It has always been my intention when writing BfBT to open up the conversation to voices from all sorts of backgrounds, genders, sexualities, and sporting levels. Though I am focusing on people’s sports alongside their identity, it’s crucial to consider both those involved in active pursuits and also those who feel excluded or isolated from it.
As such, it is my pleasure to introduce our first guest columnist, going under the name Fledgling. Beyond that, she will introduce herself:
I’m a straight, cis, 30-year-old woman and I don’t play any sport. I don’t run. I don’t swim. I have never held a gym membership or attended a fitness class. The limit of my physical exertion is the odd bicycle ride to @Batting4BTeams HQ, and I’ve been known to have joggers overtake me.
So, at this point you may be wondering why Duke has let me anywhere near their column, let alone write something for it…
The simple answer to this is ‘sweat’. As you can imagine, I don’t really break out into a sweat very often given my virtually sloth-like existence. I go out my way to avoid it, and carry a small can of antiperspirant with me at all times. I dread anyone else seeing me with a sweaty red face, or having the tell-tale signs of being a normal human spreading moistly under my arms.
Sweat is the reason I don’t play sports. At some point in my teens, I was made to feel that to sweat and smell is to be unclean, unfeminine. I’m aware I sound like I’ve stepped out of a Regency novel right now, but during those years I learned that girls weren’t supposed to sweat. I used to be quite happy tearing round the playing field with my friends and being a kid with a sweaty shiny face. But then secondary school happened…
I went to a decidedly average state school where we had PE lessons twice a week. We played the usual sports prescribed for teenage girls: hockey, netball and tennis. I dreaded these lessons. I wasn’t particularly bad at sports but it was in these 2 hours each week that I learned to avoid playing sports.
The main reason behind this was the name calling inflicted by the ‘popular girls’ on anyone who looked remotely sweaty during a PE lesson. “Tramp”, “you f**king reek”, “sweaty bitch” and “dyke” is a just a selection of the phrases I heard.
I remember one girl getting a particularly brutal attack after a fairly active tennis lesson; unfortunately, as PE was only the second lesson of the day the names stuck until the end of school that day, with the boys joining in the name calling too. Sadly, this gender divide in how we experienced sports mostly went unnoticed by overworked teachers.
Of course, the boys in my year would come in off the sports field dripping in sweat and the remaining lessons would be spent under a cloud of Lynx Africa, even though the teachers had banned it. There were also one friend in my year for whom sweating was considered ok, but she was one of the best athletes in our year and a member of the local gymnastics club so was already viewed as a tomboy. Whilst we had showers, they were a no-go area. In 5 years I never saw them get used; even getting changed into our PE kits was super awkward due the joys of puberty!
So it was really hard to get involved in PE lessons when you were worried if anyone would notice your leg hair, or if people could tell you were on your period, or that you’d get sweat patches! The rules became apparent very quickly and the end result was a sterilised view of what a young woman should look like, and bodily functions were not part of the game. Boys got sweaty, and were dirty and hairy. Girls were smooth-skinned and smelt amazing all the time. PE meant running the risk of not fitting into this model and then the name calling would start….
I recently chatted to a friend who had attended the same school as me. I was dismayed to hear that she had the same negative memories of PE, but it reassured me that this wasn’t all ‘just in my head’. So on a hot (and sweaty!) tube journey we swapped PE horror stories and laughed at the ridiculous ‘life lessons’ we were exposed to; my friend told me of a time when she kept her coat on for an entire date because she was worried about visible sweat patches!.
Whilst my friend and I can laugh at the past, there is no escaping the fact that being told sweat was disgusting and unfeminine left an imprint on our minds. I haven’t really exercised in 14 years and whilst I don’t class myself as overweight, I know that my lack of exercise means I will probably suffer in the long run. The biggest impact, of course, is self-confidence: I worry about what I would look like as a sweaty, red-face human being with wobbly bits so I avoid it.
Secondary school and puberty is tough, for all genders. It’s a time where we really start to become aware of the skin we live in, and where the external pressures to ‘fit it’ can take hold. This is hard enough for girls with the printed media, the internet and films telling them how their bodies should look. When women start to police other women’s use of their bodies, this creeps towards the impossible. It is micro-aggressions like this, factors which some deride as insignificant, which need tackling to prevent long-term harm and assumptions from slipping into our society.