The Female/Athlete Paradox: Managing Traditional Views of Masculinity and Femininity
by Andrea Paloian
The concept of gender is one that is instilled in us at birth and attempts to define, evaluate, and classify males and females (Blinde & Taub, 1992; Koivula, 1995, 2001; Kolnes, 1995; Ross & Shinew, 2008). The qualities associated with gender are socially constructed according to cultural standards, and consist of stereotypes that lead to the creation of gender roles and gender typing (Berk, 2009). The global concept of gender is subdivided into two bipolar constructs: masculinity and femininity, although occasionally androgyny is also included. Interpretations of these concepts may vary according to an individual’s ethnicity, culture, sexual orientation, or socioeconomic status, but in the Western world, there is a privileged, or “hegemonic” conceptualization when considering masculinity and femininity (Anderson, 2005; Krane, 2001; Krane, Choi, Baird, Aimar, & Kauer, 2004; Ross & Shinew, 2008). Hegemonic masculinity and femininity are generally structured in our culture by the “dominant” group, which refers to those who are White, heterosexual, and middle-class with an ideal physique that differs according to one’s gender. The standard body type for females is one that is thin, yet toned and lean, while males are expected to have large muscles that are toned and well defined (Dworkin, 2001; Krane et al., 2004). Male athletes who participate in “masculine sports” (i.e. competitive sports that require power, speed, and strength) such as Tom Brady, Derek Jeter, and David Beckham are idolized not only for their athletic achievements, but also for their physical appearances and representations of hegemonic masculinity (Alley & Hicks, 2005; Dworkin, 2001; Wiley, Shaw, & Havitz,2000). However, female athletes who do not necessarily represent the hegemonic feminine ideal, such as Venus and Serena Williams, Mia Hamm, and mixed martial arts fighter Gina Carano, encounter more difficulties in their careers as they attempt to balance a feminine image with the masculine qualities associated with their sports (Dworkin, 2001). While female athletes are more likely to encounter this conflict, males who participate in more “feminine” sports, such as figure skating, dancing, and cheerleading are also subject to this dilemma (Anderson, 2005). Although research regarding this conflict exists for both males and females, this review will focus predominantly on female athletes.
Females’ participation in sports is often thought to be less appreciated by Western cultures since athletics are primarily maledominated and characterized by masculine qualities, such as strength, aggression, and competition (Krane et al., 2004). Contrary to this belief, others insist that a significant change has occurred due to the implementation of Title IX in 1972, which mandates nondiscrimination in admission, access, and treatment in all educational institutions receiving government funding (Lopiano, 2000). Since the passage of Title IX, women’s sport participation is constantly on the rise, leading to a variety of psychological and physiological benefits (Lopiano, 2000). Despite these positive strides, women still face multiple challenges when pursuing their athletic desires, which are largely due to long-standing gender norms established long ago. As women continue to contradict these traditional beliefs, perhaps our society will continue to become more accepting of female athletic participation, and more specifically when considering those engaging in the more male-dominated sports.
One of the prevailing arguments presented by multiple researchers states that athletic women face a dilemma; they are expected to succeed in their sport while maintaining hegemonic femininity, which can be a difficult balance to establish and maintain (Dworkin, 2001; Halbert, 1997; Kolnes, 1995; Krane, 2001, Krane et al., 2004; Mennesson, 2000; Ross & Shinew, 2008). This conflict describes what is referred to as the “female/athlete paradox” (Krane et al., 2004; Kolnes, 1995; Meân & Kassing, 2008; Ross & Shinew, 2008). As Krane (2001) explains, “Sportswomen tread a fine line of acceptable femininity…engaging in athletic activities is empowering, yet maintaining an acceptable feminine demeanor is disempowering” (116). Krane’s statement reflects the results of various research studies, which found that traditional expectations focusing on appearance and exhibiting femininity are maintained by society’s attitudes towards athletic women (Halbert, 1997; Hardin, Chance, Dodd, & Hardin, 2002; Krane, 2001; Ross & Shinew, 2008). Therefore, female athletes are faced with the task of learning to balance hegemonic femininity and athleticism both on and off the field, ring, or court in order to be accepted in Western culture.
Although social boundaries appear to dissuade women from engaging in masculine-labeled sports, they are actually becoming more popular among female athletes as time progresses and traditional gender norms are gradually restructured. Despite modified conceptualizations of gender ideals and an increase in female participation, it has been argued that these changes are still not enough to eradicate the “deviant” label often associated with female athletes who do not conform to traditional Western beliefs (Halbert, 1997). A question that arises from this conflict is, “How can these ‘deviant’ female athletes become more accepted by our society?” One potential answer is to simply begin by understanding the female/athlete paradox, which may have the potential to facilitate changes in our society’s gender stereotypes. Females’ integration in sport “forces society to re-define masculinity and femininity, and this throws into turmoil beliefs regarding gender roles” (as cited by Ross & Shinew, 2008, p. 53). While athletic women understand the beliefs associated with traditional gender roles, they are beginning to challenge these views by reframing what it means to be feminine in society (Ross & Shinew, 2008). As a result of this contention, the well-established boundary dividing gender between masculinity and femininity begins to fade, allowing individuals to freely exhibit qualities associated with both categories simultaneously.
Femininity and Masculinity as Bipolar Constructs
Masculinity and femininity have traditionally been perceived as two distinct and opposing concepts, causing individuals to be categorized as either entirely masculine or entirely feminine. Understanding gender in this manner led to a unidimensional research approach that measured people based on levels of either masculinity or femininity, but not both simultaneously (Alley & Hicks, 2005). Recently, a more modern view is developing that aims to understand masculinity and femininity on a spectrum such that an individual, regardless of his or her gender, can exhibit varying degrees of both gender categories. This new approach allows athletic women to “retain their femininity even if they are ‘masculinized’ by participation in competitive sports” (Alley & Hicks, 2005, p. 275). In order to fully understand the conflict athletic women face and the findings from present research, it is essential to operationalize the terms “masculine” and “feminine.”
The definition of femininity may not necessarily be the same across cultures, but in conventional Western communities, being feminine is often characterized by having dainty, polite, and girly qualities (Krane, 2001; Krane et al., 2004). One of the most definitive representations of feminine perfection in North American culture is exhibited by the best-selling Barbie doll. After converting the doll’s proportions to those of a human, Barbie would equate to a 5 foot 10 inch tall female weighing just over one hundred pounds with a 20-inch waist (as cited in Neverson & White, 2002). According to the National Health Statistics Reports from 2003-2006, the average woman in the United States was 5 foot 3 inches, weighed 155 pounds, and had a waist measurement of 36 inches (McDowell, Fryar, Ogden, & Flegal, 2008). Even though there are now variations of Barbie that include her wearing outfits from several different sports, such as basketball, soccer, and rollerblading, they still emphasize her femininity by using clothing that is predominantly pink or purple and emphasizes her exaggerated physique. Several studies examining the ways Barbie affects girls in late childhood and early adolescence found that those exposed to the doll at an earlier age reported a greater desire for thinness, poorer body image, and were more likely to develop eating disorders (Dittmar, Halliwell, & Ive, 2006; Norton, Olds, Olive, & Dank, 1996). The differences between Barbie’s ideal feminine image and the reality of the NHSR’s sample of women seem quite obvious, but Western cultures continue to focus on the necessity of a flawless and delicate body to correspond with the weak and passive qualities associated with women (Neverson & White, 2002). This view is further amplified by the basic biological assumption that women are weaker than men, which can possibly constrain both genders and place limitations on females who wish to pursue sports (Lopiano, 2000; Ross & Shinew, 2008).
Women who find ways to see beyond these societal pressures and learn to integrate their desired levels of femininity within their chosen sport may have the ability to develop effective coping methods when facing insecurities surrounding body image and/or when approaching the female/athlete paradox. In a study by Ross and Shinew (2008), semistructured interviews were given to elite college female athletes involved in either gymnastics or softball to understand how they perceived and experienced the female/athlete paradox. When asked about their definitions of femininity, the participants focused mainly on beauty, fashion, body-type, and make-up. More than half of the participants specifically referred to cheerleaders, models, or sorority girls when providing examples of feminine women, and explained that their choices were based on women who often place significant value on their daily appearances, regardless of the context. The athletes also commonly described feminine qualities as “slender,” “weaker and slower,” “passive,” and “more unsure of themselves” (p. 47), which contrasted with perceptions of masculine traits (more muscular, aggressive, strong, and confident). These women acknowledged and discussed the dualistic notion between masculinity and femininity in their interviews; they found that this gender differentiation placed limitations not only on their athletic competence, but also on the ways in which they were publically perceived when compared to females who followed traditional feminine norms. However, the participants also expressed a sense of pride and appreciation for their athletic skill and physical power, along with enjoyment in portraying a feminine appearance when they chose to do so. These results suggest that athletic women may have the ability to challenge and even redefine what it means to be a sportswoman, which includes understanding that they do not have to sacrifice their femininity to participate in “masculine” sports or to be a successful athlete.
While much of the research surrounding female athletes and gender stereotypes focuses predominantly on the bipolarity between masculinity and femininity, there is a large gap in the literature when considering a third, less extreme gender construct: androgyny. Relatively little research exists on androgyny and athletics, particularly beyond the 1980s, but it is an important concept that departures from dichotomous gender theories. It suggests the possibility for a medium between the opposing masculine and feminine labels, allowing androgynous individuals to be simultaneously gentle and strong, dependent and independent, and/or competitive and passive (Hoferek & Hanick, 1985). Since this gender category allows one to exhibit masculine and feminine qualities concurrently, it seems as if androgyny would be an appropriate solution for the conflicts female athletes experience. However, since women who convey androgynous traits inevitably embody some characteristics associated with masculinity, such as self-confidence, assertiveness, and determination, it seems that the mere presence of these qualities has the ability to overpower the existence of their feminine traits. The focus then returns to the belief that these individuals are not feminine, and they frequently become associated with negative stereotypes including “man-hating,” “pushy,” or homosexual (Lenskyj, 1987, p. 382). Androgyny may seem to be the perfect and logical solution to the female/athlete paradox, but research shows the reality of this concept is clearly quite different than its theoretical implications. Since nearly all of the studies involving androgyny were conducted during the 1980s, this gap in the literature is one that needs to be further explored to have a more comprehensive understanding of gender categorizations, and more specifically in relation to the female/athlete paradox.
Classifying Sports Through Gender
Stereotypical gender roles created a boundary that delineated which sports were socially acceptable for male and female participation according to perceived degrees of masculinity, femininity, or gender-neutrality i.e., androgyny (Koivula, 1995, 2001). Participation in sports traditionally regarded as masculine, including boxing (Halbert, 1997), ice hockey (Krane, 2001), weight lifting, and motor sports (Koivula, 2001), are deemed inappropriate for women. Instead, females are often encouraged to engage in activities such as figure skating, gymnastics, and tennis (Ross & Shinew, 2008) since these are considered more feminine and are therefore met with less criticism and fewer encounters with negative consequences. When athletic women do not appear to be feminine enough or choose to engage in male-dominated sports, they are bound to face a variety of repercussions including: maltreatment from administrators and coaches, verbal harassment by fans, fewer endorsements, decreased media attention, and/or unfair decisions by judges or officials during competitions (Krane, 2001). These challenges clearly impact sport participation choices, often leading women to conform to the more feminine options (as cited by Wiley, Shaw, & Havitz, 2000).
Various studies have been conducted to understand how individuals rate sports as being more or less appropriate for a particular gender. Nathalie Koivula (1995) examined this theory to explore the ways in which college men and women categorize a variety of sports. The participants rated the options as either female appropriate, male appropriate, or neutral, based on how they believed society would classify the activities. Results showed that most sports were regarded as gender-neutral, which included examples such as cycling, jogging, and tennis. About 30% of the sports were thought to be more masculine, including football, weightlifting, and boxing, and the fewest amount (about 10%) were considered feminine sports with examples such as dance, figure skating, and synchronized swimming. Koivula’s findings led to the conclusion that classifying sports in this manner greatly influences males’ and females’ choices in regard to sport type, as well as their levels of commitment. A possible explanation for this finding could be that individuals often avoid activities deemed sexinappropriate because of the negative thoughts, feelings, and stigmatizations they experience, such as body image insecurities, homophobic harassment, and anxiety about not conforming to societal norms (Blinde & Taub, 1992; Dworkin, 2001; Krane et al., 2004). Therefore, women who do not participate in gender-appropriate sports are at greater risk for quitting or choosing a “feminine” sport from the start (Halbert, 1997; Koivula, 1995).
Studies examining the classification of sports through gender try to understand how society’s sex-role expectations impact the categorization of athletic activities as being masculine, feminine, or gender neutral, while attempting to identify the characteristics used to differentiate between these three constructs (Alley & Hicks, 2005; Koivula, 1995, 2001; Krane, 2001). Researchers found that sports considered beautiful, graceful, nonaggressive, and aesthetically pleasing are typically considered most appropriate for women, and unsuitable for male involvement. The existence of beauty seems especially significant in feminine sports, most likely because of its importance to the general idea of femininity. Common examples of sports appropriate for female participation are gymnastics, dance, and figure skating, which is probably due to their expressive qualities and graceful movements that are meant to visually please the audience by emphasizing the athletes’ feminine physiques (Koivula, 2001). This category of sports is also usually individualistic rather than team oriented, and frequently involves a separation of opponents from one another (e.g. swimmers compete in the same pool but have individual lanes to divide participants). Organizing athletes in this manner excludes almost all contact sports, which are deemed more male-appropriate. Sports categorized as “masculine” tend to focus less on aesthetics and more on competition, strength, and aggression. Examples of these characteristics can be observed in wrestling, ice hockey, and bodybuilding, which require efforts to physically subdue an opponent, lift or overpower heavy objects, and/or use bodily contact to succeed (Alley & Hicks, 2005; Dworkin, 2001; Ross & Shinew, 2007). Sport qualities that include winning and a “war-like structure” (Ross & Shinew, 2007, p. 44) are socially limited to males, while females are expected to participate in those based on cooperation and grace; these activities are deemed sex-appropriate since they allow both genders to maintain traditional gender norms (Koivula, 2001).
While almost all sports are categorized by gender to some degree, certain types are more gender-differentiated, or significantly more appropriate for one gender than another. Individuals who participate in highly differentiated sports that are “gender-inappropriate” will most likely experience negative consequences, such as being labeled “deviant:” one who departs from or violates traditional social norms (Blinde & Taub, 1992; Halbert, 1997; Kolnes, 1995). Women who threaten these standards, such as those who participate in highly differentiated “masculine” sports (e.g., boxing or football) are sometimes considered a challenge to the “boundaries of femininity” (as cited by Halbert, 1997, p. 11). Since boxing is often considered the most masculine of any other sport and is characterized by aggression, brutality, violence, and bloodshed, female boxers are thought to be exceptionally gender deviant (Halbert, 1997). Joyce Carol Oates describes the mainstream view of female boxers and writes, “Raw aggression is thought to be the peculiar province of men, as nurturing is the peculiar province of women. The female boxer violates this stereotype and cannot be taken seriously – she is parody, she is cartoon, she is monstrous” (p. 73). Female boxers’ engagement in a sport representing pure masculinity in Western culture causes their femininity to be distorted until it is unrecognizable. Since people are often less familiar with observing women display such stereotypical masculine qualities, including strength, destruction, and vehemence, these athletes are more likely to be labeled as deviant, unnatural, and/or manly (Dworkin, 2001; Krane, 2001; Krane et al., 2004). Females who participate in gender-inappropriate sports do not fulfill the characteristics of hegemonic femininity and are therefore met with harsh criticisms and negative consequences they must learn to manage.
Women who participate in “gender deviant” sports often use identity-controlling strategies to cope with negative feedback from the public. Some examples of these defensive techniques may include: deemphasizing their athletic achievements and what their sport means to them, choosing to participate in a less stigmatized sport, or dropping out of their sport when they can no longer manage being associated with the negative stereotypes (Halbert, 1997). The issue that causes one to use these identity controlling strategies or stigma management methods (Blinde & Taub, 1992) ultimately leads back to the larger cultural attitudes surrounding athletic women. Negative societal views directed towards female athletes are perhaps the strongest prohibiting factors for women who have the desire to enter and commit to the maledominated sports world. Females who participate in boxing and other “masculine” sports challenge the traditional cultural stereotypes associated with athletics, as these women prove that they can play any sport, no matter how masculine it is considered. The ability to confront our society’s traditional gender roles demonstrates how “nothing remains off limits to women” (Halbert, 1997, p. 32).
Female boxers are often used to represent the experiences women encounter when involved in a “masculine” sport, while gymnasts are a common example used when referring to those engaged in “feminine” sports. In the study previously mentioned by Ross and Shinew (2008), female gymnasts and softball players were asked various questions regarding their beliefs about female athletes and whether or not participating in their chosen sports created conflicts in their lives. Almost all of the gymnasts considered their sport more feminine than others, especially when compared to those such as basketball, soccer, and softball, which they felt were almost always associated with masculinity. They also expressed that sports such as rugby, wrestling, hockey, and bodybuilding were strongly associated with male characteristics and were “weird” and “odd” for female participation. When the athletes were asked what sports they felt were more associated with female participation, some of them mentioned cheerleading as being exceptionally feminine, although others questioned whether or not this was actually a sport. The overall findings of this study showed that the participating athletes were aware of traditional gender definitions and stereotypes, but were able to balance being successful in their sport with representing the ideal feminine image when they chose to do so. Perhaps understanding the significance of being a female athlete and revising the negative assumptions associated with being one will eventually lead to changes in traditional representations of femininity, especially when considering physical appearance and body type expectations.
Mascularity and Physical Build
While the ideal body size and shape varies across cultures, the feminine standard for Western societies emphasizes a thin physique with toned, lean muscle (Lenskyj, 1987). Attempts to fulfill these demands can create difficulties for female athletes, since they must develop more muscle mass to successfully perform in their sport. These women cannot develop “oversized muscles” (Krane et al., 2004), because exhibiting this feature violates gender norms and contributes to the connection between athleticism and lesbianism (Halbert, 1997). Associating female athletes with lesbianism has been a common theme in the United States and “follows a belief in the myth of the masculinization and mannishness of athletic women” (as cited in Halbert, 1997, p. 11). Females’ sexual orientations are often judged according to their physical build; those who exhibit a more muscular body type are more likely to be labeled “dyke,” “butch,” or “lesbian” (Blinde & Taub, 1992, p. 529). Sportswomen attempt to avoid these negative stereotypes by trying to prevent an increase in muscle mass, or for some women, ceasing participation altogether. Dworkin’s (2001) study examined how women from a variety of ethnicities and SES’s perceived and managed cultural body ideals through their exercise routines. Many women stated the importance of cardiovascular exercises, since these burned fat, helped them stay lean while maintaining curves, and did not make them “bigger.” The most common theme throughout the study was the fear of an increase in size, whether it was due to muscle or fat. Most women expressed increased muscle mass and weight lifting as masculine, which they tried to avoid. Dworkin describes: “[the women] focused on weight work and bulk as ‘masculine’ bodily villains and cardiovascular work as a ‘feminine’ bodily savior” (p. 338). Through this statement, one can observe the immense amount of pressure and emphasis women place on physical size in relation to gender. The extreme way in which weight work and cardiovascular work are contrasted provides a telling depiction of how gender is perceived in our culture; despite more recent efforts that attempt to reframe it so masculinity and femininity exist on a spectrum, it is still often viewed as a divided concept where men and women must adhere to their respective norms in order to be accepted by society.
Complications can inevitably arise from the pressures and expectations that female athletes feel they must present through the “appropriate” female body. In a study by Krane, Waldron, Michaelenok, and Stiles-Shipley (2001), women who had to wear revealing uniforms, such as bathing suits or leotards, were apprehensive about their appearance. They feared that others would view them as being “fat” or “too big” (p. 320), which led to unhealthy dieting, disordered eating, or excessive exercise in some cases (Krane et al., 2001). Other women were concerned about their amount of muscle mass, which led to negative associations in regards to their weight, despite their low percentage of body fat. The athletes explained feeling traumatized by their initial increase in body weight and were upset by their increased muscle mass because it contradicted cultural perceptions of the ideal body and discredited their femininity (Krane et al., 2001). Since sportswomen must have an athletic body in order to meet the demands required by their sport while simultaneously trying to maintain society’s ideal feminine body-image standards, it is not uncommon for them to feel forced to face a lose-lose situation (Krane, 2001). This is yet another example of the struggle sportswomen experience when trying to navigate their way through the female/athlete paradox. In order to manage the difficulties associated with this complex dilemma, women attempt to develop positive coping mechanisms (e.g., finding a sense of appreciation for their athletic achievements), which may foster greater feelings of selfacceptance, pride, and empowerment that may not be obtainable elsewhere (Ross & Shinew, 2008).
Understanding the female/athlete paradox and the difficulties sportswomen experience may be the first step towards confronting socially constructed gender norms and dichotomous views of masculinity and femininity in Western culture. Female involvement in athletics provides an opportunity to reassess the implications of masculinity and femininity in society by constructing new definitions of what genderappropriate behaviors may look like (Ross & Shinew, 2008). As Ross and Shinew (2008) state, “While dualistic notions of gender have been shown to constrain sport participation for girls and women, they are developing ways to persist and succeed within sport” (p. 53). When women participate in athletic activities, they are given the opportunity to feel more powerful and in control over their lives, leading to a sense of selfacceptance, pride, and appreciation for their athletic competence (as cited by Ross & Shinew, 2008). A study assessing adolescent girls found that those involved in physical activity were less likely to take part in high-risk health behaviors such as cigarette smoking, were more likely to graduate from high school and experience academic success, and reported higher levels of self-esteem and fewer cases of depression (Lopiano, 2000). While some researchers examining disordered eating and body image reported that these negative behaviors and perceptions were more likely to exist in female athletes, especially for those in certain “high-risk” sports such as gymnastics, swimming, and running (Krane et al., 2004; as cited by Smolak, Murnen, & Ruble, 2000), others found contradictory results. Research conducted by Smolak et al. (2000) compared female athletes with a non-athlete control group and determined that the experimental athlete group managed considerably better in regards to body dissatisfaction. Therefore, perhaps sport participation has the ability to provide a preventative intervention to protect females from experiencing body image discontentment and potential disordered eating behaviors.
One area of research that needs to be covered more extensively is the affect of culture on gender norms and how perceptions of female athletes may vary cross-culturally. Most of the studies conducted in this area of research have focused on “generic sporting women” (as cited in Krane et al., 2004, p. 327), or women in Western cultures who can identify with the ways in which hegemonic femininity is structured. Although many of the participating athletes in these studies described similar ideal body types, which mirrored those most frequently portrayed by the media, it is important to recognize that these responses were all from an analogous sample type (i.e. mostly generic sporting women). Athletes of various ethnicities and sexual orientations may not desire the same image that consumes the media, and are often ignored in comparison to the “dominant” group of women who represent hegemonic femininity (Krane et al., 2004). It is essential for researchers to examine and explore this gap in order to resolve the conflicts female athletes experience, regardless of their racial/ethnic background, SES, or sexual orientation.
Despite dualistic gender notions, which are believed to inhibit females’ participation in sports, more women are challenging these traditional Western beliefs by competing and succeeding in a variety of sports. Females’ involvement in athletics provides opportunities for women to challenge themselves by exploring a domain where they may feel excluded, leading to a previously undiscovered sense of security and confidence (Ross & Shinew, 2008). As more women try to determine their roles in the athletic realm, they may actually encounter a sense of liberation, not oppression, by experiencing their bodies and selves as strong and free from male domination (Theberge, 1985). As this review has indicated, navigating one’s way through the female/athlete paradox is a complicated and challenging task that often requires women to confront a variety of internal and external struggles. As female athletes continue to persevere and work through various gender constraints, they also begin to redefine what it means to be a sportswoman in Western culture, which is an initial step towards redefining hegemonic femininity.
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Andrea Paloian is a senior in the Applied Psychology program. Her main research interests include gender studies and attachment theory. After graduating, she hopes to pursue a degree in clinical psychology.