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Redefining feminine: The Rugged Grace Project uses powerful pictures of lady rugby players to tackle body hate

Posted Jul 23 2014 6:16am

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  All photos courtesy of the Rugged Grace Tumblr

Have you ever played rugby? I haven’t. I had the chance once. The s uper rad Jen Sinkler  (you may know her as the strong-woman who coined the phrase , “How do I get my cardio? I lift weights faster.”) once invited me to play with her team. Actually I think she invited me like five or six times. Yet despite my whole shtick being trying new athletic stuff I balked at rugby. I’ll be honest: they were some of the most super-fit ladies I’ve ever seen and I was afraid I wouldn’t be able to keep up at all. I’m not usually one to mind public humiliation but I was really intimidated. I mean, it’s rugby.

At the time all I knew about rugby was that it had really complicated rules, people got hurt a lot and it most closely resembles American football, the sport I most detest. (Yell at me if you want but for me watching football is worse than watching my cat lick her biz. The players only move for 11 minutes out of 3+ hours of game time – the rest is just watching people yell at each other without being able to hear what they’re saying. How is that fun?)

I was scared. And I let my fear stop me from trying it.

But now I’m seriously regretting that decision. (The decision to play rugby, not the decision to never watch football again. I will stand by that one to my grave.) I should have trusted Jen. After all, she’s the one I made the MMA video for Lifetime Fitness with and taught me how insanely fun tackling someone is.

Because today I came across the t he Rugged Grace project . The Harvard women’s rugby team dressed in identical gray sports bras and shorts, were given markers and told to write on their teammates’ bodies what they love and admire about them. It’s hard enough defining what it means to be a girl (or a woman or a lady) in our society, in our culture and in our bodies on our own. But what would happen if we let those who love us the most tell us what they see in us?

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The team started the photo-essay as a way to fight the “frightening normalcy of hating your body” after a survey showed that a whopping 86% of female students said they had an eating disorder by age 20. (Question: Is this a Harvard thing? I mean I know how prevalent eating disorders are, especially in college students but nearly 9 out of 10? I can’t decide if Harvard co-eds are just more honest or perhaps more perfectionist than my state-school girlfriends.)

Being strong women who played an “unfeminine” game, the women’s rugby team felt like they were in the perfect position to challenge that mentality and help redefine what it means to be female. “There is almost nothing in our society besides rugby that allows women to be truly physically aggressive, to use our bodies in the same unselfconscious, unafraid, assertive way that men use theirs all the time,”  writes  author and rugby player Amy Perfors.

Not only is this attitude different than what you find in many female sports but the players say that because all body types are necessary to play the game that rugby provides a more body-positive environment than other female sports. Unlike stereotypes like “a dancer’s body”, “a swimmer’s body” or “a runner’s body” there’s no such thing as a “rugby body” as apparently every body is a rugby body. If you doubt that, the pictures are definitely worth more than a thousand #thinspo words .

In fact many of the words they wrote on each other aren’t ones typically associated with the stereotype of a woman. But when you see the pride, camaraderie and love among the girls on the team suddenly the words look perfectly feminine.

One woman has “battle tested” written across her stomach, turning a long scar into a medal of honor.

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“Squat master”, “Quad Lyfe” “Hey quads” and “So ripped” adorn a picture of muscular thighs that defy the fragile Hollywood standard we are all told we must aspire to.

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The word “Huge” appears several times, challenging the assumption that women need to be as small as possible.

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“Power sized” scrawled across a stomach replace all the iterations of tiny (anyone remember when “fun sized” was in?) that women have been taught to prefer.

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Then there are the words like “Inspired/inspiring” (on chiseled calves) “powerful” (across the knuckles of two fists) and the simple “Proud” (across a chest).

Brooke Kantor, Helen Clark and Lydia Frederico write in  an article on the team’s project  in the Harvard Political Review that the team is fighting the message that women are supposed to be in a constant state of self-improvement through beauty products, diets, and exercise. “Exercise in particular has now taken its place as a piece of the “sexualization” of women phenomenon. Women are bombarded with the idea that the purpose of exercise is to attain a fit body, rather than to improve athletically,” they write.

I couldn’t agree more. These days “health” for women is all about looking a certain way rather than feeling a certain way. We pay lip service to the myriad mental and physical benefits of fitness but in the end it’s “bikini body boot camps” that sell.

According to Amy Perfors, shedding this version of health and beauty is one of the best parts of rugby. “There is a wonderful transformation during the season as recruits come to realize that being strong and muscular makes someone more beautiful, not less; that routinely tackling other women into the ground on the weekends not only doesn’t compromise femininity, it increases self-confidence and assertiveness; and that women really can do something that almost everything and everyone says we can’t do.”

I found this especially meaningful as I just go a comment on an old post, one where I talked about doing Krav Maga as way to get past the PTSD from being sexually assaulted, that said basically, “Women doing MMA? And you bitches wonder why men don’t want to hold open doors or pull out chairs for you. Chivalry is dead because girls like you killed it.” (Note: I deleted the comment as it violated my no-cursing policy. And also my no douchebags policy.) But I’ll admit that I thought about that comment for a long time. Was it impossible to be both aggressive and feminine? Was learning to protect myself (and I guess lessening the need for men to play their traditional role of protector) effectively castrating men? No. Just because we can be tough doesn’t mean we have to be tough in every situation. And I find the fact that this attitude even exists to be terrifying.

And then there’s something particularly touching about watching the girls write the statements on their team members. We’re so often encouraged to see other women as rivals and competition or bitches and ho’s. Heck, I think the entire premise of reality television shows, all the way from Toddlers and Tiaras to the Real Housewives of Wherever, are written on the premise of women tearing down other women. So it feels rare and special to see women taking such care with each other. This isn’t some hypersexualized picture of women in underwear having a pillow fight or doing a fashion show or even showing off unrealistically ripped pictures of “ strong is the new skinny ” – it’s just women being awesome.

You know, like we do.

I wish I had tried rugby and I’m sad now that I didn’t jump on that opportunity. Yet I think the larger message of Rugged Grace is even more powerful: Even if we don’t play rugby, sometimes we just need to see ourselves through someone else’s eyes to recognize how beautiful, unique and especially strong we truly are.

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Any of you ever play rugby? Anyone else ever not tried something because they were afraid? And I can think of lots of words I’d love to scrawl across the lovely, talented, smart, strong ladies in my life — do you think my friends would let me attack them with a marker? (I know Jelly Bean would – child is ALL about drawing on herself with markers!)

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