The Female Athlete as Cultural Icon, written by Leslie Heywood and Shari L. Dworkin
A brief book review by Allison Lawrence - Assistant Volleyball Coach at University of Montana
What is it? Built to Win is both a study and a critique of the role of the female athlete within our culture today. It is as vast as it is important. In more academic terms, it is a study of how the female athlete has risen to iconic status within the context of an American culture immersed in “hyped-up consumerism, media culture, and late global capitalism.” (xxiv) In other words, it is the story of how female athletes have gained access to our culture’s most powerful institutions and what that access has meant – both for better and for worse – for women.
Who is it written for? Built to Win is for coaches of female athletes. This book is also written for academics, coaches, athletes, and sports enthusiasts alike. This book is written for the female athlete who wants to know more about why, at times, sports feel like a near-perfect world where she was valued and seen while, at other times within this world, she feels more invisible than ever. Too often there are conversations amongst academics and amongst those who work in athletics that never reach each other. We continue to have separate discussions of how sports shape individual and cultural identity without combining our knowledge and expertise. This book is a compelling combination of the academic and the lived experience – written by women who have been both athletes and academics their entire lives. What becomes clear from the outset is that sports have given them the tools to advocate responsibly for everyone’s access to sport – they are informed by the joys of competition, the affirming experience of being a part of a team, and the life-changing skills athletes acquire through sport participation. Leslie Heywood and Shari Dworkin are also aware of the ways in which sports have produced negative experiences and helped shape debilitating cultural norms. The sports world is a world where the answers lie in ambiguity and contradiction: “Welcome to this world, and a dollhouse it isn’t. Sports are great for women. Sports can contribute to social problems. Sports are better for some women than others at this very moment. All sides of the argument are true.” (54)
Why is this book different from other books about gender and sport? Built to Win challenges gender stereotypes. While it does not go into the argument of nature vs. nurture, the book focuses on the nurture. Heywood and Dworkin challenge the notion that gender is binary (male/female, active/passive, strong/weak, competitive/cooperative), but argue instead that gender can be represented by a continuum where both men and women fall in a variety of locations on a spectrum. We all have coached female athletes (or perhaps are these female athletes ourselves) who are completely comfortable being called out in front of her teammates, having all the pressure placed on her shoulders, acting aggressive on and off the court, and dealing with conflict openly and directly. We all have also coached – or been – female athletes who are much more passive, never want any credit or to be seen as the star of the team, have a hard time confronting teammates, and need a lot of reassurance that the coach is pleased with their performance. Female athletes cannot be characterized in any way any more than women can. The issue – and the work that needs to be done by coaches – is that, regardless of the nature/nurture argument, there are still very real social repercussions for acting outside of our culture’s gender norms. We need to help our athletes make sense of the images and behavior they experience while at the same time fighting alongside them to stop what continues to marginalize them. Perhaps our young women do not communicate directly or aggressively, not because they innately don’t feel comfortable, but because they are uncomfortable with the social punishments for doing so. They are well aware that behaving more ‘masculine’ (exhibiting strength, competence, and aggression) can lead to being called a bitch or worse. On our teams we try to teach our young women that bodily strength is healthy and it feels good, and yet they continue to fight getting ‘too big’ or ‘too manly’ and will often acquire destructive habits (disordered eating, minimal practice/lifting effort, drug/alcohol abuse) in order to fit in. Our culture polices bodies every day and this does not stop in the gym. Coaches need to understand the cultural context under which our female athletes compete so that we may use sport to teach our young women that more is possible for them. What I love about this book is that it makes sense out of an increasingly confusing world of images, body-ideals, sexism, racism, homophobia, etc. This book outlines the contradictory experiences and identities of our female athletes in an effort to highlight the ways that coaches and athletes themselves can fight together for positive and affirming solutions.
Why is this book important? As coaches of female athletes, we need to understand the world our athletes inhabit if we expect to teach them how to thrive in it. As advocates of all our student athletes, we need to fight against gender norms, the policing of bodies, and the social punishments for acting, living, and identifying outside of the norm. We have a responsibility as coaches to create safe spaces for our athletes to grow and compete. The obstacles we deliberately manufacture during practice involve tough drills, game-like pressure, and tactical adjustments. Those are the obstacles that we use as tools to make tough athletes; we deliberately create a world every day that challenges our athletes to push past what they perceive as possible. The practice gym, however, is not a vacuum. Each athlete brings an identity and a set of experiences with her to practice that heighten or hinder her ability to deal with the challenges she faces on the volleyball court. Just as we build controlled obstacles to make our athletes better, we also need to know what obstacles need destroying.
Dworkin, Shari L. and Heywood, Leslie, eds. Built to Win; The Female Athlete as Cultural Icon.Minneapolis: Minnesota UP, 2003.