Academic journal article Women in Sport & Physical Activity Journal

Voices from the Margins: 'Older' Sportswomen Speak Out

Academic journal article Women in Sport & Physical Activity Journal

Voices from the Margins: 'Older' Sportswomen Speak Out

Article excerpt


This study will explore the interconnected constructs of age and gender within the context of sport in New Zealand. It draws on one story written for a method known as memory-work to highlight the possibilities offered by this methodology. Memory-work is used to open a space for the voices of masters, female field hockey players who, as a group, are defined by chronological age and constructed by meanings through and by reference to age and gender. It is argued that through practice, sport has evolved in a way that makes it a special form of physical activity. This separation implies certain chronological age categories working hand-in-hand with gender stratification. Counter narratives are presented to illustrate how a subordinate group--in this case mid-life, masters sportswomen--contest externally derived images and alternative meanings are constructed.


The two identity characteristics of age and gender, have historically, constituted separate fields of academic inquiry. Each has generated a copious amount of material. There has, however, been significantly less research literature generated exploring their interconnectedness. Gender and age are about the way society deals with human bodies. Each is reproduced socially and influenced by structures, which can hinder individual action. We are socialised into gender scripts whereas our views of age and ageing change. To understand how age and ageing becomes ageism that is gendered requires us to appreciate the age-specific society in which we live (Arber & Ginn, 1995). For example, Browne (1998) suggests, that the persistence of structural inequalities between men and women can become distinct disadvantages for women as they age. Age therefore complicates existing gender inequities (Fletcher & Ely, 2003).

In the context of sport, chronological age and gender can dictate quite different perceptions, experiences, and definitions of what counts as sport and who plays sport. There is no question that the increasing visibility of women in sport has challenged and expanded the boundaries of femininity. The female body can now be fit, trim and muscular. However, as Daniels (2004) argues, this foray into the culturally defined masculine activity of sport is bounded by expectations that female athletes remain, feminine and "heterosexy." Sport therefore, not only continues to construct and market gender (Dworkin & Messner, 1999), it does so in a manner that reinforces societal stereotypes and attitudes towards age and the ageing, gendered body. Sport is a highly visible part of consumer culture that endorses "younger" body types above all others (Kay, 2003). Attributes associated with female athletes, for example, fit, trim, muscular and sexy, imagery that we see in the media everyday, do emphasize appearance and is at odds with perceptions of the ageing, female body. So while "woman" and "athlete" may present a contradictory juxtaposition, add "older" to the mix and quite different perceptions, experiences, and definitions of what counts, as sport and who plays sport, will emerge.

Kay (2003) states the social exclusion of many women from sport can happen for a multiplicity of reasons and at different times over their life span. A survey conducted in Australia (Ey, 1993), substantiates this view and further highlights the interconnections of age and gender. One reason identified as preventing women from taking part in mature aged sport was a lack of confidence that stemmed from little or no history of sport participation. Ey (1993) argues that women over 40 years were not socialized in an environment that encouraged sport participation and the sports available were very limited. This has had led to a fear of failure. Body image was also identified as a barrier, with the ageing female body not seen to comply with media imagery of youthful bodies. For example, older women were embarrassed to be seen in public in shorts or swimsuits. …

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