and discrimination comes across as profane to many. “Don’t bring politics into this” is something you’ll hear very often, and usually from someone who, often, is not losing out because of such discrimination.
Sport films like Chak de! India, Mary Kom and Dangal, make copious amounts of money for their display of strong-willed women who beat odds to achieve glory, who overcome the blatant sexism and discrimination inherent in the system. In all these movies, these women overcome the conflict between their sport and societal perceptions of femininity. Though, vast strides have been made – we must remember that sports are yet to be free from sexism. The choice given to women between their femininity and athleticism is a reality for all female athletes.
The battles are endless whether at home or in training arenas. They are implicit as well as explicit. It could be body shaming for having strong shoulders and muscular thighs, or mandating bikinis as a uniform for beach volleyball players. Being an athlete seems to challenge perceptions of femininity and therefore, society feels the need to emphasise and raise questions surrounding an athlete’s femininity (sometimes the lack of it). In the world of sports “sports success is success at being masculine” (Feder 1995, 63)writes Abigail M. Feder in her book chapter on the overdetermination of femininity for female athletes.
This conflict between athleticism and femininity has failed women on several fronts, that begins with something as simple as sporting gear and equipment. I’m sure I’m not alone in being puzzled by the kind of impractical athletic wear available for women (how will those intricate, strappy, beautiful sports bras prevent my DD cups from spillage?), or the endless supply of pink shoes and clothes in the market. Sports science and sports medicine continues to predominantly be geared towards male bodies. Women are treated as anomalies, as inherently not belonging.
Women are not smaller men
There are patterns in physiology, particular to women, that have not received enough attention. These patterns have a deep impact on their training. Research on nutrition and exercise has also been done on men. This means the science behind high intensity interval training, keto, paleo, intermittent fasting has been proven to work for men’s bodies. The underlying assumption seems to be that if it works for men, it’ll work for women too. Women seem to be missing as researchers as well as research subjects. The needs of the female body, that are divergent than that of the male body, have been discounted. Sex differences in morphology, i.e. “sex dimorphism” has been overlooked. Robust research surrounding the needs of an athlete that adequately considers a fundamental aspect of female physiology, i.e. the menstrual cycle, seems to be missing. Though some studies do suggest that tailoring your training and nutrition and menstrual cycle can be helpful, the research is insufficient.
One of the reasons for why women are missing in research is for the minimization of costs, given that women are more physiologically variable. Depending on the phase of our menstrual cycle, our bodies respond differently due to the varying levels of hormones. In the follicular phase (the first 14 days that start with your period), hormone levels are at their lowest. In the luteal phase, our hormones are raging (after ovulation and until your period) which is also why we experience PMS. Though it varies for every individual, there are certain patterns.
Therefore, this physiological variability makes research more unpredictable, time consuming and expensive. When including women in research, close attention has to be paid to where they may be in their menstrual cycle and how that is affecting body temperature, macronutrient metabolism, etc. Those few women who are finally included are usually required to be in the follicular phase of their cycle, i.e. when their hormonal levels were at the lowest. In other words, when their bodies would respond most like male bodies. Those phenomena specific to the female body, as a result of certain chemical messengers specific to female bodies, have been overlooked. It is just assumed that if it works on men, it’ll work on women too – what one writer calls “biomedical equivalent of “shrink it and pink it””.
Dr. Stacy Sims, in her TEDxTauranga Talk illustrates the way in which this dearth of research is failing athletes at all levels. Science has had little to say on the particularities of hormonal changes in female bodies. Women are merely treated as little men. This side-lining is adversely affecting exercising women across the board, even average women like you and I wanting to hit the gym. The female athlete triad, for example – described as three distinct conditions: disordered eating, amenorrhea (the loss of a period), and osteoporosis – seems to present itself in upto 60 percent exercising women. The triad manifests itself in different ways – lack of energy, with or without eating disorders, loss of period and low bone density being the most common.
Even if we look at injuries among athletes in contact sports, it was found that women have a 50% higher concussion rates, according to a study in 2015. Various studies have found that severity of symptoms of concussions among women is higher and so is the recovery time, yet protocols for women are identical to that for men. There is little know about long-term implications for the same – “Few inroads have been made in studying female athletes’ long-term brain health”.
Even less discussed is the prevalence of breast tissue injuries among women in contact sports. An article in the Guardian from 2019 revealed the silence surrounding breast tissue injuries. Rugby players and Australian rule footballers were asked about breast injuries, and surprisingly, it was the first time a lot of these women had been asked these questions. The athletes themselves are often hesitant to report these injuries, possibly because of the stigma or the apprehension that they won’t be taken as serious sportspersons. These soft tissue injuries go undetected, and knowledge surrounding injury management for the same is rare. Deirdre McGhee, research supervisor and co-director of University of Wollongong’s ‘Breast Research Australia’, talks about the need to pay attention to the differences in the bodies between men and women to understand breast injuries among female athletes.
The exclusionary nature of sports science has been restricting women from maximizing their potential as athletes. women continue to be taken less seriously as athletes and have far less resources available to them. The lack of resources continues holding them back, and thus, continues the vicious cycle. However, there are pockets of research that are trying to shift the focus, Dr. Stacy Sims for example. Some suggest that interdisciplinary research can go a far way in tackling these issues. Whatever the solution may be, there is no doubting that this is a problem that requires far-reaching, systemic change.