Skirts, Grunts and Falling Uteruses: Women’s complicated relationship with sports

To say I wasn’t a very athletic kid would be a considerable understatement. My first attempt at monkey bars when I was 6 left me with a sprained arm. When I was 7, I was taunted by the kindergarteners for still having training wheels on my bike. My step-father, bless his heart, tried to introduce me to soccer when I was 8. My only real memory of my soccer days was the time I tripped over the ball in practice and wound up on my face.

So it was a big surprise to my parents when I fell in love with field hockey in grade eight. Field hockey, after all, is a pretty challenging sport. Not only must you stickhandle with only one side of a very short stick, but the ball is comparable to a bocce ball in weight and has the tendency to soar when hit by a novice player. Anyone who has been hit with a field hockey ball knows that it can be a pretty dangerous sport. To start, I wasn’t very good. But after hours upon hours of stickhandling in our backyard I got the hang of it and started to excel.

491482_31106062Some of my happiest memories from high school are tied to field hockey. It was the first time in my life I could identify as an athlete. That was a pretty big self-esteem boost for a nerdy kid. Being part of a team also lead to some amazing bonds with my teammates, many of whom became my closest friends. There was only one problem with field hockey. The uniform. As you may know, field hockey is the last remaining sport that requires its female athletes to wear a skirt.

As an adult, I continue to play field hockey in a women’s league in Vancouver. Unfortunately, my love of the game has recently been overshadowed by controversy. The game I love and have played for over 15 years has come into direct conflict with my strong belief in women’s equality. But more on that later.

Because of the controversy in my own life, I decided to explore the relationship between women and sports. As you might guess, it has been a difficult relationship marked by division and discrimination but also by accomplishment and empowerment.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERASports started opening up to Canadian women by the end of the 19th century. However, at that time, women were encouraged to participate in sports such as horse riding, skating and golf, activities that were considered graceful and ladylike. More vigorous exercise, such as riding a bike, was discouraged by some doctors who were concerned it would cause damage to the uterus or, God forbid, would produce a female orgasm.1

The 1960s and 1970s witnessed the emergence of the women’s liberation movement in North America and with it increased participation in women’s sports.1

Today, the sporting world looks very different than that of the past. Across the country, women are participating in high numbers in sports including those traditionally seen as masculine or inappropriate for women.1 Women athletes such as Hayley Wickenheiser and Christine Sinclair have become national heroes. This is a very good thing, not only for women and girls but for society as a whole. Participation in sports may seem trivial but its outcomes are anything but.

Studies show that participation in sport and physical activity can prevent a myriad of physical illnesses which account for over 60% of global deaths. Participation in sports can also promote psychological well-being through building confidence and self-esteem and reducing stress, anxiety and depression. This is especially important to adolescent girls who are significantly more likely than boys to have seriously considered suicide by the age of 15. Participation in sports can even lead to social change. The United Nations identified sport as a key vehicle to the promotion of gender equality. According to the UN, participation in sports expands opportunities for education and for the development of a range of essential life skills, including communication, leadership, teamwork and negotiation.2 Sadly, the positive outcomes of sport for women continue to be constrained by gender based discrimination in all areas and at all levels of sport and physical activity. Don’t believe me? Let’s look at some modern day headlines.

“Grunting” Controversy Continues on Wimbledon’s Opening Day3 

412106_8549This headline is not a joke. It refers to the real controversy in women’s tennis about the players making unladylike “grunting” noises when they hit the ball. Some officials apparently find these noises so disturbing that players have been warned that they could be fined for making excessive noise. One tennis coach was of the opinion that a series of graduated penalties ranging from the loss of a point to the loss of a match should be implemented to cut down on excessive grunting. One former Wimbledon champion actually went so far as to claim that the role of female tennis players is as much about “selling sex” as their physical ability. He suggested the best way to reduce the amount of grunting in women’s tennis is to, “Just play it back to the women. It sounds disgusting, ugly, unsexy!” So why do tennis players grunt? Different explanations have been offered, but they include to help the player relax, to bring confidence, to apply maximum force to the ball, to increase core stability and strength and to intimidate the opposition.4 Notwithstanding of the legitimacy of these justifications, it would seem that many coaches, officials and spectators are willing to reduce women’s competitive advantage to preserve the sex appeal of tennis.

The Outrageous Reason Why Women’s Ski Jumping Was Banned From The Olympics until Now5

Can you guess what that reason might be? I’ll give you a hint. It’s the same reason women were advised not to bicycle in the 1890s. That’s right, high ranking officials thought ski jumping might mess up your uterus. The president of the International Ski Federation in 2005 said, “Don’t forget, it’s like jumping down from, let’s say, about two meters on the ground about a thousand times a year, which seems not to be appropriate for ladies from a medical point of view.” The good news is women ski jumpers were finally permitted to compete in the Sochi Winter Olympics. So far, there have been no reports of falling uteruses.

FIFA Women’s World Cup: gender discrimination allegations dog promotional efforts6


Kobe Bryant ✔ @kobebryant This is @DrinkBODYARMOR athlete @sydneyleroux after playing on turf! #ProtectTheAthlete #USWNT 3:24 PM – 13 Aug 2014

As you might know, Canada is set to host the 2015 FIFA Women’s World Cup. However, Canada’s recent announcement that the tournament would be played on artificial turf rather than real grass has caused quite the uproar. The Men’s World Cup is played on grass because artificial turf is an inferior playing surface which leads to more physical injuries. Need proof? This picture, tweeted by Kobe Bryant, shows Sydney Leroux’s bloodied and bruised legs after playing on artificial turf. A group of elite international athletes have actually filed a lawsuit over the issue alleging gender discrimination. “They would never in a heartbeat think of putting anything less than grass for men,” said former Canadian national player Carrie Serwetnyk. “They’d protest. It would be a scandal.”

And of course we cannot forget the issue that is in headlines again and again, the one the United Nations describes as a constant area of controversy and resistance, the one I have been waiting to speak publically about: women’s uniforms. But I’ll get to that. In my next post. -Kaity


  1. History of Canadian Women in Sport: Tabitha Marshall
  2. Women, Gender Equality and Sport: United Nations, Division for the Advancement of Women, Department of Economic and Social Affairs
  3. “Grunting” Controversy Continues on Wimbledon’s Opening Day: Margaret Hartmann
  4. Wimbledon 2014: Why do women players grunt: Kathryn Dobinson
  5. The Outrageous Reason Why Women’s Ski Jumping Was Banned From the Olympics Until Now: Tony Manfred
  6. FIFA Women’s World Cup: gender discrimination allegations dog promotional efforts: CBC News

2 thoughts on “Skirts, Grunts and Falling Uteruses: Women’s complicated relationship with sports

  1. Pingback: Fit for the Bedroom, Fit for the Field: My beef with women’s uniforms | F is for Feminist

  2. Pingback: Stepping Out of Line: How wearing shorts became a punishable offence | F is for Feminist

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