Top Ten Reasons Why This Feminist is a Sports Fan: #9

Venus Williams dives on the tennis court to return a shot

In which I continue to make a feminist case for my sports fandom the old-fashioned way--with a Top Ten List. It's coming to you in a series of posts. See my #10 reason why I'm both a feminist and a sports fan here.

Tennessee's Gerald Jones (4) catches a pass as he's defended by Georgia's Bryan Evans (3) during their college football game on Saturday in Knoxville, Tenn.#9 SPORTS CELEBRATE PHYSICAL INTELLIGENCE
Sports celebrate physical intelligence, which is too often dismissed in the intellect-centered worlds that I tend to travel in. Sure, I'm an active gal: I run, I yoga, I hike, I'll enthusiastically leap into any pick-up game of any sport you put before me. But the fact is, I give the greatest part of my life cerebral activities: writing, reading, sitting around and thinking about stuff. Perhaps that is partly why I look with so much awe at those who have devoted to themselves to the special genius of the body.

The athlete's sense of movement and instinct, the fusion of grace and endurance, the Buddhist-like awareness and attentiveness that sports call for--this is all worth honoring. Despite the fact that sports are a very big part of our society, we overall seem to retain a certain snobbery about the value of physical intelligence. While it may lead to impressive athletic feats, its not part of "high culture." The bodily work of it is sometimes seen as brute or simple.

In the (really wonderful) book Woman: An Intimate Geography, Natalie Angier responds to the many women who approach weight-lifting with the caveat that they want to be "toned but not bulky." She champions the value of muscle in a way that celebrates the power of the body (specifically the female body)--not in metaphorical terms, but in unapologetic physical ones:

What is wrong with looking muscular? Muscles are beautiful. Strength is beautiful. Muscle tissue is beautiful. It is metabolically, medically, and philosophically beautiful. ... (Muscles) are forward-looking. They are responsive to stimulation. Few cells of the body are as capable as muscle cells are of change and transformation, of achievement and transcendence. Your muscles can be sanctimonious, it's true, adhering to a materialist, puritanical, goal-oriented mentality, but at least they are reliable. You can spend every day on a therapist's couch and still wake up to your old frail spirit, but if you work out every day your muscles will grow strong.

Angier notes the wariness that many women have of being muscular (or that many people have when they are around muscular women) relates to a larger cultural discomfort with physically strong women:

Being strong won't make you happy or fulfilled, but it's better to be sullen and strong than sullen and weak.

Female strength is, even yet, seditious. It can make men squirm. They can get angry at a woman who is too strong, who may be stronger than they are. Part of me understands the reaction. I feel irritated and jealous when I see a woman who can lift more weight than I can. How dare she! I look for flaws, for evidence that her form is poor, that she is cheating. But once the initial irritation fades and I can see that she is good at what she is doing, I feel grateful toward her, and heartened by her power. ...

Grateful and heartened. That about describes how I feel when I witness the beauty and power of athletes (of any gender) as they play a game they've committed their life and their bodies to.

In a world where Michael Jordan can leap from the free throw line to dunk a basketball; where a college football team pulls off a last-second play that is so inexplicable and and triumphant as to go down in history known as simply "The Play"; where Serena Williams puts everything she has on the tennis court, powering her way to wins at all four Grand Slam tournaments, 28 singles championships, 11 doubles championships; where Marla Runyen (who is legally blind) is a two-time Olympian and the champion of innumerable major distance races in the U.S. and abroad --- my goodness, there is so much to celebrate, it makes one dizzy.

Manuel De Los Santos of the Dominican Republic places his ball on the 18th tee during the final practice round of The Alfred Dunhill Links Championship at The Old Course on Wednesday in St. Andrews, Scotland.

Just a bit more of Angier's muscle-y prose:

Most women are much stronger than they realize. ... I'm talking about the strong and earthy, a moosey strength, the strength that shrugs its shoulders and takes no bull. I've noticed in nearly every gym where I've worked out that women on the weight-training equipment use far too low a setting for their strength, particularly when they are exercising their upper body, where they are convinced they are weak.

As a feminist sports fan, I thrill to the strength of athletes of all genders and have learned through them to not fear my own strength, or that of others.

When I watch sports, when my jaw drops at the physical intelligence of athletes, when I am bewildered that any real flesh-and-blood person could run so fast or turn so quick or hit so hard, it is a joy to remember that, yes, this is a human body doing that. This is what a human body can do. I thrill to our possibility and potential.

About the Images: Top photo pictures Venus Williams diving across the court to return a shot in 2007; via Sports Illustrated. Side photo pictures Tennessee's Gerald Jones (4) as he catches a pass while being defended by Georgia's Bryan Evans (3) during their college football game; via NBC Sports. Last photo pictures Manuel De Los Santos of the Dominican Republic as he places his ball on the 18th tee during the final practice round of The Alfred Dunhill Links Championship in St. Andrews, Scotland; via NBC Sports

*My list is primarily focusing on professional sports... though I trust you smart people can extrapolate easily enough about how this same feminist reasoning applies to collegiate, school, community, and youth leagues.


by Anna Clark
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8 Comments Have Been Posted

I don't love sports, but I

I don't love sports, but I love this series! Can't wait for the next eight reasons.

intelligence of the body

I am loving your posts. #9 reminds me of something my dad told me a few years ago. I had found a lump in my breast and had to go through some testing, etc. I was freaking out and he suggested I start exercising again to help with the stress. He quoted Hillary Clinton as he explained his advice (I can't find a reference but he has this clipped from an article hanging by his desk. I'm also paraphrasing...) "you can't control the world around you, what other people are going to do to you or what happens. The one thing you can control is your body and what you do to it and with it." That, to me, is almost the definition of physical intelligence and I find it super-empowering. Thanks again!

So amazing!

And beautiful. Thanks for sharing.

I get what Angier is trying

I get what Angier is trying to say, but it disturbs me how she seems to validate physical strength at the expense of emotional/mental strength:

"You can spend every day on a therapist's couch and still wake up to your old frail spirit, but if you work out every day your muscles will grow strong."

Your "old frail spirit?" Anyone who's been in therapy knows that it makes the spirit grow stronger. Heck, therapy is like weight training for the soul! I appreciate that Angier is trying to make women value their physical strength (something that is needed in our culture), but I don't think it needs to be done at the expense of other kind of strengths. The author's words smack of the old "therapy is for wimps/therapy doesn't do anything" reasoning that is quite hurtful and just plain wrong.

Key word here is *can*

"Anyone who's been in therapy knows that it makes the spirit grow stronger."

I'm sure it can, and in many cases has made the spirit grow stronger. But in many cases it has not. I've been in therapy and found it to be an enomously frustrating waste of money and time. Some of my friends can testify in just the same way. No, mental health is not for wimps. But still, it's a mysterious, slippery, and often contradictory field of study in which many experts disagree.

However, there is little disagreement that if you run hard and pump iron, you will get stronger. Such certainty was particularly buoyant for me when I was tired of antidepressants and talk therapy that did nothing for me and only made my psychiatrists wealthier.

"However, there is little

<i>"However, there is little disagreement that if you run hard and pump iron, you will get stronger."</i>

Well, no. This is true for you, perhaps, and I'm glad for you; but it's not a universal truth any more than "Therapy Helps Everyone!" is. A typical able-bodied person would like get stronger, and some people with disabilities. But not all people. If I attempted to run hard and pump iron, I would just get sicker and sicker and sicker.

Much like how therapy works for some people, and doesn't for others.

Physical Intelligence!

Seems strange to say it, but professional athletes are some of the smartest people in the world.

"Who knows more about the ballistics of a batted ball? A Harvard physicist may have a mathematical formula that looks impressive and can approximate where the ball will land, but a skilled outfielder has an internal model that works, and that's what real intelligence is all about."

-Paraphrasing John Holt

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