Book Review: Coming on Strong
Throughout the 20th century, the cultural representation of women has expanded and influenced following generations. The American society’s concept of the ideal American woman during the 20th century was unattainable, and embodied by a lack of individuality and free expression due to the constant polar shifts, and various standards of what a woman should be defined by American men. In the 21st century, while female athletes are an inspiration and heroes for younger generations, unfortunately the struggle to become a successful female athlete is conquered by only a few, and almost never properly recognized. For centuries, sports and play were strictly boys clubs, thus over time women’s participation in sports was challenged and found impermissible. In Coming on Strong: Gender and Sexuality in Women’s Sport, author Susan Cahn emphasizes that the inequalities of opportunity have been a central feature of the American experience for women.
Cahn discusses this has changed to some degree in the 20th century; however, the American Dream remains in the grasp of men. Cahn explores the celebration of embracing the second wave of feminism and expanding womanhood in the United States. She examines prejudices the public and media created about women playing sports such as these elite athletes being perceived to be too aggressive, unladylike or suspected to be lesbian, and how this perception tied strongly with race. Going into depth regarding the oversexualization and extremely harmful regulation of their bodies, Cahn critiques the use of dress codes and diet to maintain femininity. Cahn’s book exposes herstorical expectations of women and the female form, and how women have been marginalized by race and sexuality to make them vulnerable to exploitation by commercial and private groups. She follows with how women have resisted these manipulations and carved their best efforts into history.
I have taken classes through my years in college with lessons on women in history and American culture. As I am furthering my education, I have had more experience researching women in sport, discovering more on the medical, psychological and societal views associated with the topic. As a female who participates in sport, my interest in this subject has developed, and over time I have come to the conclusion that the various issues regarding women in sports are not getting their due recognition and awareness. Personally, I only had a few experiences of sexism and sexualization in sport. As a swimmer and runner, I have always been engrossed on how my body looked in my athletic uniforms. Working in the athletic industry, I have endured backhanded comments, and my abilities have been diminished due to my sex. Underwent my experiences, Cahn’s work was unfortunately hardly new or shocking to me.
Viewed within the scope of professional leagues, Cahn notes the progression of women in sports thanks to icons such as Billie Jean King, Venus and Serena Williams, and Brittney Griner. Nevertheless, the gap of opportunity, equality, and media focus is still present. She explains in order to become successful, female athletes must be feminine, attractive and heterosexual, and these standards are further complicated by the prevalence of racism. Cahn expands on the herstory of women’s athletics by going beyond the story of the white, upper- and middle-class individuals by addressing factors like race and sexuality. African American women faced racial prejudice, being viewed as subordinate and less attractive than their white, female counterparts. Cahn (2015) states the following:
the assertion that sport made women physically unattractive and sexually unappealing found its corollary in views of black women as less attractive and desirable than white women. The correspondence between stereotyped depictions of black womanhood and athletic females was nearly exact, and thus doubly resonant in the case of African American women athletes. (p. 128)
Cahn uses Alice Coachman as a prime example to demonstrate this situation. Track and field became a victim of sexist media coverage and was announced to have a masculine reputation, thus inappropriate for women to participate. Since very few white women participated in track and field, African Americans dominated the sport, which created a harsh divide between white femininity and black femininity. While organizations were discouraging white women from participating and attempting to eliminate these events, black colleges were supporting African American women, encouraging them to join track and field and make history. African American track athlete Alice Coachman became the first black woman to win an Olympic gold medal, and despite her historical victory, she received negligible media recognition.
Exercising is generally known for maintaining fitness and wellness, yet over time a new brand of fitness has developed to capitalize and profit off women’s insecurities in the face of these expectations, and it has manifested as a widespread obsession with body weight and maintaining a certain silhouette. Cahn (2015) describes the ideal look from the 1980s as “gone beyond thin to a sculpted, fatless body…most women found unattainable. But they didn’t stop trying” (p. 274). Intense pursuit of fitness in turn created a massive industry of diet and weight-control products. Women were using sport and exercise to carve their body into unhealthy and unnatural forms, and this craze continues even today.
According to Bolles et al (2015) various forms of eating disorders, often paired with compulsive exercise to further reduce body weight is an ongoing epidemic, particularly those of sports with the ideal physique being lean (p. 12). Cahn (2015) comments “The culture of self-policing for the desired body weight and shape does not originate in sports, but it is often amplified there as athletes focus intently on their bodies” (p. 302). Self-objectification has become a national epidemic that has significant negative consequences such as shame, anxiety and self-disgust. The more women and girls self-objectify, the more likely they are to become depressed and have at least one eating disorder. Currently, the United States has an entire generation of adults and youths being brought up and raised where objectifying women is simply the norm in our society. Our society teaches young girls to shrink themselves, while simultaneously encouraging them to be successful; however, not too successful, as she could become too intimidating and unapproachable.
In class, we have explored the impact of the Industrial Revolution in the United States, and entirely concentrated on male participation and fraternization through sport. Cahn describes the female experience of this athletic bachelor era. The early 1900s woman was just beginning to break free from the traditional Victorian constraints, and ventured out for new opportunities. Men were actively participating in various sports in this new era, while women were becoming more involved with education and pushing for political reform. Women were enforcing change, birthing the model of modern womanhood. A fruit of this activism being the increased interest in women’s athletics.
Due to the Factory Act in the late 1800s, factory workers were paid a fair minimum wage, compensated for labor by working shorter shifts, granted the ability to be paid overtime, and outlawed child labor. The combination of the labor laws and the City Beautiful Movement, an active attempt from city planners to build space for citizens to play and exercise, thus allowed people to create sport organizations, and balance leisure and labor. A harsh tradition endured over time, dividing sports as solely for men and exercise for women. The growth of what Cahn described as “manly sports” created an influx of a new athletic subculture.
Cahn thoughtfully constructed this book, covering sensitive issues of gender, sexuality and race by providing insight on historical figures and events, and coherently wove her analyses and arguments. The book discusses primarily events that took place in the 20th century, mostly from the 1920s to the 1960s, and approximately one-third of the book discussed events that occurred in the early 21st century. It is important to recognize the past; however, as the second edition of this book was published in 2015, I expected more current events and hot topics. Another weakness I would critique is Cahn’s focus on American female athletes, rather than exploring shared societal concerns in the athletic community around the world. Cahn supported her claims throughout the book with the use of articles and interviews. I believe that she missed a major opportunity when she failed to use any visual mediums such as film and artwork as comparative references. If anyone that was interested in learning either gender studies or sport history, I would recommend Cahn’s book as it is a substantial starting point for learning American herstory.
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