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kottke.org posts about Surya Bonaly

The Winter Olympics, male & female physiology, and socially constructed bodies

posted by Jason Kottke   Feb 19, 2018

This is a fascinating thread by Milena Popova about the differing performances of male and female athletes at the Winter Olympics. As they point out, humans are sexually dimorphic but the story doesn’t end there. Bodies are also socially constructed.

Physiology is a thing, but physiology is shaped and mediated by our social context.

Look back at those pictures of “women”. Those petite, delicate bodies, those faces we process as “beautiful”. Those are the qualities that globally dominant Western cultures associate with “femininity”.

And sport is one of the institutions that fiercely guards and reproduces dominant ideas about gender, masculinity and femininity. This plays out differently in different sports.

Generally, men and women compete separately. And for the purposes of sport “men” and “women” are defined as people whose bodies were assigned male or female at birth and whose gender matches that assignment.

The obvious example here is South African runner Caster Semenya. But Popova continues with a more subtle (and admittedly speculative) situation:

Now, what really gets me is snowboarding. Because on the face of it that’s not a sport that’s judged on the same gendered criteria of artistry and aesthetics as figure skating or gymnastics.

You’d think under all the skiing gear, helmets, scarves and goggles, it would be quite hard to perform femininity.

And still, as my friend whom I made watch slope style and half pipe for the first time in her life last night pointed out, the body types of the men and women riders are really rather different. You can tell even under all the gear.

And that translates to performance. Women get an amplitude of about 3m above the half pipe, men about 4-5m. The best women do 1080s (three revolutions), the best men 1440s (four revolutions).

But much like any other subculture snowboarding reproduces hierarchical structures. Moves are named after people, some people find it easier to access than others (hint: it’s a massively expensive sport), some people set trends.

One of the structures it reproduces is a gendered hierarchy. It’s a very masculine culture. Women find it harder to access the sport, find it harder to be taken seriously as athletes in their own right rather than “just hangers-on”.

And I have the sneaky suspicion that because the people with the most subcultural capital tend to be men and they decide whom they will admit and accept to the community, there are certain looks and body types of women who find it less hard (not easy!) to gain access.

And those happen to be the body types that may find it harder to do 1440s and to get 5m amplitude above the half pipe.

Another example from figure skating is Surya Bonaly, a French figure skater who landed a backflip on one skate in a performance at the 1998 Olympics. While backflips weren’t banned because of Bonaly’s relative ease in performing them (as claimed here), her athletic style was outside the norm in women’s figure skating, in which traditional femininity is baked right into the rules & judging. This was also a factor in Tonya Harding’s career (as depicted in I, Tonya).

Anyway, super interesting to think about.