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Opinion: The Real Threat to Women’s Sports

The never-ending toxic conversation around girls' and women's bodies is where we should focus our concern, not on transgender athletes.

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I was just 16, still in high school, when I lost a close cross-country race at a big meet. I was disappointed—I’d placed second in the race three years in a row—but the larger source of distress came after I finished. My competitor’s coach posted a picture of her on Facebook. I don’t remember the exact wording of the caption, but it was something along the lines of this: “So great to see a strong athlete win against one who clearly has an eating disorder.”

My heart dropped into my stomach when I was told about the post. I felt scrutinized, judged, disparaged. Guilty. Like the validity of my efforts in the sport were being challenged. Never mind that my disordered eating habits, which I was indeed battling at the time, originated in large part from the way that the media and running world obsessed over the bodies of women runners. Never mind that a grown man was the one commenting on the body of a high school girl, publicly shaming her for it. He should have felt guilty, not me. Still, I didn’t tell anyone about the incident, too afraid of the possibility that they might find me out, that this stranger’s commentary would somehow become the way the world saw me.

On April 1st of this year, LetsRun.com, a running news and message board website, published an article as an April Fool’s joke titled “We Were Wrong: Biological Males Don’t Have an Unfair Advantage in Women’s Sport.” In the article, they mock NCAA champion swimmer Lia Thomas and call her a “biological male.” Runners immediately took to social media in outrage over this clear example of transphobia, but people were hardly surprised by where it came from. One Twitter user posted “In case anyone needed anymore validation that LetsRun is a piece of s— website run by people who are ruining the sport.” Another said “while seeing letsrun’s [sic] transphobia on display, remember that the site is also racist.” Yet another called LetsRun the “bigoted uncle of the running world.” Outside Magazine once reported that one message poster called LetsRun “4chan for runners.”

LetsRun has since apologized and removed the piece from their website, saying “We missed the mark with the piece,” and that they had received feedback that people “viewed the piece as punching down and unnecessarily mean.” Unfortunately, this isn’t LetsRun’s first instance of transphobia: Until early this week, they had a section of the front page of the website dedicated to the “Trans Debate” where they include a “Recommended Read” from the Telegraph, titled “Sport Must Face Up To Reality – Fairness And Inclusion Cannot Co-Exist With Trans Participation.”

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Their message boards are frequented by people who comment on the bodies of both trans and ciswomen alike, including high school athletes. Some of the content is at best creepy and at worst harassment. You don’t have to dig much to find examples: There’s an entire thread on the site dedicated to discussing the “Most Masculine Female Runner,” and a thread where moderators posed the question of whether or not discussions of bodies and appearance should be allowed on the site. Commenters had a lot to say, including that “No one would have commented on [one runner’s] physical appearance had she not worn an outfit exposing her mid-section.” Some of the most vitriolic content on the site surrounds Caster Semenya, an intersex cisgender woman who is regularly misgendered and body-shamed. And it will come as no surprise to anyone that, while hardly any elite runners are spared body commentary on these forums, Black women are more often the target of people seeking to question the gender identities of women runners.

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I cannot begin to understand what it feels like to have your gender questioned when all you are trying to do is the thing that you love, but I do know what it feels like to have your body compared to the body of a competitor. I know what it feels like to be told that the body you have is all wrong—too hard or too soft, too masculine or too feminine, your thighs too big or your shoulders too bony. And I know that the biggest threat to my success in the realm of women’s sports was my own image of my body, fueled by the epidemic of online and in-person coverage focused on athlete’s bodies rather than their accomplishments.

It’s not just LetsRun who publishes this type of content, either. In 2018, The New York Times published an article on Katelyn Tuohy, a sophomore in high school at the time and a rising star in the running world. The piece lacked any quotes from her or her family but debated whether she was likely to be successful after her body changed as a result of puberty.

Sometimes, even race commentators take stabs at runner’s bodies, as Allie Ostrander, an NCAA champion competing for Boise State at the time, pointed out in one Instagram post: “The commentators found it necessary to state (incorrectly I might add) my height and weight multiple times.” Ostrander has since discussed how her own struggles with disordered eating pushed her to take a break from the sport.

 

I do not want to mince words: My experience with body policing as a cisgender woman in the running world is nothing compared to what trans people experience on a day-to-day basis, both within and outside of sports. The transphobia exhibited in the LetsRun April Fool’s Day article is part of a larger issue, one that contributes to the deaths of hundreds of trans people every year as a result of both suicide and murder. I only mean to say that body commentary is one of the most nefarious issues affecting women’s sports today. Those who wish to support women’s sports should concern themselves with the toxic conversation about women’s bodies instead of attacking trans women who simply seek to exist in the world.

I stepped away from competition after just one year on a Division 1 team. It was not the “unfair advantages” of the bodies of my competitors that drove me away from competitive running, it was the pressure and scrutiny my own body was under. When my times started to slip toward the end of high school, I wondered if people were noticing the changes in my body, if they connected it to my performances the way I did. It was a worry that was far from unwarranted, and it’s the reason that I hesitate to tell young women runners to keep competing through the strain of their bodies changing during puberty. Nothing—not winning, not racing, not even a team—is worth feeling like you are at war with your body.

So many of the people commenting on Lia Thomas’s hard-earned success or writing up articles that mock trans people say they are doing so in defense of women’s sports. I won’t refer to statistics about how many trans athletes are actually competing or the reasons trans athletes shouldn’t be seen as having unfair advantages, because I think it’s beside the point. Our main goal in supporting women’s sports should be ensuring that all people who are competing feel safe to do so without others commenting on what they look like or how their bodies are shaped, ensuring that they are able to feel at home in the bodies they inhabit.

Do you truly want more women to feel successful in sport? Stop talking about their bodies and let them compete.


Morgan Florsheim is a writer, educator, and runner based out of Nashville. She splits her time between working at two environmental nonprofits, jotting down her thoughts, and laying in the sunshine.