Women Playing Soccer

By Karen Petree

The USWNT takes on Canada in a friendly in Frisco, Texas January 31, 2014. Photo by Karen Petree

The USWNT takes on Canada in a friendly in Frisco, Texas January 31, 2014. Photo by Karen Petree

I’ve been stockpiling patriotism for four years waiting for this moment.  The Women’s World Cup opens tonight for the U.S. against Australia.  We’re hours away.

Obviously, the World Cup starting is a huge deal for me.  I write this as I’m sitting in a doctor’s office waiting for my mother to have a procedure.  On the TV, now default in every doctor’s office in the country, the ladies of The View are talking about juicers or something.  I can’t understand what they are saying, but it would appear that everyone is really, really, really psyched about these juicer things.  I don’t identify with those women.  Perhaps I should.  I mean we all have vaginas or something, I presume.  But I never wanted to be those women.  I wanted to be Mia Hamm.  I wanted to be Mia even though I didn’t know the first thing about soccer or how to play it.  I wanted to rip my jersey off and spin it in triumph like Brandi Chastain even though the only fantasies playing through my mind at the time were of stealing home in a dust cloud of glory.

Though soccer wasn’t my sport, Mia and Brandi were my people.  They were the type of women I wanted to be in a climate that perpetuates the the idea that women don’t do stuff.  Boys play.  Girls play.  Men do.  Women watch.  There’s something irrevocably messed up about this.  This is why the Women’s World Cup matters.  Despite advertising efforts with heavy emphasis on how hot US forward Alex Morgan is, I still find myself defending the game to people who should know better. Namely, to men who should know better and to women who are clueless as to why.  Thank God for Abby Wambach and Alex Morgan and Sydney Leroux and Tobin Heath and Megan Rapinoe.

By the time I saw this kind of real-life, flesh and blood adult woman covered in grass stains and sweat, I was already several years into adolescence furiously trying to stomp that drive out of me.  I was full of anxiety about being gay, even though I wasn’t and I’m not.  The truth is I was overcompensating for what I’d been led to believe was my inner butchiness with exaggerated notions of femininity, like purple lipstick and layers of cakey foundation and a refusal to wear sneakers.  This is what men liked, I’d been told.  If men didn’t like me, it was because I was too much like them, too butch.  I urgently tore ads out of fashion magazines and put them in a binder.  I literally had a binder full of women.

It could just be the culture, it could have been my misunderstanding.  Part of the reason I was preparing to give up athletic glory though was because I didn’t think I could play after puberty.

I blame the puberty tapes.  And about 95% of the other messages I got about what women were or were not supposed to be.  Somewhere around sixth grade, the teachers divided us up according to our parts and the girls watched a video about how our bodies were changing.  I remember a young girl on the tape with short, brown hair, tan skin and eighties shorts who bravely confided to someone’s big sister about something weird going on in her “underpants.”  In my memory the girl has a Brooklyn accent.  The older teenage girl who had almost certainly just come back from the mall, reassured her that this was totally normal.  After the video, the nurse told us that we couldn’t swim while on our periods, but that they magically stopped in the bathtub just long enough for us to bathe.  That’s all I remember from the Puberty Tapes.  Well that, and a pink pamphlet titled “Very Personally Yours” filled with some shaky pencil drawings of pubescent female anatomy that left me wondering if I was missing something vitally important to all this that was about to happen.  We were warned to guard the Period Pamphlets in absolute secrecy.  The boys had a blue one.

I imagined running down the field hemorrhaging.  Come to think of it, I didn’t really understand boobs, either.  When were they going to start growing?  Why did they hurt so much when they were growing?  When would they stop? Where would I put them in the meantime?  After all, I’d never seen a grown woman with boobs and a period play.  Little girls who see female athletes play don’t have to worry about those non-issues.  (Nor do little girls who actually learn about menstruation).  We now know for certain that women can play sports while menstruating.  Tampax has made a hell of a lot of money on it.

Now, at 31 sitting in this medical office, I’m wearing a Wambach t-shirt and shorts that show off my kung fu sculpted calves.  And I’m pretty goddamned sexy in this get-up, too.  But back then I constrained my competitiveness and started exercising in my room to Cindy Crawford workout tapes.  Slow, measured crescent kicks and crunches to a Smash Mouth soundtrack.  I knew that a single strawberry had about 4 calories.  I didn’t give a rat’s ass about any of this other than the notion that I was supposed to give much more than a rat’s ass and if I didn’t, I wasn’t going to turn into the woman I was supposed to be.

You wouldn’t be the first to assume that the estrogen coursing through my veins is responsible for my sensitivity to this.  But in spite of the number of people who decry the existence of the NFL, I’ve never heard American football fans have to justify the fact that men have a right to play it.  Sports, apparently, are for men by default.  So sayeth (some of) the men.

So sayeth the spectators.  Sports can be divided into two camps: spectators and athletes.  Spectators play or they watch other people play.  Sports for the spectator is entertainment or a hobby that builds bromanship.

But for an athlete, whether she’s on the field or in the stands, the Game is not a hobby: it’s a metaphor for life.  It’s about pushing your body to the limits, then pushing through and raising the bar.  Athletes keep playing when the lights are off and no one is watching.  Athletes get up and do one more push up after their arms have failed and they’ve collapsed on the grass.  It’s not about women or men.  It’s not even about individual players.  It’s working your way through Rudyard Kipling’s most famous poem, to push your heart, nerve and sinew to keep going long after they are exhausted and spent, on behalf of your team, or your country, or the boy who sleeps in his cleats or the girl still doing laps around the soccer pitch long after the lights have been turned off.

The Women’s World Cup is important too because it’s one of the rare times we actually get to see women play, and even then it doesn’t compare to the coverage the men’s competition gets.  At all levels of sports, girls simply have less access.  Although soccer is more popular among girls than boys, the professional women’s leagues have struggled to stay afloat.  Games don’t get the coverage of the men’s sport.  Yet they still play.  For all this, I’m grateful to the US Women, and as much as I hope the US win, I’m grateful to all the world’s women who play despite the sarcastic comments, the eye rolls, the few men who feel threatened, the lack of access and the considerable pay gap.  These women show little girls and boys back home that they can be and do anything they want to be.  It’s time we celebrate that.

And while we’re waiting, this Nike Soccer video is awesome.

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