Garland Briefer than a Girl’s

Dr. Rosemary Hennessy

Growing up before Title IX and in a houseful of sisters, athletes were alien to me.  The parochial elementary school we attended provided no athletic resources. CYOs (Catholic Youth Organizations) in Philadelphia’s parish-supported school system sponsored sports teams, but our parish didn’t have one.  The all-girls Catholic high school we went to had a basketball team, and the girls who made the team already knew how to play from their CYO backgrounds. Even though friends encouraged me to try out because I was tall, I was too afraid of failing at this unfamiliar activity. You might think some training in sports would have happened in Phys. Ed class. But the most athletic thing we did there was  jumping jacks. The only athlete I knew was in a poem, the runner in “To an Athlete Dying Young” who wears the champion’s “garland briefer than a girl’s.” The floral metaphor affirmed what I already knew:  athletes were boys.

My daughters grew up post-Title IX, and although they received little athletic modeling from their mother, their childhood was punctuated by sports: gymnastics, softball, swimming, soccer, even brief stints with ice skating. Both blossomed in high school sports where they played for varsity teams all four years. Sports shaped their lives after high school, too. Each went on to do multiple marathons or triathlons even into their 30s.

“Would you say ‘I do sports but I am not an athlete?’” I asked my older daughter.  “No,” she said.  “When I was in high school I definitely saw myself as an athlete.” She went on to recall her track and soccer coaches who were mostly men, and the crucial role they played in her life. In other competitive arenas winning prizes was extremely important to her, but not so much in sports. “It meant training my body,” she said, “and it shaped my daily routine. I just wish I had known then that drinking coffee cuts your appetite.”

I ponder this layered relationship to being an athlete that Title IX afforded these young women, how it conditioned their nervous systems, sharpened their sense of movement in space, their kinesthetic relation to objects, other bodies, and their own psyches.  All of this eluded many of us in my generation. By the time Title IX was inaugurated in 1972, I was graduating from college. As an English major, poems or an occasional boyfriend were still the closest I came to athletes.

Senator Bayh exercises with Title IX athletes at Purdue University, c. 1972. Source: Wikimedia

How might we calculate Title IX’s impact on bringing US women closer to being athletes? How did the laurels it held out to them get entwined in their girlhood? The 2016 Olympics in Rio offers evidence.  Over four decades ago, Title IX inaugurated many of the opportunities that enabled these US women to be champions in high profile events. And yet during the Olympics their prowess as athletes was often diminished in the voice-over narrations of sportscasters. Here and elsewhere modernizing impulses have met up with persistent patriarchal structures.  Title IX opened the door for many girls to become athletes, yet the commodification of their bodies accompanied that welcome. Girls who think of themselves as athletes become bulimic, as do girls who never tried out. A knot in the garland.

Across this checkered history, the definition of “athlete” fetishizes the body. I have often thought of what we do in university classrooms as the mirror image of this process.  Here minds come together around a seminar table, leaving bodies at the door. What would it mean to design an educational experience that would include the body? Would it look silly or ridiculous? Would I dare to try out?

Now two days a week I go from preparing for my university classes to an hour-long class at the gym in my neighborhood.  I shied away from going to the gym for years, harboring the fantasy that everyone there was “in shape.”  Athletes, unlike me. Once I summoned the courage to attend a class, I discovered to my delight that most of the other people in it it have ordinary bodies like mine. The class is called “Total Body Workout plus Abs.” I am not kidding. The name seems a parody of our fragmented body culture. How can abs be separate from the “total” body? Let me just say, however, that if you stick it out through the abs section of the class, that “plus abs” paradox totally makes sense.

In her book Unbearable Weight Susan Bordo documents the commodification of the body that intensified as postmodernity came into its own.  She correlates the growth of gym culture and the epidemic of eating disorders as women were called upon to be hard and fit—to look like athletes—and to enter the competitive marketplace with men.  By the 1990s history’s dialectical turns summoned professional women to acquire an athlete’s body, and a gym membership was our ticket to getting it. Something about the athlete had morphed into a mandate.

History’s dialectical process is never neat, however, and my gym class may be evidence of that. Something more than managing fragmented body parts goes on here as participants move in tandem with each other and in tune to the music. The group is almost exclusively women and our teacher, Karen, is tough with a light touch. Some of the bodies in the class are young, others old; some are trim, others lumpy. No prizes are involved. No grades or competition. There is rigor and risk here without rivalry, training and shared endeavor without shame.

Is this a model for teaching everywhere?

My gym class is not enacting holistic education, and it does not resolve our fragmented lives. I would like to imagine, though, that in these weekly gatherings girlhoods are being recovered and a promising re-narration of the athlete just might be blooming.