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Sexism and Swimming

It has been 40 years since Title IX was passed into law, requiring gender equality “in every educational program that receives federal funding”, according to the Title IX website at http://www.titleix.info/History/History-Overview.aspx. Title IX affects 10 different areas listed on the aforementioned page but it is best known for requiring equality in publicly funded athletics (read: sports in public schools). As a lifelong, avid swimmer, I would like to point out how rarely and ineffectively Title IX is enforced, even within a relatively well-off community like the one I grew up in.  Sexism was rampant in swimming.

I swam from age six until I completed my senior swim season at seventeen. When I began racing at six, the races were already split up according to sex; this may be reasonable due to differences in physical strength, but it also encouraged us to practice separately. We followed a strict sex division that our coaches encouraged, when the differences in strength are really not that severe in the first grade. This division continued throughout my life without any question. How truly equal are girls when we can’t even share a lane with the boys? Swimming marks sex like no other sport; girls wear suits that cover their chests and swim caps, while the boys didn’t need these. We were divided from the start.

In middle school our swim team was co-ed, but subtly sexist anyway. Events were designated as “100 free” and “100 free – girls” as if being female were some sort of deviation from the norm. The middle school state competition was separated by sex even though regular season meets were not, and the girls’ state meet was always after the boys’. We had fewer people in the audience watching us than the boys did and some of the photographers would leave. This was despite the fact that in middle school, girls are actually stronger swimmers on average and our state cut-off times are faster than boys’.

In high school, sexism became brutally apparent. The boys took team pictures in their swimsuits, but my team had to take pictures in khaki pants and polos because taking pictures in our swimsuits was considered “indecent” and sexually suggestive. My male swim coach explained this to us without the slightest trace of irony. The website set up for our team was called “[City] Varsity Swimming” without mentioning sex, but it only followed the boys’ meet results and displayed their team photo. The girls were not mentioned. We still had fewer people in the audience at regular meets and at states. This was all happening at a time when both teams were successful and doing equally well—how exactly this was justified, I will never know.

Title IX may pressure schools to create a swim team for girls if there is already one for boys, but that is the limit of its effectiveness. We are separate, but never equal. We are nowhere close.

1 Comment

  1. Stephanie Jones says:

    As someone who has next to no coordination, I’ve never given much thought to the logistics of being on a sports team, and I’ve never considered the inequalities in sports like swimming that have both a male and female team. Your post brought a lot of things to my attention, but what I found most astounding was that the boys wore their swimsuits in their picture but the girls weren’t allowed to. “Indecent”? “Sexually suggestive”? How does that even make sense? You weren’t posing as nude models, you were taking a team picture in what was essentially your uniform as a girls’ basketball team might and certainly like the boys’ swim team did. It’s ridiculous that such inequalities exist in sports despite the so-called effort made by legislation like Title IX.

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