The Thinking 

On Moderation in Women’s Sports

August 1, 2012


JOHN PURDY writes:

On the question of athletics for girls and women I would argue that some hyper-masculine athletics like weight-lifting, boxing and a few other sports are not really for women and it’s hard to understand why women are attracted to them (they weren’t when I was a teenager) but certainly racket sports and even girl’s field hockey should be fine. Even distance running, up to a point is okay. The issue is the intensity with which women pursue athletics.

When athletics for girls was first introduced in elite private schools in the early nineteenth century it was explicitly justified as improving the prospects for young women during childbirth. Women with good muscle tone and cardio-vascular fitness were more likely to survive the rigours of childbirth, a serious problem at the time. It was never intended as a form of competition with men, which would have been viewed as ludicrous. This eminently sensible approach to women’s athletics has morphed into yet another “anything men can do, women can do” ideology. Once women lose or renounce traditional guidelines for women they become obsessed with the body to the point of masculinising themselves, which is what they would have to do because extremely rigourous training is really for the male body.

It’s also interesting to note the flip side of this abandonment of traditional femininity is hyper-feminisation, excessive concern with looking “hot”. As a man, I have no serious problem with young women looking good and taking some interest in cosmetics, jewelry and clothes, I’d actually be suspicious of a woman who had zero interest in such matters but the centre has been lost on these complementary and, I think, necessary aspects of feminine identity.

Sigrid writes:

As a former collegiate swimmer, I wanted to outline why I think swimming is a good sport for women and girls.

To answer Mr. Tall’s question: yes, those swimmer’s shoulders go away. Within a year of the time that I ended my competitive swimming career, my slender upper arms and graceful collarbones had returned.

Physically, swimming puts virtually no stress on the joints and in particular none on the hips and knees, where women are more prone to injury. Indeed, I now often go to the pool to get relief for my painful hips in the later stages of pregnancy. The only common injuries are muscle and ligament overuse injuries in the shoulders, which are easily remedied with rest (and also preventable with good coaching). You will note that none of the Olympic swimmers are wearing muscle tape, bandages, braces, etc., unlike many of the other athletes. Unlike running or even gymnastics, swimming preserves the healthy layer of subcutaneous fat that occurs naturally in women, and I am not aware of any long-term toll on the female body. Indeed, swimming is one of the activities recommended to even elderly women, making it an excellent hobby for a lifetime of good physical health.

Swimming also cultivates the ability for independent work and quiet introspection that is essential to mature womanhood. Though swimmers practice in groups, for 95 percent of the practice, a swimmer stares at the black line on the bottom of the pool and listens to nothing but the water rushing by her ears. She is alone inside her head for several hours a day. The world could do with more women capable of tuning out the constant yammering of modern electronic life.

In terms of the sport’s culture, I would much rather have my children (and in particular my daughter) make friends with other swimmers than the athletes in many other sports. High school and collegiate swimmers consistently have among the highest GPAs of any athletes. To be sure, swimmers party hard just like other students, but the excesses are necessarily curbed by the harsh reality of 6 a.m. practices. The vast majority of swimmers are upper-middle class and white — there is zero infiltration of “ghetto” culture in swimming. Additionally, because club and college swimming is co-ed (high school typically is not), the girls spend quite a bit of time with a group of hardworking, intelligent, self-motivated young men at time in their lives when many of their peers are wasting time on meaningless Facebook drama and pointless hookups. My experience was that the men’s and women’s teams generally had positive “brother-sister” relationships and there were several swimmer-marriages among my college teammates.

I was thoroughly indoctrinated with feminism and grrrlpower nonsense as a young woman and became more traditionalist only after becoming a mother in my late 20s. I will teach my daughter very different values and habits than those my mother taught (or failed to teach) me, but I would encourage her to swim.

Perhaps this is more than anyone wants to know about swimming, but the Olympics have certainly highlighted the Amazon-woman that dominates many sports.

—– Comments —–

Laura writes:

The strongest argument against competitive swimming is that it does a lot to destroy a sense of modesty in a young woman.

Mr.Tall writes:

Many thanks to Sigrid for her eloquent answer to my question about swimming. It was not more than I wanted to know! My daughter’s school is in many ways very traditional, and suits her well, but they do have an intense focus on swimming as an activity for the girls, both in PE lessons and as an extracurricular activity, so I was particularly glad to receive Sigrid’s response.

John G. writes:

Laura is correct that “The strongest argument against competitive swimming is that it does a lot to destroy a sense of modesty in a young woman.”

Sigrid makes many valid points about the ways in which competitive swimming helps you advance up the worldly ladder. But it does so at the price of your soul. It is simply not possible to walk around in public in mixed company virtually naked without becoming a pagan. There is an inherent, irreconcilable conflict between immodesty and the spiritual life. No one who displays their naked body in public can at the same time have the interior recollection necessary for real prayer.

I can give countless examples from my youth when I participated in competitive swimming. But the example which stands out in my mind is a more recent one when I took my young boys to the YMCA for swimming lessons, not to follow in my footsteps as a competitive swimmer but simply so they don’t drown.

The teacher was a very sweet young lady who was a good swimmer, and she did an excellent job teaching the swim lessons. But she had become completely desensitized to the fact that she was virtually naked — almost worse than naked considering the cut of modern bathing suits — in public while surrounded by dozens of people of both sexes. It’s like one of those dreams where you are in school and you realize that you forgot to get dressed, except this is in real life, and you are so used to it happening over and over again that it no longer upsets you.

Pope Pius XI warned about this in his encyclical “On the education of Christian Youth”:

These [boys and girls], in keeping with the wonderful designs of the Creator, are destined to complement each other in the family and in society, precisely because of their differences, which therefore ought to be maintained and encouraged during their years of formation, with the necessary distinction and corresponding separation, according to age and circumstances. These principles, with due regard to time and place, must, in accordance with Christian prudence, be applied to all schools, particularly in the most delicate and decisive period of formation, that, namely, of adolescence; and in gymnastic exercises and deportment, special care must be had of Christian modesty in young women and girls, which is so gravely impaired by any kind of exhibition in public.

When he warned against girls performing “any kind of exhibition in public,” the things he could have imagined in 1929 cannot even begin to approach the spectacles to which we are exposed today, not only in the broadcasts of the Olympics, but even at our local neighborhood YMCA.

Sheila writes:

Many thanks to Sigrid for an excellent and informative comment. Among her many excellent points, I especially prize her reference to the quiet and introspection inherent in swimming, as opposed to most other athletic activities. While I have never been a big swimmer, I adored learning to scuba dive for precisely those reasons – the quiet and the sense of being alone and at peace. She also makes excellent points about the general composition of college swim teams. While too many go to college who are not suited for higher education (which itself has been largely debased), some who do will meet their spouses in that environment. One that encourages discipline, structure, and dedication, as opposed to the debauchery and miscegenation pushed through all forms of modern media, cannot be discounted. While your points on female modesty are valid, Laura, I would argue that a one-piece suit suitable for moving the body through the water is not inherently immodest (as opposed to most suits bought and worn solely for displaying the nearly-nude body for public display).

Laura writes:

As someone who swam laps almost daily for many years, I can attest to the calm swimming can induce. But it can also be an alienating and anti-social experience. In many pools during lap sessions, swimmers, women as much as men, are very aggressive and one must constantly defend one’s turf. I finally realized I had ceased enjoying it for this reason and gave it up.

As far as modesty, I think you can more easily make a case that there are occasions in which modesty is worth suspending than you can convincingly argue that a bathing suit, even what is considered today a relatively modest one, is not revealing.

Mary writes:

With today’s clingy fabrics, even one-piece bathing suits are quite revealing. We have old pictures of my mother and her friends on the beach in the late forties. They look adorable in pretty cotton bathing suits with lined busts that cover their torsos, little skirts to cover their rears, modest necklines and straps to hold it all up. They don’t look immodest or nearly naked at all, probably because every contour of their bodies is not revealed by thin, unlined, body-conforming fabric. They look appropriately dressed – for the beach, that is.

As a mother of sons I appreciate it greatly that my friends require their daughters to follow those same basic guidelines (except for the cotton – probably impossible to find these days). There is a world of difference between teenage girl covered as described above and one in a string bikini. The difference, by the way, is not just in the dress but in the mind of the girl, too.

As far as competitive swimming goes, could they not just establish a standard of popping on a team coverup as soon as they exit the pool? Sure, it’s a little inconvenient but would go a long way towards forming their outlooks on modesty. The boys should cover up, too, by the way. Then all the kids could benefit from the swimming and at the same time maintain their sense of modesty.

Sigrid writes:

Laura wrote:

“The strongest argument against competitive swimming is that it does a lot to destroy a sense of modesty in a young women.”

Swim suits are skimpy — no argument there. But at least they are revealing for a reason. I find this sort of athletic costume far more vulgar because it serves no purpose other than to be sexy:

Tennis could easily be (and has been) played in sleeves and longer skirts. Trying to swim in a decent skirt would likely lead to drowning.

Laura writes:

I like Mary’s idea of covering up as soon as one leaves the pool.

Paul writes:

I must be unfamiliar with the modern one-piece woman’s suit because they all look to me as revealing femininity while hiding the important parts suitably.  They are not intended as casual wear.  They are intended for swimming comfortably and effectively.  The male form is almost as attractive to women as the female form is to men.  Therefore, limiting women, arguably, to potato sacks is unjust when men are unlimited and can exhibit every muscle.

I recall when I swam for exercise, and I do recall getting the impression that the person (male or female) in the next lane was competing with me or showing off.  Because of the confidence gained from my prior successful experience at sports, I sloughed it off because I was already secure in my physical abilities and kept my focus on what I was there to accomplish: cardio.  Usually, the others did not last.  Constantly I transitioned from my back to my side to my stomach to underwater and to other forms so as to avoid injury and to maintain interest. I stopped because Katrina destroyed the pool, and I still have a mild and somewhat enjoyable right-ear itch.

This is good advice to anyone who is going to exercise in public.  Do not let another exerciser’s perceived ideas control your behavior.  First, you are mind reading.  Second, once you are out of sight, the other person could not care less about you.  Go ahead and “look ridiculous” if you insist on thinking that way.  Be ignorant of the machines.  Ask around, and I guarantee that others are willing to help.  Soon others will be asking you.

I am also relieved to hear the broad shoulders disappear.

Laura writes:

No, the male form is nowhere near as visually meaningful to girls. There are very good reasons why women have historically been more modest. When we speak of standards of modesty, there is nothing “unjust” about distinguishing between girls and boys or upholding different standards. And those different standards are not motivated by prudishness or hatred of the body, but the exact opposite, a recognition of the meaning of the female form, its beauty, dignity and other transcendent qualities. A man’s body is sacred too but not in the same way. To all those out there who are reading this and reveling in their superiority because they are more enlightened and not so prudish, I encourage you to consider for a moment, or a split second even if you can, that in the ages when women were more modest, the relations between men and women were more pleasurable, even sexually more pleasurable, than they are now. Women did not resort to masturbation for fun. They were stimulated and aroused by masculinity.

Also, when girls do wear revealing clothing, it heightens sexual competitiveness among them, with the girls who are more perfect encouraged to exalt in their status. Female modesty helps female friendship.

I don’t think girls should swim in potato sacks, but a bathing suit is tight-fitting and reveals most of the body. Again, I like Mary’s idea of covering up upon leaving a pool — not with a potato sack but with the very attractive, loose-fitting pool dresses or long shirts you can find anywhere.

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