Academic journal article Women in Sport & Physical Activity Journal

The Mark (1) of an Athlete

Academic journal article Women in Sport & Physical Activity Journal

The Mark (1) of an Athlete

Article excerpt


Tattooing the body, a traditionally masculine and, in some interpretations, deviant practice is increasingly being adopted by women. Contemporary boundaries of acceptable feminine presentation are changing to accept a body that is somewhat more masculine, including tone and muscle. However, for many women athletes strict conformity to feminine standards of presentation is often necessary to avoid the negative consequences of a collective public gaze which tends to judge her more on her outward appearance than on her athletic abilities. Physical attributes of the woman athlete often transgress the hazy dividing line between feminine and masculine and prompt frequent challenges to the femininity and sexuality of a woman athlete. How then might women athletes negotiate the shifting signifiers of having a tattoo within their self-surveillance of feminine presentation? Two hundred forty-five university-aged Canadian women athletes were surveyed to gain insight regarding their practices and interpretations of permanent and temporary tattooing. Results showed that a significantly smaller number of subjects had permanent tattoos than might be expected in a university population; however a majority utilized temporary tattoos in game situations as a motivating factor for their team. For this sample population, the desire for tattooing the body came as an indicator of achieving a significant sporting accomplishment such as making an Olympic team or winning a national championship.



What does a woman athlete look like? Unless she is in the midst of a competitive event, it would be impossible to tell a woman athlete based only on her looks or demeanor. Women athletes come in myriad shapes and sizes due to the needs of their sports and their own interests as physically active individuals. Yet, what a woman athlete looks like has been, and continues to be, a very important aspect of the social construction of not only women athletes, but of women in general. Even in the 21st century when women have more than proven their worth in athletic endeavors across the entire realm of sport, the very notion of 'woman athlete' continues to be an oxymoron. Athletes are, by definition to many, masculine males. The incongruous juxtaposition of 'woman' and 'athlete' continues to conjure images of masculine-looking, non-feminine females, which too frequently are translated into lesbian, as well (Cahn, 1994). The images of women athletes in mainstream media focus most frequently on the feminine presentation and 'heterosexy' appeal of the women rather than on their skill and success as athletes.

It would be uplifting to be able to report that women athletes rise above the perpetual self-surveillance of their bodies and their attention to signifiers of compulsory femininity. Given the unique relationships that women athletes have to their bodies and the centrality of the trained body as a necessary instrument for participation in sport, it might be possible to build a foundation upon which women athletes construct a radical shift in what it means to be a woman and what is feminine. However, women athletes may not have an advantage over women non-athletes in seeing their bodies in a unique way even though their bodies play a unique role in their self-identity. In North American culture, sport "acts a technology of domination that anchors women into a discursive web of normalizing practices" (Markula, 2003, p. 88) such as careful attention to feminine presentation.

The purpose of this paper is to present data and analyze the practice of tattooing among university aged women athletes. Although the practice by females of tattooing their bodies is growing in unprecedented numbers (Atkinson, 2002), marking the body is still considered to be a significant departure from feminine bodily practice. If the femininity of female athletes is being judged by their trespassing over the traditional boundaries of masculinity and sport, can their practices of tattooing be seen as a conscious or unconscious attempt to challenge contemporary constructions of femininity or simply part of a contemporary social practice? …

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