BY ANNICK LAMAR
Almost three weeks ago, on November 10th, I opened my computer fully intending to pen a few quick thoughts about the experience of being a female athlete. I had fancied it would be a missive focused on empowerment with a dash of Tina Fey style witticism. In a post-election haze, however, I surprised myself by what I wrote. Almost 3,000 words, detailing the verbal assaults, sexual harassment, and degrading behavior I’ve experienced since I started running as a teen poured forth in a way I have never complied or catalogued. I was angry and tired and it felt as if open season was just declared on my body. I reread my chronicle of abuses and I waited for an essay to take shape. I even waited for it to serve a cathartic purpose. It never did. The more I reread the list, the less I was able to find my story among the waste.
Cataloguing the harassment seemed like a natural place to start for one reason: I wanted the reader to believe in the reality of my experience. I hoped that if I detailed the horrifying experiences of being stalked, screamed at, and spoken down to, that my angry words that followed would be seen as valid and legitimate. After listing the who/what/where of these moments, I realized I was in essence begging the reader by saying, “Look! Proof! Don’t you see this is my everyday reality, dear sympathetic reader, and it happens to so many of us?! PS: I’m not being a shrill woman because I told you the time and date of the insult! I don’t have the receipts!” I do have photos that a man took of my teammates and me when he stalked us at competitions in the winter of 2009. Would people believe in my reality more if I dusted off the grainy black and whites and carried them around?
“To be silent and passive goes against everything athletics has taught me.”
(Photo credit: Andrea Tocci)
Screw validation. Jane, you know me to be incapable of begging for anything, let alone something as important as the realities of my life and the assaults upon it. To not be believed is its own insult, one that could be added to the bottom of my 3000-word list. In my post-election fury, my first instinct was to put on my shoes and go on a run with you, the person who has covered the most miles side-by-side with me in my 15-year running career. My best thinking always took place once we escaped our college campus and our steps fell in sync. When I talk to you, problems loosened, mid-stride, but you are 800 miles away in Chicago and I’m grounded in New York with three herniated discs in my spine. Instead, I write to you because I know you believe my words, having lived them yourself in your own way.
I deleted the list. Its only purpose was to persuade those who need to be persuaded and I have no time for them anymore. Besides, how can I write about my experience as a female athlete when I am not a central character in these retellings? When I detail the sexual harassment I faced at my first job selling running shoes, I am a passive character who was repeatedly acted upon. Yes, I fought back but being cornered in the stockroom basement is not a story about my agency or ability, it’s a story of what happened to me. My 3000-word list was about what others have done to me while I attempted to log miles, hold down a career in sports and more generally, just being a woman navigating through her life. Given the persistent nature of catcalling and sexual harassment in the workplace, my stories aren’t stand-alone occurrences. My name could be substituted for any other’s and the story doesn’t truly change. I become a placeholder. A stock image of a female athlete. If I’m going to share my story, I am going to be damn sure to put myself in the narrative. Jane, you and I both know that the experience of a female athlete is one of agency and its telling deserves something more than stock images of interchangeable passive women athletes posing. Even Getty, king of stock photos, acknowledges this.
I’ve been thinking, Jane, that running is a sport of dualities. We feel pain and pleasure in the same stride. What else is sprinting for the finish, in complete agony and joy? I love and I hate this sport, often simultaneously. Running has given me a home, a career, my mental health, our friendship. Running has also given me an injury worthy of spinal surgery and a good deal of nerve pain. It is a sport that gives and takes and this push-pull is well known to runners of every kind and ability. The love/hate plus pain/pleasure dualities are a commonality that connect us and create the weird and wonderful running identity that only other endurance athletes seem to understand. To everyone else we must look absolutely bonkers.
“I’d far prefer to be exhausted from a hard workout rather than from combating sexist remarks.”
(Jane and Annick, mid stride, 2006)
Then there are the dualities that are unique to female runners. Running has made me feel incredibly strong, at times almost invincible. But ours is a sport done off the field or court and without walls. The majority of my training has taken place on public roads, trails, and tracks and it is here that I have been catcalled, stalked and insulted with daunting frequency for no other reason than my gender. The same roads where I have felt beyond capable are the same ones where I have never felt more exposed. To be a woman runner is to live daily with this duality of experiences. You can be strength personified and then, with a vulgar comment, quickly humbled by your own vulnerability. It’s a whiplash of emotions.
You and I both know the comments and insults don’t just come only from strangers and perverts hanging out of car windows. One of the hardest realizations during my athletic career was when I finally understood there was no amount of success that I could achieve that would insulate me from being spoken down to by men. The more races I won, the more men told me my business. Before mansplaining entered our national lexicon, men I knew regularly denied me the role of expert in the area of my own expertise. To the men I knew then and still encounter today, my gender acts as an asterisk on my athletic career. To them, it acts as a qualifier. It says “lesser than.”
Jane, perhaps my point in this all is that I resent that the consistent sexual harassment and degradation is a burden that women athletes must bear and it takes away from our training. I have always been a miser. When I raced on the national level, I hoarded sleep, calories, and extra training sessions. I stayed in, passed on parties, turned down relationships that needed too much of my time. I streamlined my existence to optimize performance. Yet, I couldn’t eradicate from my self-imposed austere lifestyle the stupidly common insults to my gender. When alums of the men’s college track team referred to pro runners they deemed as weak as suffering from “vajayjay-itis,” I delayed my workout and confronted them. In the end, they proved too basic to understand the problem with correlating weakness with womanhood and for my efforts all I had to show was lost time and energy. It didn’t matter that I was the better athlete. In the end, I was still a woman so respect was denied and the joke remained.
“Given the persistent nature of catcalling and sexual harassment in the workplace, my stories aren’t stand-alone occurrences. My name could be substituted for any other’s and the story doesn’t truly change.”
Jane, I want that time back. I want all the time and energy I have lost defending myself back. Hell, I don’t even really want to be writing this letter. I’d rather being rehabbing my back and talking to you on the phone. I’d far prefer to be exhausted from a hard workout rather than from combating sexist remarks.
You know me; I am not very good at remaining quiet. To be silent and passive goes against everything athletics has taught me. Yes, being a female athlete has left me vulnerable and exposed, but being a female athlete has also taught me how to manage pain and stand out. This identity gives and it takes and I keep saying my silent prayer that it will be better for our daughters’. I pray they can train unimpeded and all their energy goes into the sports they love and none of this foolishness.
Miss you, love you,
(Cover Photo Credit: Molly Sheehan – Jane and Annick at Cross Country Nationals, Ohio, 2006)