Friday, April 8, 2011

Femininity in Derby

In the wake of the NCAA Division I Women’s Basketball Championship, I have heard several comments from my male friends and students relating to the personal appearances and attractiveness of these female athletes.  After spending a little over a year in the world of roller derby and female athletes, these reactions to the perceived attractiveness of the highlighted female basketball players caught my attention in a new light.
I’m what you might call a girly girl, I guess.  I like clothes and shoes and getting my nails done.  I hate slugs; I worry about my weight; I get a haircut every five weeks, and I compare myself to other women.  Maybe like a few of my “girly girl” comrades, I fit the stereotype of not being a big sports fan.  I am not a basketball follower, which can be viewed as a sin in North Carolina; however, I did find myself Google image searching Notre Dame guard, Skylar Diggins, because of all the hype about how hot she is.  Only, the motivation to see what this Diggins chic looks like did not come from a place of girlish insecurity or competition, but rather a curiosity to see if and how she maintained her femininity and allure on the court.  Something about her was creating a buzz.

I never really thought about femininity in athletics before until a conversation I was having with a News and Record reporter a couple of months ago.  We were talking about the sport of roller derby and the interview had shifted to talking about the aesthetics and performance aspect of the game, namely the outfits that skaters are known for wearing.  The topic was how some people look at derby players and scoff at the bathing suit-like bottoms paired with tights or the dress or the tutu.  Many derby doubters might tell you that the players are more concerned with their outfits and make-up than anything else, and that derby is an excuse for players to parade around in little to no clothing.

So here’s the thing, I told the reporter, one reason I love my league is because a lot of us ARE concerned with our outfits and make-up.  I love that my uniform often consists of derby skinz, which yes, are essentially bathing suit bottoms that I pair with tights.  I love that my home team, The Mad Dollies, are considering dresses as our uniforms.  These things are means to an end because ultimately what I love is that I play a sport that allows me to own and be proud of my femininity and womanhood, while playing a very physically demanding game. 

Often society places a stigma on the female athlete.  That stigma is that she must have more masculine traits and exude more manly behavior in order to be deemed equal to a male athlete who plays the same sport.  Basketball is a good example of this type of androgynous cultivation, where players, for example, wear outfits that look exactly like their male counterparts’.  The ‘girlish’ qualities are left to the cheerleaders.  No one expects the cheerleaders to get out on the court and dominate.  The images we associate with athletic success don’t often incorporate pink or frills or sparkles. 
Roller derby is a sport that involves endurance, strength, balance, agility, and adeptness at game play.  Players can skate miles in a single practice, maneuvering their feet in a pack of women on wheels, playing defense and offense at the same time.  In addition to being very physically demanding, derby embraces the diversity amongst its players.  It is a game where a 115 pound woman on a 5’5’’ frame can take down a 200 pound 5’9” player if she plays her game right.  It is a game where some of the most aggressive players on the team are often the ‘girliest’ ones off the track.  

I’m certainly not saying that derby is the only sport where you find women that hold onto and embrace their femininity.  However, derby definitely is a front-runner in the list of sports that challenge the notion of who and what a female athlete is supposed to be and how she is supposed to look.  At the same time, the makeup and the frills and the short shorts aren’t for every derby player.  There are many players that feel much more comfortable in a t-shirt and basketball shorts, and some who don’t really get into the whole make-up or face paint thing.  That’s one of the many great and unique things about roller derby.  It acknowledges, embraces and thrives off of the stylistic differences and individuality of its players.  Derby allows us ‘girly girls’ to be forces in an area that doesn’t require us to feel as if we have to sacrifice our feminine qualities in order to be regarded as strong and capable athletes. 

Derby love,
Ann What?!