Tuesday, January 27, 2009

Figuring Out Figure Skating

As a Christmas gift, I received tickets to the US Women's Figure Skating Championship held in Cleveland, Ohio this past Saturday evening.

Figure skating, like gymnastics, is one of those sporting events which when are on television, you are mesmerized by the seemingly impossible movements made to look effortless. I like skating, but I'm not a frenzied fan. Like most people, I watch it if it's on TV and can list the usual suspects of its biggest stars of Michelle Kwan, Tara Lipinski, Emily Hughes, and Kristi Yamaguchi.

I arrived to the event and was surprised by how much I was transfixed by the figure skating cult: aka, little girls with their parents swooning over the aura, dazzling spins, and the magic of the ice. Their high pitched screams hit falsetto notes that I was not sure was even possible to reach by anyone other than professional opera singers.

You don't hear that on TV.

On television, viewers are graced with the only the top ten skaters, images of their coaches, and their parents supporting in the stands. Once in a while, the network will have a shot of a few fans with signs and cute acronyms. I was anticipating that.

I got so much more.

As my 29 year old body ages, I have come into radical appreciation for my health, flexibility, and its ability to recover from injury. While waiting for the skaters to begin their routines, I overheard a mother of one of the skaters explain to some nearby fans that her daughter skates about five hours everyday. Their discipline and commitment astounded me. So, you can imagine my amazement as I contemplated how much these young women and their families put into these short-lived public careers. Skaters peak young, most of them are in their mid to late teens, a handful in their early twenties. Alissa Czisny, the newest reigning champion, topped the age list at twenty one.

It gave me thoughts as to whether or not I could raise a daughter in such a driven culture. So much of what I was witnessing was artistic and majestic, but the gory details of day to day training, I hypothesized, was less glamorous; a schedule of sacrifice, driving, and more sacrifice. That kind of commitment is hardly glittering like the trademark costumes, but absolutely admirable.

And then the emcees for the arena interrupted my day dreaming. They were rounding up some young girls, all skaters, and asking them who they were cheering for and what they were most excited to see. Their answers were bright, cute, and funny. Their excitement translated to the crowd. And then came the general question, "What do you love about skating?"

The girls paused to think over the loaded question and the emcee filled in, "It's the outfits isn't it? OF COURSE!"

The outfits?

Not the thrill of gliding or the grace of the sport? The competition? Not even, how dare I put this out there, the pure love of skating itself?

The outfits?

I was more than annoyed at the emcee and chalked it up to situation being what it was: the emcee needed a quick answer. Nothing more.

And then I noticed a pattern.

As I sat nestled in between groups of young skaters, I noticed they alternated between screaming, "You hit your sequence! We love you!" and "Your outfit is ugly!" I was stunned.

What stressed me further is that their parents sat right beside them, saying nothing.

You don't see that on TV.

Perhaps it is my ignorance of the skating culture, but I was appalled at the all too frequent references to skating attire, the colors of the skirt, the glint of sequins, the general appearance of the skater and not the glory of their athleticism. Sure, the dress is sparkly and interesting, but what holds the outfit together are the gorgeous muscles and flexibility underneath them, the unimaginable amount of hours pressed into their limbs striving for perfection and flawless landings. The art, sport, and execution of movement calls for respect. Each and every skater had mine. I assumed, wrongly, that those skates and their families who were in that realm of competition would understand and hold to that.

Some could argue that at the level of competition, people say rude and negative things about athletes. But I argue that if we are to raise healthy and strong girls to grow into graceful women who understand the rules of winning and losing, it begins when they are seven and eight years old, screaming disrespectful things to other athletes, and intervening. How we cultivate a sense of mutual respect for women, including our athletes, calls for radical parenting for our young girls.

And if I ever attend another skating competition in the future, I'll try to sit near other regular fans like myself who don't care to know who did the skater's make-up or hair. Or if the colors of the skater compliment one another. I'm in it to appreciate their art, their unyielding effort at perfection, and the emotional bow at the end.

Maybe I'll just stick to TV.

Cross-posted at Bitch Magazine.


  1. Women's gymnastics skeeves me for similar reasons -- in among all the amazing athleticism, there is STRICT policing of femininity. At first I thought it was all self-selected, but when I said aloud that I wish I had it all to do over again, because I'd want to be a female gymnast in tats and piercings, all the adults reacted in horror, and I was told in no uncertain terms that such looks were against the team rules, and I would have been kicked off the team.

    I STILL don't see why hair-glitter and press-on gems is acceptable on an athlete yet tattoos aren't.

    But anyway, yeah, there's strict self-policing of femininity going on from the girls themselves, but it's very much happening in an environment where the adults are setting up official rules that police appropriate femininity. Which is EXACTLY the wrong thing for adults to be doing, IMO.

  2. Joan Ryan discusses that policing of femininity is her book Little Girls in Pretty Boxes: The Making and Breaking of Elite Gymnasts and Figure Skaters. After reading it, I don't think I can watch skating or gymnastics. While it's mostly about gymnastics, she explains how judges and the media pitted Nancy Kerrigan against Tonya Harding (the better skater) in an angel vs. devil match, complete with white vs. red costumes. Kerrigan was the "nice" one, and the commentators often mentioned her mother, whose limited eyesight led her to, as we got to see, peer at a T.V. set a couple inches in front of her, hoping, literally, to catch a glimpse of her daughter. Harding had an uncouth, violent ex-husband.

    In addition to sexism, Ryan mentions the racism of judges who held back my favorite skater ever, Surya Bonaly, who turned her back to them in defiance. Though I don't identify as black, it meant a lot to me that judges robbed me of Bonaly and the first black Miss America, Vanessa L. Williams.

  3. P.S. I should've said "it hurt me a lot," not "it meant a lot to me," though I am surprised that that's what it was and that I can finally name it.

  4. Anonymous3:44 AM

    Figure - skating already seems to define it’s dance artistic marking systems through a sense of elegance and grace that can easily be seen to be associated with ideals of femininity - although to a certain extent may be influenced by anatomy and innate qualities of the male and female body.
    But in what other sport would a girl be deemed not as attractive as the next and therefore not a valid choice for selection. Yuck. Isn’t this sort of media projection just another pressure for, say young female skaters, to conform to a ‘look’ and therefore a performance that in turn conforms to a gender aesthetic that limits progress in the sport?

    To me, some of the best sporting and athletic performance on ice are those where the gender is secondary to the performance - where the female skater does not conform to ‘being’ a woman - or what we think it is to be a woman. Then it stops being ballet and ballroom; It stops being about dance, and starts being about sport, and developing and pushing the physicality of the athletic body - artistically, and technically.



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