This weekend I could have been flying kites, but instead, decided to join up with some ladies and run the Northwest Passage Ragnar Race. My portion of the roughly 200 ish mile race was 19.2 miles spread out across three legs. (Hell of a lot of work for a free Banana :) ) This was the first race for me, and in my mind I already knew that it was the first official step towards a journey in the ultra trail running world. For those that are not familiar with ultra trail running, I am talking about distances of 25k, 50k, 100k, 250k etc....
The day after the race I went to a book tour and signing with Endurance Athlete Jennifer Pharr Davis. She is a long distance hiker, National Geographic Adventurer of the Year, and has hiked many of the major trails around the world. She is known for setting not only the fastest known time for a woman, but the overall record for the fastest completion of the Appalachian Trail (46 days, 11 hours and 20 minutes in 2011). She also previously set the Long Trail record (Vermont), and the Fastest Known time on the Biibbulmun Track (Western Australia). She is an accomplished author, motivational speaker, and entrepreneur.
You can find out more about her here: https://jenniferpharrdavis.com/
Listening to her talk about her journey on and off the trail was inspirational. (No surprise there!) But something struck me. Something I have been mulling over for my life time, and perhaps finally coming to some sort of resolution in light of recent events. Something that has been highlighted with recent events in the world, such as the US Women's Soccer Team winning the world cup and the ever present fight for equality. I know a lot of people are 'tired of hearing about it'. Some of the men around me (NOT MY PARTNER) are upset that they have to hear the same complaints day in and day out. I want to scream, I want to shout, I want to show them that the issue is so much more complicated and important than a simple sound bite. It is something I have been frustrated with since I was a child.
Female representation in sports was something that really was only somewhat new in my generation. It wasn't that strong, and women's sports still felt 'second class'. Still feel that way in some aspects. The fact that I can only name a small handful of female athletes that have world wide recognition, and could name countless men means a lot. Also, that the majority of women that DO achieve that world recognition status are from Gymnastics, Figure Skating, and Tennis. Sports that typically are not 'reclassified' with the tag 'women's'. (i.e. soccer, and women's soccer, or hockey and women's hockey) even if there is a gender separation.
To name a few that stand out in my mind: Lindsey Vonn - Skiing, Mia Hamm - Soccer, Williams Sisters - Tennis, Billie Jean King - Tennis, Mary Lou Retton - Gymnastics, Nancy Kerrigan - Figure Skating Flo-Jo - Track, Maria Sharapova - Tennis, Kristi Yamaguchi - Figure Skating, Danica Patrick - Racing, Jackie Joyner Kersee - Track, Ronda Rousey - MMA, Oksana Baiul - Figure Skating, Michelle Kwan - Figure Skating, Simone Biles - Gymnastics, Gabby Douglas - Gymnastics
I grew up being so frustrated and angry that as a woman it was expected that I am slower, weaker, less capable of strategy, unable to handle the heavy loads or capable of the relentless dedication needed for various sports. It wore me down, as any 'counter belief' would. If everyone and everything around you is saying things are one way, and you don't believe it, and you are fighting to show another side, a different belief, over time.... you start to believe the other side. I still remember very vividly being told while I was in high school and getting into lifting weights.... that if I start lifting heavy weights, I would risk being infertile. (which is BS) Hell, the small hand weights at the gym are still called 'Barbie weights' and are targeted to women, because 'getting bulky' aka muscular is seen as not feminine.
Insert my super grumpy pissed off face right here. :/
In her talk, Jennifer referenced her first attempt at setting out for the record on the AT, and how she had been told that the expectation was that as a woman she would be ten days slower than the fastest man. Guess what... when she got to the end... she was exactly ten days slower, and she knew that she had done it to herself. She knew she had more in her and could have done it better, but her mind had told her that as a woman the expectation was already set to a certain level.
Let me be clear... I think that there are some differences between men and women, and it should be celebrated.... I just don't think we are celebrating it in a way without putting down the other side. As a girl, it sucks growing up knowing that your physical (and sometimes other achievements) will always be discounted because you are a girl. "Well you did really good for a girl" There is the ever present question about a women's femininity or sexuality if she does play sports. If she plays sports, she must be gay... she must not be a real woman. There has also been several studies showing things like how the language we use has a significant impact. Women in sports, even at the professional level are referred to as 'girls' or 'young women', which may not seem that important, but it is the diminutive form. Whereas Men are rarely referred to as 'boys'. Insults calling into question a players actions usually take on feminine aspects: 'don't be a pussy', 'you throw like a girl'. While at the same time 'man up' 'grow some balls' etc... are used as encouragement and positive things. Needless to say, that when a woman does make it to the big time, it is very likely that she will be asked stupid questions (Why aren't you smiling? Can you give us a twirl? ). Some are seemingly benign, but when was the last time you heard a male athlete be asked about their love life. Cambridge published an interesting study based off of the Olympics coverage. With roughly 48% of competitors being women it should be a great test of language, exposure etc.... Yet, 'man' was said three times more than 'woman'. Words to describe men included 'fastest' and 'strongest', where as words used to describe women related to their age or marital status. (Cambridge study)
Again... imagine my grumpy face when I am trying to explain to some of my male counterparts that representation and language matters. It HAS AN INFLUENCE. It may just be a drop of water here and there, something so small. But over time, it erodes and shapes the river bed.
Then.... then I found some activities in my life where gender really doesn't play a part. Or if it does, it is negligible or celebrated without degrading the other gender: Roller Derby, Ultra Running, and Kite Flying.
In the ultra community, yes, men have had the genetic advantage when it comes to speed and strength. But that advantage tapers off when you start pushing the endurance side of things. We are starting to see the physical capability gap between the genders narrow as the distance gets greater. Scientific studies are just starting to catch up (partly because up until roughly a decade ago there simply was not enough women on the course to provide reliable data), and the few that have been published are finding some remarkable results. Women are perhaps better suited for the longer distances. Much to the annoyance of 'Linda' working her tail off at the gym, women are great at storing fat. Our bodies by design are set to carry extra weight more easily than a man. Factors that are crucial in ultra trail runs. But, these are just two of several factors leveling the playing field. I can celebrate that men have a strength advantage, and celebrate that women have a fuel advantage without taking away from the other.
By the way, there are then women like this... the ultimate badass.. who not only set THE world record for a course in Scotland, but she did so while also expressing breast milk at every aid station for her baby: Jasmin Paris - 268 mile Montane Spine Race. Sorry guys, even if you beat the record time wise, I don't think you can beat that level of badassedness, unless you also can pop out a baby. Maybe... maybe in the future. lol. Guys are still pretty awesome tho and have set some amazing records as well.
Now on to Kite Flying. From the start, I have always felt that the playing field was level. Aside from perhaps some of the kiteboarding events, and even there not always the case, men and women compete against one another. If there are differences in genders on the kite field, they are equaled out by the strengths/weaknesses of the other. The differences that do show up have to do more with skill, time, and dedication than what is between your legs. It is refreshing. I can't think of a single time that I have been expected to be 'less capable' of flying because of being a woman. Or on the flip side that somehow I would be a better at sewing because I am a woman.
The legislative barriers restricting women from taking up kite flying is non existent (meaning there are no rules that says there is a mens and womens division). The access barriers, such as using practice spaces, is simply not there. A public space is truly a public space. There are other 'traditional' barriers to entry for women into sports, that are nullified as well because of the nature of the activity. Such as: Lack of childcare, funding, or clothing and equipment (did you know the sports bra is only 20 years old!?!?!?). Unlike some of the other sports that suffer what has been termed 'female invisibility', meaning a lack of representation in the media of female role models (by 2017 we reached a whopping 4% of national/local coverage on average outside of Olympics coverage), kite flying proudly supports everyone that takes to the line and what coverage there is, is balanced according to the make up of the participants.
As I close my eyes and think about the various kite fliers I know (mainly stunt/sport kite), the field is nearly equal men and women. That is cool, I love it. It solidifies my feeling that I am 'just as good' if I also show up. I am not discounted before I even begin because of some part of me that I have no control over.
Thank you kite community.... You have silently been one of the leaders in the field of gender equality without ever knowing it. :)