Flag Football
by Elizabeth Whitney

Artist's Notes:

"Flag Football" is part of a solo performance titled "Skinny Isn't Sexy, or, Why I Never Had an Eating Disorder" that explores body image, gender, and adolescent participation in athletics.  I wrote "Flag Football" first as a short story, and then re-shaped it into a personal narrative within the larger context of "Skinny Isn't Sexy," which was really inspired by my partner, who is a women’s basketball coach.  Having never pariticipated in team sports—other than when forced to during Physical Education classes—I asked her to tell me romantic and subversive stories about playing basketball in junior high and high school, and how the players must have hooked up with the cheerleaders after games.  But she just laughed and said, “it wasn't like that—we made fun of the cheerleaders.”  And even though I never made the cheerleading team, I had to consider all of the missed opportunities for some queer adolescents based on the unfortunate gendered assumption that femininity is inherently heterosexual.

Since body image is such a pervasive issue for adolescents, I felt moved to write a piece inspired by my own experiences as a skinny, wimpy, non-athletically gifted girl.  For years I held a very negative self-image based on the teasings and accusations I endured about my weight and size.  Friends and other “concerned” adults pulled my mother aside and inquired about my “eating disorder,” while peers took advantage of my slight stature by dominating me on the playground and in Physical Education. 

I find that discussions concerning P.E. class are more likely to bring up extreme reactions to adolescence than most other topics.  Generally, folks either experienced success as athletes or were persecuted for their non-abilities.  Not to say that we—the persecuted—did not have other abilities, because we did/do and that’s really part of what I’ve been trying to figure out by writing on the topic of body image and sports.  Central to this story is the character of my adolescent P.E. instructor, “Ms. Brown.”  Because of Ms. Brown’s questionable sexuality—which she attempted to disguise by keeping a life size poster of Tom Selleck on the equipment closet door so she could remark on how fine he was—she lives in my mind as the quintessential dyke gym teacher.  Ms. Brown was strong, athletic, and aggressively rewarding of my peers who were athletically inclined.  My guess is, she was of the 1970’s lesbian (feminist?) school that witnessed the advent of Title IX and understood the high stakes of women's continued achievement in athletics. 

A big part of this narrative is my coming to understand how lesbianism and athletics have been shaped by one another in popular culture, leading to assumptions that all female athletes are lesbians, and all lesbians play sports--and to explore the irony that women's athletic achievements are simultaneously celebrated and constrained.  With the 1990’s renaissance of broadly defined gender roles, certainly this is not always the case, though homophobia continues to be a driving force in women's athletics. 

It is my hope that this narrative will resonate with the listener's own adolescent experiences with athletics, and that, in whatever unique way that resonation occurs, it will give rise to reflection on the formation of gendered identity.

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