Skating towards femininity

Professor examines the history of gender in figure skating

In the late 17th and early 18th century, figure skating was almost exclusively a male activity.
In the late 17th and early 18th century, figure skating was almost exclusively a male activity.

Figure skating was historically a male-dominated sport, according to a new book by Queen’s associate professor Mary Louise Adams.

Adams’ work titled Artistic Impressions: Figure Skating, Masculinity, and the Limits of Sport is the first English book on the history of figure skating and focuses on gender roles within the sport. It was published in February and is the culmination of 10 years of research.

Adams, a professor in the School of Kinesiology and Health Studies, initially began her research on understanding sexuality through figure skating and was surprised to discover that historically the sport was dominated by men. She said this discovery resulted in a shift in her research towards a historical project on how gender appropriation occurs in sports.

“While I was doing [the original] research I was looking into the media. [Then I] learned that in the late 17th and early 18th centuries, skaters were pretty much entirely, exclusively a male past-time or activity. And here I thought I was doing a study on ‘feminine’ sport,” she said. “[The focus is on] sites in our culture where sexuality and gender ... are perceived by other people to be problematic. It’s all about perception.”

Adams said exploring gender in society through the study of a popularly feminized sport such as figure skating is especially significant because of the large role sports play in pop culture. Sports can limit choices and personal expression for children and people of all ages.

“Sports is one of the only places in our culture where we really accept gender segregat[ion] ... and we do that ... in terms of the kinds of sports that are deemed as appropriate. That is changing, though it’s changing more for girls than boys,” she said.

“We assume that boys and girls should not compete against each other ... but that hasn’t always been the case. At the turn of the century, men and women figure skaters competed against each other ... as singles in the same event.”

Through this type of historical research on gender within figure skating, Adams said she hopes to encourage alternative thinking and the questioning of gender categories in sports and in wider society.

“I ... wanted to show how [gender perception] influences how men and women should use their bodies and [how] that influences identity and our sense of ourselves,” she said. “[This research can] provoke and inspire us to think differently about the ways we do things now, to think about how we might promote ways of doing things differently that aren’t so restricting to some people.” Part of Adams’ interest in this subject comes from her childhood experiences.

“My brother quit skating because it wasn’t a cool thing for boys to do ... I wanted to explore that contradiction a little bit.” She said that during her graduate studies, she recalled taking note of media perception of gender in figure skating.

“I ... heard commentary about these male figure skaters talking about how macho they were...Journalists quoting [a male skater] as saying ‘I don’t have a feminine side’,” she said.

However, Adams said that to a certain extent, this over-compensation of macho-ism within figure skating has abated over the past two decades.

“Men skating today...are not feeling the pressure that their predecessors did to try and overcompensate for their choices or try to ... proclaim this kind of super masculine persona. [They] can just do [their] thing.” According to Adams, this slight shift in social perception of masculinity within figure skating has been assisted by an increasing visibility of gay people in culture.

“The fear that many people have about sending their sons to skating is that ... the ‘masculinity’...on display in figure skating is not appropriate enough,” she said. “Our ideas about what counts as manly or appropriately masculine are starting to shift a little bit.”

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