Sporting Women

By Rylee Sommers-Flanagan*

Last week in a post on Well, the health blog for the New York Times, Gretchen Reynolds explained a phenomenon that may not seem particularly troubling at first glance. Being a woman myself, I was excited to read the post, called “What Exercise Science Doesn’t Know About Women,” but as I read along, I began to feel increasingly grumpy.

Reynolds was writing about the studies of professor-researchers in New Zealand who were looking into “the role of protein in recovery from hard exercise.” They began their research with male cyclists and made noteworthy discoveries about the positive effects of high protein diets for men engaging in intense exercise. When the data was published, however, the researchers found themselves bombarded by requests from women who wanted research conducted regarding their bodies, too. As Reynolds puts it, “almost as an afterthought, Dr. Rowlands and his colleagues repeated the entire experiment with experienced female riders.” Their findings were practically opposite; women “showed no clear benefit from protein during recovery.” Reynolds notes that Rowlands found this surprising.

Unfortunately, a primary focus on men in athletic research is far from uncommon. While organizations like the Women’s Sports Foundation exist and are making real inroads on research for and about women and girls in athletics and in other realms, there is a dearth of information when it comes to specifics about our bodies—especially specifics about how to make our bodies yield a greater competitive edge.

Part of the problem is that we, as a world community, don’t take female athletes seriously. While we may be impressed by the occasional hot tennis player, we hardly notice the vast majority of women on the court, field, or track. The Center for Feminist Research at the University of Southern California recently replicated a study from the early 90s, which found 95% of sports television in 1990 focused exclusively on male athletes. Rather than an increase, the study reported a significant decrease, finding that in 2009, only 1.6% of sports television covered female athletes. In their conclusion, the authors noted that female athletes generally garner media attention as sexual objects, as mothers, wives or girlfriends, and occasionally as participants in fights or scandals. Respectful, positive highlights of women athletes in our media today are rare.

Organizations including the Girl Scouts, Girls Inc, and Strong Women Strong Girls demonstrate to us that we, the women and girls of the world, are exceptional athletes. We are tough and competitive, strong and determined.

What’s more, we’re healthier, happier and generally more successful because of our involvement in sports. In striving for athletic prowess, we consistently benefit. Yet while the WNBA celebrates leaders like NCRW’s own President, Linda Basch—who will receive the Inspiring Women Award on July 27, mainstream media makes hardly a peep.

It’s gravely disappointing that despite groundbreaking achievements made by female athletes and the exceptional impact of sports on women’s overall wellbeing, we’re often unnoticed and even forgotten. Women are worthy of airtime; the days of the infamous Mia Hamm and Michael Jordan commercial should prove that to us. 

It’s a silent, soft sexism that allows women to be an afterthought, or our anatomy a surprise. Despite generations of discrimination and limited opportunity, women have worked their way into the athletic scene. In every iteration of sports, women are present, sometimes against all odds. Rowlands’ research is merely an illustration of the willing forgetfulness of the greater population. Equal opportunity and recognition come slowly. But the participation of women, through our words and our actions, does matter. We deserve to be the focus of scientific research, medical research, and psychological research.

Fortunately, we’ll be flexing our muscles to jog the collective memory. 

*Rylee Sommers-Flanagan is a Communications Intern and a student at Emory University in Atlanta, GA, where she is pursuing a degree in International Studies.

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thanks for this post! 1.6%! how terrible. i recommend the facebook group: I pledge to attend one women's sports event this year: and to really start buying tickets for women's sporting events! if we put our money into it, hopefully women's sports will get more coverage in the future.