Monday, March 28, 2011

Triple Threat or Triple Bind? A Reality for Female Athletes

Not only did tonight’s win for the Lady Irish put them in the Final Four, it ended a 20 game win streak by the Lady Vols of Tennessee. I watched the game hoping for an Irish win, I still have fond memories of the 2001 national championship team, but in all honesty, I wanted to get a better look at Skylar Diggins. A friend who an excellent, skilled basketball player, mentioned Diggins, the sophomore point guard just yesterday. She said, “ND’s point guard is good AND she’s pretty.” To my female friends who are athletes, especially those of you who are basketball players, I hope you are offended by this comment. And, I hope that you are like me--you know exactly what she meant. All too often it seems that one is at the cost of the other. It’s not always true, but quite often…..

I’m not (really) a feminist, but I’m not convinced the conversation would play out in this way were we to describe male athletes. I love talking about the talented Ben Hansbrough or Tim Abromaitis, and I have mentioned more than once how handsome they are, but never once have I done so (about them or any other male athlete) with a tone of surprise. Simply put, it's not an "either/or" proposition.

I would like to make the claim that something other than a double standard exists between male and female athletes. It’s one dimension of a study by psychologist Stephen Hinshaw known as the “Triple Bind.”

Be pretty, sweet and nice
Be athletic, competitive, and get straight A’s
Be impossibly perfect

It claims “In many ways, today is the best time in history to be a girl. Opportunities for a girl’s success are as unlimited as her dreams. Yet an alarm is sounding, revealing a disturbing portrait of the stresses affecting girls of all ages. Societal expectations, cultural trends, and conflicting messages are creating what psychologist Stephen Hinshaw calls “the Triple Bind.” Girls are now expected to excel at “girl skills,” achieve “boy goals,” and be models of female perfection, 100 percent of the time. The Triple Bind is putting more and more girls at risk for aggression, eating disorders, depression, and even suicide.”

Directly and indirectly, I have given this idea a lot of thought. A friend once asked me if I was planning to raise a daughter or an athlete. I looked at him incredulously; I hope my face revealed the disgust and sadness I felt in my heart. Is one truly at the expense of the other?

A number of friends have expressed their athletic hopes and dreams for their children. As fun and interesting as it is to think of what their kids will pursue in 7-10 years time, I have noticed that most do not want their sons to play a certain sport for safety reasons whereas the concern for their daughters is for social ones—“it’s not a sport a girl should play.” I may be oversimplifying things, but I hear very little about social stigma as a concern for male athletes. The triple bind is real, and I know my thoughts and actions have contributed to its persistence.

My experience as a fan of men’s and women’s basketball at Notre Dame revealed this hard truth; I honestly don’t know how to let go a mindset I myself hold. It is more than a triple bind—it is a triple threat.
In basketball, a talented player has command of the “triple threat.” She or he can dribble, pass or shoot the ball with confidence. My inability to dribble too often put me in a precarious position on offense; consequently, I overcompensate or inevitably, I lose possession. The triple threat, however for most women is in no way confined to the hardwood. We want to be a triple threat: smart, athletic and beautiful. Such expectations actually put women into a triple bind. When we cannot master all three, we tend to overcompensate in two areas, or just check out of the game.

In no way would I ask any member of the Lady Irish to check out of the game. Their passion, teamwork, and talent as evident in tonight's game were beautiful. These twelve players have overcompensated for one another’s weaknesses all season because that’s what teammates do—they help one another out. And when that happens, the binding isn’t suffocating or debilitating—it’s connection.

I think it's important to ask ourselves--What are we bound to? and what binds us? Is it building a connection that suffocates or is life-giving? Is it leading us to check out or to victory? Believe it or not, the root of "religion" is ligare which means "to bind." My Catholic faith affirms and helps me understand what I am bound to. I hope that in some small way, basketball does too.

Photo Credits
Skylar Diggins
Triple Bind

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