Friday, 16 September 2016

Are women 'quietly dominating' marathon swimming?

A recent article in New York magazine's "Science of Us" section, entitled "The obscure ultra-endurance sport women are quietly dominating" has recently been doing the rounds on social media and discussion forums. Many swimmers are relieved to see women's participation in the sport recognised (which I also share), and there has been much enthusiastic listing of other notable female swimmers not mentioned in the article but celebrated in the community. The article begins from the premise that unlike other ultra-endurance sports, women are 'dominating' in a way that is unlikely in, say, ultra-running, and this is ultimately attributed to the assumption (a) that women have more body fat than men, and (b) that that body fat provides a critical advantage that explains their success in the sport.

At the risk of being a killjoy in the face of an article that I know many find affirming and positive, I have a number of concerns about its claims. Firstly, what does it mean to 'dominate' a sport? In fields conventionally understood as masculine (e.g. business, politics), even a small number of successful women is quickly read as 'domination' -a marker of alarm at the disruption of business as usual. Although well-represented relative to many other sports, women are still vastly outnumbered by men in marathon swimming, and the fact that even the possibility of female parity in performance / participation warrants research articles and news stories shows how far we are from 'domination'. Although much more subtle than actively excluding women from those fields, the rush to cries of 'domination' is another means of constraining women's participation in public life by marking it as out of place.

Secondly, I am deeply uncomfortable with the rush to biological explanations. Women's high performance (in sport and other public domains) is often attributed to their bodies (high pain threshold, favourable fat distribution), but much of this is based on (unfounded) generalisations that can't be brought to bear on the very small numbers of marathon swimmers, about whose specific bodies we know very little. It is striking that the journalist (and the scientists researching this) don't stop to look at training regimes and preparation, for example. And I'm not saying that women necessarily train harder....my point is that there are other conclusions that could have been jumped to but which aren't. Consequently, we should be very wary about citing women's presumed body fat as a performance advantage. Firstly, it obscures the work of training and technique acquisition (a point made by Evan Morrison in the article); and secondly, in a social and cultural context where fat is constantly derided, this is a punch with a velvet glove. Indeed, the article cites a horribly fat-phobic encounter between Lynne Cox and a taxi driver who tells her that she is 'too fat' to be a Channel swimmer. The implied derision and unacceptability of fatness, and the freedom which this man felt to hurl what is undoubtedly intended as a casual and disciplining insult at a young girl, should make us all very wary of these seemingly celebratory explanations of women's biological advantageous body fat. 

The rush to biological explanations for women's relatively high participation in marathon swimming (particularly compared to other ultra-endurance sports) obscures a number of other social explanations. Swimming is conventionally understood as a sport appropriate for women (unlike something like boxing, for example, or rugby, which are far more rigidly masculinised and harder for women to break in to). Consequently, it is much more likely to be experienced by women as a potentially welcoming and safe sporting space already populated by other women. But secondly, the higher average performance of non-elite female swimmers in events such as MIMS may well reflect the fact that it is the stronger female swimmers who are more likely to identify themselves as participants for ambitious or high profile swims. Women are not taught to see their bodies as athletic or adventurous, and they also pay much higher social costs for standing out or pushing themselves forwards, especially if all doesn't go well. Consequently, women are much less likely to enter such an event without being particularly confident about their abilities. I suspect that the women who have traditionally taken part in MIMS (an event where you had to push yourself forwards aggressively to even be accepted) were already among the better swimmers, and it was this high performance that facilitated their self-identification as MIMS competitors and their successful swims....and not the fatness of their thighs. 

I have some sympathy with the journalist of the piece. As one of my favourite swimming journalists and writers, Elaine Howley, noted in a forum post on the article, the demands of publication are for spectacular headlines and short punchy claims within tight word limits, and there is little scope for nuanced analysis. As coverage of women and sport goes, this is an engaging and carefully written piece. But in my view, however inadvertently, articles like this end up reinforcing the egregious inequalities in our expectations of women's bodies rather than challenging them. 

As a feminist and a swimmer, I am first in line to celebrate the accomplishments of female swimmers and to encourage women's participation in the sport. But rather than treating marathon swimming's relatively high rates of female participation as a surprising, newsworthy anomaly that can only be explained through biology, a better question might be: What can we learn from marathon swimming about women's access to sport? How could marathon swimming facilitate even greater female participation? What social and structural barriers might be in place in other sports that are preventing women from participating and excelling?



1 comment:

  1. Mostly agree with your article. One comment though: I think it is up to parents to teach their daughters to see their bodies as athletic or adventurous. My wife shows our girls through her actions (10 pull-ups as a 50 year old) that they should consider their bodies as tools to use and to push to the extreme. They see through their parents' actions that it doesn't matter whether you're male or female, you can excel in anything you do. They see that their dad is a good swimmer who'll work really hard to swim long and hard. They see that their mom can lift 200% or more of her body weight in dead lift and bench press, while their dad cannot. And that's ok.

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