Every four years, when I watch the U.S. women’s Olympic beach volleyball, I feel profoundly uncomfortable. It’s almost a literal feeling, like sand on bare skin. The Americans, like most of their competitors, wear two-piece suits with bare midriff, versions—more or less—of the bikini. For some reason, the U.S. women’s uniforms are among the skimpiest in the tournament. The teams from Italy and Brazil, for example, wear something that one might see described in a catalogue as a “sports bra,” or even an “athletic top.” The American uniforms don’t just show more skin; they seem, to me at least, to be made of a more fragile material, with slender straps. I think of my mother making a distinction (in the days before we knew about the connection of sun and melanoma) between a “sunning” bikini, made for lying on the beach, and a “swimming bikini,” made to stand up to the waves, and to stay (almost always) firmly in place. The tension for me watching Kerry Walsh Jennings and April Ross compete is not only about points, about winning and losing. I cannot focus entirely on points or skill or medals: part of me is watching for a wardrobe malfunction, for the undoing of it all—of the uniforms, of the match, of Title IX, of the “woman athlete” herself. I fear exposure.
There are women in the sport of beach volleyball who are not nearly so exposed—at least to the sun and the sand. Players from certain Muslim countries wear ankle-length pants, long sleeves and head coverings. They cannot, however, escape the gaze of critics. In front of me on my computer screen is an image courtesy of Reuters from the Daily Mail. It is a diptych—a picture with two parts—divided down the middle by volleyball net. On one side, we see a German player in a two-piece suit, on the other, an Egyptian player covered from her neck to her feet. It is hard to tell who is winning the point: the first time I saw the picture, I assumed that the German player had just spiked the ball and that the Egyptian woman could not quite reach to block it. You can also read the image the opposite way: that the German player is preparing to receive the ball that the Egyptian is just about to send over. All we know is that the ball is in the Egyptian woman’s court.
Rightly or wrongly, at least as far as this point is concerned, the caption to the Daily Mail blog resolves the issue of the winner and the loser. It reads: “Perhaps if they didn’t wear such restrictive uniforms and lost some of their excess weight, they might have a chance to win once in a while.” At first it seems that the caption sides with the Egyptian women’s team and against their “restriction” by clothing. This is the familiar move of much Western feminism. But something happens to this critique and to the idea of losing: the Egyptian woman, multiplied into the generalized “they” of the caption, need to lose in order to win. They need to lose “excess” weight and remove excess clothing. The paradox is more complicated still. Shedding clothing would only presumably reveal the “extra” pounds: the women must be stripped to win—only to be revealed as losers anyway. The image from the Daily Mail takes advantage of what I have called “Sororophobia,” or the choreographed contrast between women: virgin and whore, East and West, good feminist and bad feminist, liberated woman and prisoner.
Posing women against each other in this way can be paralyzing. It calls to mind for me a parodic ad for a product called the “Transparen-she,” an invisibility-cloak-like garment that makes women’s bodies disappear so that they do not have to walk the tightrope of sexiness and modesty our (Western) culture demands. A no-win situation—at least without the help of the cloak. The video voiceover intones: “Can’t decide whether society wants you to be a virgin or a whore? Now you don’t have to choose. You can be neither because your personhood will literally disappear.”
During the year, during what I think of as real life outside the Olympics, I watch lots of sports, mostly featuring male athletes. I listen to all-sports radio every day; over the course of, say, a year, I think the hosts devote a total of a few dismissive minutes to women’s sports. The commercials are addressed to men: lots of ads for testosterone testing and the like, and more recently and infuriatingly for divorce lawyers who represent only male clients. I am not entirely comfortable with my choice to watch and listen, to spend so much of my time in this way, watching and listening to men talking about other men competing. My relationship to the male athletes whom I see so often in my living room and less often on courts or fields, is very different from my relationship with women athletes like Walsh and Ross. I love to watch the men, I even feel for them, but I don’t feel myself in them. This not feeling is part of the pleasure, or at least the avoidance of pain. When a male athlete gets hurt, I feel bad of course, but unless I am watching college sports where my identity as a teacher kicks in, I don’t identify. I am not throwing, catching, fielding, writhing, praying, cursing, listening to the national anthem, placing my hand on my heart with them. My family—three men—can tell at a glance what part of a male athlete’s body is hurt. Unless it’s a head injury, I am largely at sea. Ever since I realized that I was not going to become a centerfielder for the New York Mets—this took me longer than one might think—I have watched and watched again from a certain distance. It feels safer that way, less exposed.
With every passing year it gets harder to justify watching male professional sports, especially the Big Three: football, baseball, basketball. The professional team I loved the most, the 1986 World Championship Mets, was, it turns out, full of drug addicts, alcoholics, wife-beaters, and con men. (I rush to say there was apparently one exception, centerfielder Mookie Wilson). The National Football League is a despicable organization with a terrible record of violence on and off the field. The NBA fired one owner for overt racism, but has gone out of its way, over the years, to distance itself from its image as an African-American league.
And yet I watch, I read, I listen—at a distance but incredibly close. I am in no danger of being bowled over by a blitzing linebacker; I will never break my shoulder running into the right field wall to prevent a home run. I will, however, some day soon, feel exposed by what I wear or don’t wear, what I say or don’t say (see above). I will feel sand under my skin.