How a three-word cheer became a paragon for gender segregation

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It was said so matter of fact, impulsively even. Like a gag reflex.

75 miles into the 112 mile bike portion of my Ironman and I was feeling good. Picking up speed too — training in motion. In triathlon, there are rules against riding behind others; it is called a “no drafting” policy. This means people are often left making pass after pass in the inevitable shift of individual pace making. I was among six or seven riders doing just this thing. One of them was a man wearing a Mont Tremblant kit (an Ironman course with the distinction of being among the most difficult in Ironman’s portfolio). At one point, he groused, “You’re fast too!,” referring to me, along with another women who was also trading passes. Eventually, she left us for good and was on her way. Soon I did the same. As I passed Mt. T, he said it. “You Go Girl.”

Surely we can assume it was to be a complement. I will take it as such. But not without an eye roll. Exactly when did this happen? When did a gender-defined blurt become to the go-to salvo for cheering on women?

Over the last several years, women have made great strides in sport — both professionally and recreationally. Yet, it seems that in equal measure a swath of pink and a tangle of tutu are cutting through that progress. The “You Go Girl” bromide is simply a byproduct.

Let me explain.

An emphasis on encouraging women into sports such as running and triathlon has effectively done just that — it has served to raise the number of women who are becoming active (more than half of newcomers to triathlon, for instance, are women). So I will always support that. However, the tone of this encouragement has created another kind of gender issue.

That issue is the general feminizing of sport. Dousing races in pink and calling excessive attention to gender does little to propel women, or to create balance and acceptance as athletes.

Take for instance the surge of women’s running races. They are around every corner. Even Nike has one, where they give away a Tiffany necklace at the end (cliché much?). But it doesn’t end there; there are women’s-only magazines for running and many other sports, and an endless supply of products with a feminine touch. And not the kind that enhance performance, such as a gender-biased cut on a bicycle short, but a leopard print gusset on a bicycle seat, a pink dial on a GPS watch, and an increasingly pastel inventory of shoes, hats, shirts, shorts, and socks. The line between making these options available and making them the norm is beginning to blur. Ever tried NOT to buy a pink running shoe? Good luck.

There is no way around seeing all of this as decidedly … ladylike. Not that being a lady is a bad thing. I embrace that. It is the overall cape that is thrown on women that gives little latitude in how we are seen, or how we choose to define ourselves.

When I entered the world of running and biking years ago, there weren’t all these florid things. There weren’t a plethora of women’s races. And women didn’t expect to always train and race together. The joy in this, for me, was that I fell in love with a sport — and with all the people who participated in it. And because men  by nature have a faster potential, they pushed me to work harder. Rather than sitting on the periphery with a carved-out group of women, I immersed myself and ended up feeling completely included. Likewise, it helped the men around me see me as equal — equally passionate, equally driven, and often, equally capable. It was a real sense of belonging to be considered an athlete, not just a female athlete.

To be clear, I am not focusing my attention on the world of professional sports, where women compete against women, and men against men. I’m referring to us regular folk — recreational athletes and middle-of-the-packers. In this world, women factioning off into their own races, their own running packs, and decorating themselves, is more akin to gender segregation. And, in fact, this trend could have very real unintended consequences on professional sports.

I have witnessed this divergence—from women being fully part of a sport, to gradually separating themselves. With the best of intentions, the entire category of sport simultaneously encouraged women and stifled their experience.

The words, “You Go Girl!” are a steady reminder of this isolation.

Certainly this, in and of itself, is not a wholesale implication that all women will be held back. It does suggest, however, that we could be. When we create walls around our gender, we run the risk of dampening our progress and of missing out on what it fully means to be an athlete.

If women are raised to see sport intrinsically linked to femininity and fragility, we suspend ourselves in hazy, pink ether. And we begin to define ourselves as somehow less competent as athletes. For every fantastic role model there is out there pushing boundaries and running their professional sporting careers as a gender equal, there is a little girl in a pastel running skirt thinking that it’s cute to run, but she shouldn’t take it seriously.

I know this article will make women angry. Because: Being pretty is our right!; Dresses are fun; We choose to be around women, they are so supportive; There is nothing wrong with pink!; Are you against breast cancer support?

Sure; Yes; Good for you; Nope; Of course not.

Just remember this — women could run before there were pink shoes. They could feel real, genuine camaraderie before there were women’s-only events, and they could still wear dresses and be beautiful.

This is not an attack. It is pointing out a steady, formidable cadence of feminizing sport.

Interestingly, women can easily see the fragility and incompetence suggested when our dolls say, “Math is hard.” Or, when Legos creates a pink and purple set just for girls. It even makes us mad. It is harder to see it when we are so very complicit in painting ourselves into a pretty pink box of sport. Subtly, but surely, we are telling ourselves — and our children — that we should be treated differently.

Think about that the next time you hear, “You Go Girl!”

Originally published on Medium; to make annotations, visit the story here.

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