Wednesday, October 19, 2011

Picturing Hope Solo

Hope Solo survived her fifth week on Dancing with the Stars. I'm glad: she is a smart, outspoken athlete and the challenge of that program requires that she confront the different ways by which her image, as a woman, is regulated. I, for one, am glad she's willing to do so publicly.

As I've mentioned in previous posts, some USWNT fans hate the way DWTS treats Solo: Judges complained for weeks about how unfeminine her movements are, and every week they cite her physical strength as a weakness. I've explained why I don't think that is necessarily wrong. (It's a gendered performance, Solo seems uncomfortable in heels and also unsure of how one executes a routine without powering through it.)

It is worth pausing, however, to remember why fans of women's sports can get very defensive: we've been abused. We've been abused by the media blackout on women's sports, which is interrupted only occasionally by stories of exceptional victories (in lieu of regularly coverage of a season, for example) or by portraits of female monsters. So we flinch when we see the media turn its eye towards us. It's a conditioned reflex.

Add to that the paternalistic attitude with which administrators and even (sometimes especially) supporters of women's sports treat women athletes. Leagues have banned players for getting pregnant out of wedlock (imagine doing that to men! in this case, the athlete filed a suit so she could play,  she won but the controversy ended her promising career); fans tsk tsk when they see players off the court who pile on make up or wear a short skirt. National Federations compel athletes to grow long hair, and prefer that those women keep their opinions to themselves. (Look feminine! But not too much! Play hard! But not like a boy! Or too much like a girl!)

Most of us don't know where to start when talking about the image of the female athlete, because every step seems to take us in a bad direction. So when in 2009 ESPN Magazinefirst produced "The Body Issue," featuring portraits of naked men and women athletes, fans of women's sports started sharpening their knives.

It turns out that a lot of the portraits directly challenge conventions regarding the feminization and sexualization of the female athlete - this is particularly true for the image of Solo used as one of the magazine's covers.

Practical matters make photographing nude women tougher than photographing men: Women are obliged to pose in ways that covers their chests. This means that the poses are more static and defensive. Solo's cover photo is an exception. The pose reveals much about her body while also refusing, aggressively, to capitulate to conventions regarding the female nude. She is in motion, moving forward toward the viewer - her curves (and she does have them) are not hidden so much as engaged, put to work.

I think this must by why a Washington Post writer recently described Solo as androgynous. Hope Solo is as far from being androgynous as one can be: When you look at Solo, you do not wonder if she's a boy. Not even close. If she were androgynous, she couldn't have played the broad shouldered, big haired 80s Bon Jovi bitch so perfectly on this week's episode. (She landed in 4th, her best finish to date.)

But the photographs of Solo treat her body in a way that is very close to gender-neutral. It's not Solo that's androgynous, but the composition of the portraits - it's the way she is being looked at. It the way she is not being looked at.

"The Body Issue" gives us a lot to think about. Those portraits are cool, but when you look at the rest of the issue you'll see a TOTAL absence of coverage of women's sports. The only place women figure in this issue is in the nude portraits. So, the project of "The Body Issue" seems to be completely independent of any effort on the magazine's part to move towards parity in terms of its coverage. The truly sad fact is that the editors of the magazine probably think putting that wonderful portrait of Solo on the cover "counts" as coverage of women's sports. Not in my book. And, I suspect, not in Solo's either.

Saturday, October 15, 2011

Lament for the Injured, Pt. 2

Riyas Komu, from exhibit "Safe to Fight" (Azad Art Gallery, Tehran, 2010)
Fear of ACL injury has replaced fear of intimacy as my number one issue. Plenty of people come back from an ACL tear and still play in leagues and pick-up games. But plenty also leave the sport forever.

If I turn a cold eye on my fear, I see that I am less afraid of never playing soccer than I am of the rehabilitation that it would take to go from a torn ACL to playing again. It isn't the tear that scares me, but being off my feet, not being able to run - sinking into depression and giving up. Not having the emotional strength and discipline to take on something like that.

I called my HMO the morning after my injury and pushed to see someone that day - I was clear: "I am afraid I tore my ACL." I was determined confront my fear - or rather, I should say, my knee insisted.

I said the magic word to describe my pain ("acute") and soon gained entry to orthopedics (I had asked for Sports Medicine, but was re-routed). I am not a difficult patient, but I have something to say about what's going on with my body. Unfortunately, this doesn't always make one's journey as a patient smoother.

A detour through past medical trauma

In 1984, I was hospitalized for eight days. A couple days before I found myself in an ambulance, I had gone to the student health clinic at Rutgers College because I was afraid I had a kidney infection.

A good friend of mine became deathly ill from this when we were first-year students. I knew the symptoms, and mine were identical to hers.

An affable young male doctor saw me. He didn't seem to take my concerns seriously. I had constant, deep pain in my lower back - off to one side exactly where the kidney is located. I had a low-grade fever, symptoms of a UTI, I was starting to feel like I had a flu or something. I could feel that this back pain wasn't muscular - it was deep, and constant.

He asked if I lifted heavy things - maybe I sprained my back. I worked in a kitchen and lifted heavy things all the time - but didn't recall hurting myself. "And how would that explain the fever, anyway?" I asked.

He told me to take extra-strength Tylenol. I said I wanted to be sure I didn't have a kidney infection. Would he please run a test? Could I please pee in a cup so we could just be sure - I was really concerned because kidney infections are really serious, and if you get to the point were you need to be hospitalized, the recovery is slow. As a working student, I couldn't afford to be out of commission for a month. I peed in a cup and went home. I took the Tylenol and felt better, but the symptoms kept returning as the pills wore off.

The next day I called the clinic to ask about the test results - they said: "The test came back negative." I bought nice food for myself because I hadn't eaten a decent meal in days. I took more Tylenol - I ate cheese and crackers, some fruit, and went to bed.

That night I was violently ill. There was a reason I had no appetite: my body couldn't handle food. I soaked the sheets with sweat. My fever kept climbing, dipping, and climbing again. By the morning I couldn't keep down water. It was the last week of the semester, and I couldn't imagine not going to my feminist political theory seminar. Being young and delirious, I went to class.

I sat on the floor in the hallway with the other students and waited for the professor. My classmates (an intense collection of college activists) insisted I go directly to the nearest university health clinic (attached to the women's college, different from the one I used). I must have been a sight - gray and sweaty. Having trouble staying vertical, and having little will of my own by this point, I went. It was about three blocks away, and I remember walking there being really hard.

I more or less collapsed when I walked in the door. My fever was 104. I remember telling the staff taht I'd been to the other clinic about fearing I had a kidney infection, and that this clinic said I was fine. The doctor on duty at the women's college clinic was soon yelling into the telephone, swearing. She shouted "You did what?!" and said "What fucking assholes," or something like that when she hung up. She then ranted to her colleagues.

I later learned that the doctor I'd seen (a resident) had decided that I w as trying to manipulate him into giving me a pregnancy test, on the assumption that I was too ashamed to ask for one. So, when I called about my test results, I had gotten the result of a pregnancy test I had not asked for.  This is bad enough. But when I went to that first clinic, I had told the resident who treated me that I had my period.

The picture I should have presented to that doctor was that of an articulate young woman, who was quite frank about what was going on with her body, and who was worried that she had a kidney infection. The doctor, I guess, saw me as a dumb slut trying to manipulate him. I don't think that's too harsh a way of reading his actions.

As I was being rushed off to the hospital in an ambulance, as the school worked on locating my family, I was far too sick to care.

I only learned the full story about what happened from a nurse, just before I graduated, when for some reason I had to go back that clinic. She saw my name and pulled me into an office to give me the full breakdown on what had happened. (Until then, I thought it had been a lab error, or something like that.)

The residency program at Rutgers was overhauled as a direct result of this incident: residents were not allowed to see especially women patients without supervision. If that nurse hadn't told me what happened, I'd never have known why what happened to me happened, or that the university had cared enough to prevent it from happening again.

The whole experience left me with one rule: Never let a resident talk to you without a doctor in the room. Never trust a doctor to really understand what you are saying about your body - they have their own feelings about the body you are in, and you can't control that. You have to help them see where those feelings interfere with their ability to see and hear you, just as they are there to do the same for you.

The only branch of medicine where I've found this to be less true - where careful listening to the patient is pretty much a base-line from which the doctor works, is, as it happens, Sports Medicine.

Sadly, that wasn't where I found myself the morning after I heard that tearing sound from my right knee. I was at Orthopedics. In a room with a resident.

Thursday, October 13, 2011

Flat footed Solo!

I would love to know how often DWTS women are allowed to wear flats.

Solo was much lighter on her feet. In fact, she seemed to enjoy the performance - she was playful. The team is moving up the ranks even as the competition gets tougher.

Note that rehearsal footage shows Solo in heels. Someone made a decision. I feel heard.

Wednesday, October 12, 2011

Lament for the Injured, Pt. 1

Yrsa Roca Fannberg, The Death of a Former Giant (watercolor on paper, 2009)

For most of my life, I've had very specific flying dreams. My sleeping self unlocks gravity with a perfect physical coordination. I'll be running, or dancing, and then somehow both at once - suddenly I feel weightless. The struggle is not how to leave the ground, but how to find it again.
The nightmare version of this: I am running, and I feel something pull my feet out from underneath me - I fall down while my feet are being pulled backwards, and wake just before my face hits the dirt.
My athletic unconscious orbits around the scene of physical freedom - its gift, its loss, its recovery.
Last spring, I played a game with that dream-like weightlessness. There was no will, no thought - just the pure physical expression of intention.
I scored, assisted, played great defense. My body knew where the ball was, all the time. I played out of my socks, and felt, for the first time, that I knew what that phrase meant.
I loved every second of that night - months later, I can recall the game in flashes, a residual sense of a perfect (for me) economy of movement.
But the morning after, I woke up with a swollen knee - I don't remember hurting it. This was not something I'd seen before. I did the things athletes do, wrapping, icing, etc. I stayed away from the field for a few while. After three or four weeks I was back in the game - but it didn't feel right. More months off the field - a glorious summer devoted to cross-country running - and my legs felt great. Then I tried playing.
My first week back, my knee felt wrong. Easing into a game, I took up a defensive position in relation to player attacking down the right wing - he faked this way and that. I tried to go with him as he cut to my left. As I pushed off with my right foot - nothing unusual - I heard a crunch, and my knee immediately went funny.
This was a loud crunch - very different from the crackles that knee has made since I was in my 20s.
The knee didn't swell up immediately (one of the big indicators of a torn ACL), and I could put a bit of weight on it. But it hurt, and it felt so wrong - like I'd tangled up all the cords. 
A sense of dread washed over me.
Walking off the pitch was really tough. I hoped that I was being stoic. But, really, I was numb with dread.
In my heart of hearts I knew that my leg hadn't been normal in months: where my age has generally manifested itself as me needing more and more time to warm up in the game, here, it was showing in a different way.
Since that amazing night in May, my right leg would actually get worse as the game wore on. It would get weaker. My knee would be unpredictable. I couldn't tell where my right foot was when receiving a pass on the floor. My right leg below the knee would feel increasingly wooden over the course of a match. It wasn't tiredness, it was something completely different - something mechanical.
That night I stood on the sideline and watched the guys play for a while. This only made me feel more sad, more alone. 
I was staring at the field but I wasn't watching the game. I was trying to look like I wasn't totally freaked out. 
The guys in that game are my friends, but our friendship lives there, on that field: What is our connection to the people we play with, when we can't play with them anymore? Even those attachments which extend beyond the field are transformed by not being practiced on it. 
It is not easy to maintain a connection built in the game beyond your ability to play it. Making that transition is not much easier than it is to maintain the intimacy of lovers, once one has declared to the other: "Let's just be friends." I know this, if only for having played in different generations of games - Saturday morning collectives dissolve and then people you've known for a decade disappear from your life.
I limped to my car and went home.
Actually, I went to a neighbor's for ibuprofen and sobbed at her kitchen table.

Tuesday, October 4, 2011

Hope Solo Makes Sexy Face

There is no getting around the subject of Hope Solo's song choice.  This week the contestants were supposed to dance to a song that meant something to them personally. She chose Enrique Iglesias's "Tonight," which she described the "team's song."

Really? Because, if true, that is AWESOME.

No wonder she made a (wonderfully) dorky 'sexy-face' through practically the whole number. It's the kind of face that any of us might pull under a disco ball, after a couple of shots of tequila and especially if the Ludacris version of that Enrique Iglesias tune was on deck.
Anyway, Solo looked fantastic. But the competition is really tough.

My fellow critics of the sexist industrial complex will unite in making their pleas to the judges: "Can you just stop telling her she isn't feminine enough, that she's too strong yadda yadda?"

Good luck with that. Dancing with the Stars is all about routine, routine. So I don't expect to see them depart from the script unless Solo wins the whole thing - in which case her victory will be all about her triumph over her own strength.

As my last post indicated, I'm less circumspect about the gender politics of Dancing With the Stars than I am about the gender politics of, well, just about everything else. DWTS is, to repeat myself, a drag show. So, I get interested in the technical information the judges share with us regarding what it takes to walk like a girl. Because shy of Ru Paul, the information the judges offer on this point is as good as you'll get.

Bruno Tonioli, for example, usefully observed that Solo needs to walk much more on the balls of her feet. As anyone who has really worn high heels knows, the heel itself doesn't carry you in a proper "walk." That's why your grandmother, who was probably forced to wear them to work, has crazy bunions - that joint was flexed, and her weight was shoved right into the heart of it. Anyway, landing on the balls of your feet rather than your heels is a tip right out of runway walking 101. 

Regarding Solo's performance: Solo doesn't lift from her center - the judges are right to observe that her walk is kindof heavy - there really is a big difference between how she moves and how the other women move.

Also - I noticed that the more successful women dancers do a lot of posing.

Chynna makes pretty lines out of herself. At the moment when she switches from moving away from her partner, to moving toward him, she strikes a pose, asserting "Look at me! I'm pretty!"
Hope Solo, at more more less the same point. Rather than strike a pose, she dives into the next move, thinking, no doubt, "I am SO going to nail this."
Chynna looks like she has a string pulling her body up from the floor. Her weight is more or less just on that right foot, but you can hardly tell.
Solo is doing a different dance, of course, one with a more carnal vibe. But her back is hunched, and you can see her weight is resting in her hip. More barroom than ballroom.
More ethereal posing from Chynna.
Hope Solo does not pose. Hope Solo is on this show because she likes to party dance. And, this week, the judges appreciated that. So did our friend Abby.

One of these days I will get back to soccer. I promise.

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