Nov 6, 2011

Why does it matter how I look

The recent posts on What to wear and What not to wear sparked a lot of debate, mostly along the lines of "why should it matter." I've written about this before, but it bears repeating.

This is a huge issue with figure skating and the other artistic sports, gymnastics and dance. Strangely, in the most artistic of them, dance, the body-type restrictions have started to be overcome through such forward-thinking companies as the Joffrey in Chicago, whose founder specifically sought out non-typical body types. They have had squat, and heavy, and bosom-y, and most notably non-white dancers in the company since their founding.

Inevitably when following a Twitter discussion, or just listening to the live media comments, at some point someone will bring up the costumes. If I had a dime for every time Dick Button mentioned that so-and-so is "a beautiful girl" I would be a rich woman.

These sports rely, for both scoring and enjoyment, on how they look. The problem comes when we overlay cultural definitions of beauty onto the successful execution of the skills. This is not the same thing as costume. For me, I want costumes to be neat, I want hair to be simple and safe, and I don't want to see undergarments, even on very young children.

The bigger problem is that while we consciously get indignant over costume--as one commenter put it "why should my daughter's undewear have anything to do with her skill"--we are unconsciously not even considering the fact that the judges are selecting, through gamed scoring, for specific body types. While judges tend to be pretty fair in testing situations, I maintain that even at the lower levels they will favor the look over the skills, especially when all other things are equal. The thin, flat-chested pixies start getting held up because judges like thin, flat-chested pixies.

We had an amazingly talented skater at our rink who grew a beautiful, full bosom in her mid-teens.

At which point her coach told her she was done, because she was now "too fat." Trust me, the ONLY fat on that girl's body was in her breasts. She still had the jumps, she still had the art. But her coach, and the judges, decided she didn't look right, and that's how they scored her.

I maintain that Rachael Flatt is a perfect example of someone repeatedly criticized not for her skating, but for her body type. A lot of the discussion was "no one knows how to dress that girl [to hide her sloping shoulders and thick middle.]" But what was meant was that she didn't look like our image of a skating champion. I really believe that consistent underscoring by judges was a way for them to get rid of this young woman who just didn't look right.

A generation ago they did the same thing to Surya Bonaly and Debi Thomas, who had the audacity to be black. The irony there, of course, is that the person who beat Debi Thomas at the Olympics was Katarina Witt, whom I used to call "hope for fat girls everywhere." Sometimes the talent really does trump the look. But like women in the board room, they had to be head-and-shoulders better than the sylphs they were beating.

The unfairness of this is maintained by the scoring system--where there is a tie (rare in the IJS but common under 6.0)--the performance marks break the tie. If the technical mark broke the tie, as it should, you would start seeing a wider range of body types, and probably more consistent skating as well, as skaters and coaches started realizing that they couldn't rely on the more subjective component (i.e. the artistic) score.

Children should not be fat, but frankly if we stopped excluding the fat ones from praise for taking part in the beautiful sports, maybe some of them would start feeling like they could be fairy princesses on the ice too.

I still don't want to see their undergarments, by the way.


  1. was cheering you on right up until the undies Xan!

  2. I'm totally with you on the underwear. Don't want to see it sticking out of loetards/dresses on dancers, skaters or gymnasts. It's tacky, regardless of age. My DD is 8 and we have no problem with basic bikini cut panties from Gap not showing, and they are perfectly appropriate undergarments for a young girl. Hold the line, Xan! :)

  3. What happened to the poor kid who (horrors) developed a bossom??
    Such a shame if that was more important than her talent.

  4. Still coaching. But can you believe that?

  5. On the underwear thing...

    I can't imagine putting granny panties under a skating dress, but my 9 year-old wears bikini style panties all the time. They don't show at all on the sides and she's lean enough that you'd have to pull up the skating skirt and really look hard to even find the slightest line.

    Between commando and granny panties are lots of viable panty options. See the underwear? Clearly a no. Forbid underwear simply because some might not choose appropriately? Seems like overkill to me. Commando might be required for a very skimpy skating dress without a covering skirt, but I can't see why that's necessary when thick skating tights and the skating panty under the skirt completely mask the presence of appropriate undies. When and if my skater gets to a point where something shows, we'll deal. Until then, I prefer her to wear her cotton bikini panties.

    No coach has ever said a word to us about them, so I'm thinking they must be just fine.

    Fun debate though. ;)

  6. Thanks Deb - that all I am saying. Should be possible to find little girl undies where they do not stick out wider than the skating panty. If you can't , then you should be asking yourself why you are putting a skating dress with such a skimpy skating panty on a little girl. Complaining that you can see the LINE (VPL) of the line of the fully covered underpants through the skating panty - GEESH why are you looking at a little girls tushie so closely, clearly you need a new hobby.

  7. anonymom, this is what I'm talking about. The bra line or the panty "line" fine, whatever, but being able to tell what the pattern on the underpants is (and often, you can), is just wrong.

  8. I completely adjusted to going panty free, it just makes sense, and one less thing to worry about.
    Im not a mother, but how does this appeal to those whith younger girls? Its one less item to get them changed into and out of? :)

  9. ok, so now speculate on why the "looks" aspect of the sport that goes for short skimpy girl costumes treats breasts as a negative rather than a positive? Odd really.

  10. I've also heard the explanation that when figures were taken out of competition, and more focus was put on jumps/spins, that the body type necessarily changed. Before that, skaters who did have jump issues because of body type at least had a decent shot at medaling because the figures score counted for so much toward the final.

    Again, there are definitely those who with hard work can overcome bodytype even with hips and boobs, but the focus on jumps made it more likely that younger skaters would be able to rotate the jumps/spins more easily.

    It was nice to see Caroline Kostner and a more mature Mirai Nagasu do well at Cup of China against the adolescent Russian girls who are knocking off triple-triples like they were waltz jumps.

  11. But in Xan's example, the girl with the boobs still had her jumps, just not the bobby type the judges were used to seeing.

  12. giggle. Typo - body type

  13. Oh absolutely, I know that girls with body types not typical can get "marked down". And there are enough examples out there of senior ladies who aren't slender or curveless.

    I'm not sure when thin ballerina body types became the norm - just that it wasn't always. Just as it wasn't always the standard of beauty in overall culture. I'm just wondering to what extent it coordinated with the loss of figures and the focus on jumping.

    There are so many pendulum swings in this sport, it seems...several Olympics almost in a row, there were very young girls winning. But it does seem that more mature looking young women are being considered for their overall style as opposed to just handing over medals to the adolescent jumping beans.

    And again, we're talking about singles skating. Our local synchro team that medaled at Nationals is very diverse, and honestly *all* shapes and sizes.

    I guess I'm just hopeful. No, there's aren't any very overweight girls doing well at singles. But, from what I'm seeing at lower levels, there seems to be more shapes and sizes making it to final rounds and the podium. So...I'm hopeful.

  14. I know exactly what you are talking about with the body image issues - if you don't fit the slim long look that judges prefer you usually have to be two or three time better than the next kid to get just a little bit farther. Is it right? No, not at all. Is it reality? Yes.

    Of course, at high levels of skating, the slimmer body types will have a much better time with the hard triple jumps (physics doesn't care about fair), so in a way it is understandable that body type is seen more often at the senior level of skating.

    As for the whole VPL issue - the problem is not about wearing underwear under a skating dress, the issue is about seeing the underwear that is being worn under a skating dress. I am of the personal preference that more layers is better (for multiple reasons), but you need to be strategic about shapes and sizes. Honestly, as long as it is all under the dress people aren't going to notice. If it is sticking out from under the dress (even with the tights over it) then YES, we can ALL see Dora the Explorer and NO this is NOT appropriate. It looks sloppy and is embarrassing in a way to the onlookers. As much as it should be about the skating, if your first impression to the judges is that you are a new skater who is clueless about how to even get dressed they just won't look at you as favorably as they would if you present yourself well. You can wear whatever underwear you like. I just don't want to know what it looks like.

  15. I think of a skater's underwear showing much like having a run in your tights or not polishing your boots ... there is a checklist, if you will, of things you must do before a competition ... which includes underwear that doesn't show. In my time, we used to have to buy 2 or 3 pairs of nylons, so we wouldn't have the kind with the ring around the thigh. Remember those?

  16. Synchro is a GREAT example--that discipline is to me commended for its focus on the quality of the skating and not the look of the individual (the over-the-top makeup notwithstanding. That drives me crazy).

    I was thinking about figures as well. Yes, when the skills part of the competition was 50% of the score, you had a lot harder time holding up a skater on looks or politics, although it still happened. But what happened then was skaters like Trixie Schuba, who couldn't jump off a ladder and manage to be in the air, were winning on the figures alone, which also didn't seem fair.

  17. I was *just* thinking of Trixie Shuba and Janet Lynn. That seemed to be a real turning point in moving away from figures. That and (supposedly) because of the expense of practicing figures due to the ice time needed, as well as television audiences becoming more interested in the freestyle programs.

    Here's a great video clip of a documentary on Shuba and Lynn. One commentator even mentions Shuba's size as an asset during figures. Not sure how true that is, but perception can be everything.

  18. (Meant Free Skate, not freestyle. Sorry...I'm currently kicking my kid out the door to freestyle ice. :-) )

  19. This clip is fascinating, because although Shuba is getting talked about as larger and heavier than Lynn, I see hardly any difference between them (though perhaps her staking was much heavier and less lilting, but the clip only shows her doing figures). Both are far more statuesque than any skater in world medal contention today. Anyway...this is a great discussion.

  20. I was thinking the same thing. I think Shuba does look a bit taller, more "big boned", but Lynn is definitely not a willowy reed. There is a small portion of Shuba doing free skate and compared to Lynn, she does look a bit more workmanlike. But I wonder if given the "okay" to be more fluid and expressive would have made a difference. Just because Lynn sort of "thought of it first" doesn't mean Shuba couldn't have done it.

    On the other end of this we have Akiko Suzuki who suffered from anorexia and who lost so much weight (reportedly, she went down to 70 lbs) and was so unhealhty that she was unable to jump anymore. There is a balance. Although, I'm still unsure that there is a "sweet spot" of height/weight/body type that gives an edge on the physics of singles skating or a hard and fast point beyond which all the work in the world just isn't going to overrule the science.

    From info I've gleaned from different sites, reports of height/weights for international competitive figure skaters seem to run between 4'8" - 5'9" with the median about 5'2 - 5'5", and weights between 90 - 130 lbs, lower heights seeming to correspond with lower weights.

    A skater who is 5'4" and 110 lbs is still considered normal/healthy BMI, but just barely. I don't know whether burning 3,000 calories a day and then eating 3,000 calories a day to maintain that weight is more or less healthy than someone who just sits around and diets.

  21. Well, the BMI calculators are all set for adults, which is a problem since children go through great fluctuations where they tend to grow out, then up, then out, then up. Also, those calculators do not tend to account for muscle weight, unless you do a lot of measuring as well. Anecdotally, the thinnest I have been as an adult was the summer I *gained* 5 pounds from rock climbing 3-4 days/week. I lost more than a whole clothing size, but the BMI calculator would have said I'd just sat around on the couch eating bon bons all summer.

    All that is to say that I would imagine it is FAR harder to keep weight on a 10 yr old who is skating 4 hours a day than it would be to keep it on me, even if I skated that much. I know there are many days, for instance, when my 7-yr-old son eats at least double the calories I eat. He is 4'7" and weighs 65. I? Do not weigh 65. I think that while we might be terribly worried about 5'4" weighing 110 if she weren't an athlete, it might be quite difficult for her to weigh a whole lot more than that, given her age.

    One thing that also struck me about Shuba and Lynn is that they are NOT pre-pubescent. They have adult bodies, and that is part of why they look "big" to our eyes, since we are used to seeing 14-yr-olds as the world-class competitors. It does give me hope, though, that I can at least train my adult body to be a graceful skater, even if there are no double jumps in my future.

  22. You're right. The "shelf life" and peak performance age for female singles skaters demands that by a young age, they need to be working pretty darn hard to be competitive. And yes, I have one kiddo who plays travel soccer and who I couldn't keep weight on no matter what she did. But she's solid muscle, eats well, and can keep up, so I'm assuming it's okay for her.

    You know, the other part of all this is that once you get to the elite level of any sport, no matter which sport, it really does stop being "healthy" in the way that we normally think of taking a bit of exercise being a good, life-prolonging, life-enhancing thing to do.

    At the elite level where athletes are really pushing their bodies to extremes and functioning in that spot, more potential overall harm is being done than with those of us who participate at a recreational level.

    I'm not sure if it's worse to go through that kind of daily rigor with a body that's light, but not done growing. Or an a fully-grown body that might be heavier and so harder on joints landing big jumps.

    Recreational skating without big jumps is actually pretty safe (other than the falling part.) I have bad knees and arthritis in my neck (thank you competitive gymnastics). Because stroking on ice is side-to-side with deep, supple knees (hopefully) there is no up and down jarring movements to hurt my neck.

  23. Xan, I hope it's ok to post a question; I don't mean to hijack your original thread. Delete away if this is untoward.

    I wondered if you and your readers had an opinion regarding the proper etiquette for a skating party. I've rented the ice and a party room for DD's birthday. She will be inviting a mix of school/family/other activity friends (with mixed skating ability) and friends from the rink.

    Here's the situation: As she's on a synchro team, she's having trouble figuring out who to invite. It doesn't feel right to either of us to invite many but not all of the team. If she only wanted to invite one or two, that would feel different. Ok, I bought insurance for up to 50, so I suppose she could technically have those 14 in addition to a couple of freeskate buddies and the other 8-10 kids on the list. Having said that, I've never had any of my children host a party with 25-30 kids. Eek.

    The questions:
    1) Do you think the full team invite is the right thing, despite the mega-party implication? I can tell you that I absolutely do not want her to receive that many presents, so we would definitely 'best wishes only' for the team invites.
    2) I need to keep it from evolving to an unscheduled team practice (extra ice during competition season!) because that's not the purpose nor is it fair to the other guests who would get mowed down. Maybe that's not a real concern; the girls may love the opportunity to just have fun skating time in an unscheduled way.

    Any thoughts on approach? Again, my apologies if this is inappropriate. :)

  24. Hi Deb, never inappropriate to ask a question, plus you can always email me (email address is in the side bar!) I'll take a look at this and answer in a post. Skating parties are a great topic!

    Best rule I ever heard about school/activity parties is: if you invite half the group, you have to invite them all. If you don't want to invite them all, invite fewer than half. To be perfectly safe, I'd say no more than 4; make sure it's kids she spends time with off ice.

    If you have a lot of them, make a "no synchro skating" rule at the party, but let them do a short exhibition/demonstration with only them on the ice.

    This is an unbelievably fraught situation, bound to end in tears, by the way. Good luck!

  25. Re the party question, I'll offer my two cents as a mom who has planned a lot of group birthday parties: I would venture to say that if you are inviting 8-10 kids who are NOT skaters, you should invite a very select few of the synchro kids, just as you've chosen a few close friends who happen to be in freeskate. There is always a problem of inviting kids from different circles of friends to birthday parties. In my experience, it's daycare/aftercare friends versus school friends versus neighborhood friends, but the principle is the same: you want the kids to mix well, and if you have a whole lot of high level skaters (which to non-skating kids, ANY skater kid will be), then the kids who don't skate will be intimidated and may feel left out -- especially if there are choreographed routines going on. If I were the mom, I'd invite all the closest friends, non-skating or skating -- and I'd make it clear that the skating ones might want to help out the newbies on the ice. Also in my experience, kids of the same age love to be teachers to each other, so if you don't have a big group that's doing its own thing, you are more likely to have snychro/freeskate kids actually skating with the others for fun. Hope this helps!

  26. Thanks, Xan. I agree about the 'finale' presentation at the end; my skater had suggested that. Have to say, the tears, desolation, hurt feelings, feeling excludedis EXACTLY what I want to avoid. I'm leaning towards the 2-4, but Bundle informs me that the whole team is nice and she can't choose because it would be mean to the quiet girls she just hasn't gotten to know as well. How will THEY feel, just because they're shy? Insert recycled synchro coach speech on how all members of team are important, etc. My 'then don't invite any of them - simple' speech was not well received. ;)

    As for 'off ice playtime', what the heck is THAT?! ;)

    MT, thanks for weighing in. One small clarification; there's (almost) no such thing as a Canadian kid that doesn't skate. Boys (and increasingly girls) practically teethe on pucks. Her non-skating buddies have virtually all done early Canskate or play hockey.

    I can see this unfolding now. Fifteen synchro kids, plus a couple from last year's team plus two freestyle buds. Can't leave out six from school, two sibs and a couple of family friends. Starting to sound like a public skating session.

    No hockey sticks/body checking/synchro formations etc. speech by hosts' mom. Check. Lots of head nodding.

    Perhaps (a mother of three has to have optimism) two minutes of good behaviour ensue before mayhem/herding cats/unauthorized glee begins. I've done this before when Big Sis was a young skater. She never did synchro so the numbers were lower. Mind you, by the time I included younger sibs and/or parents we were probably at the same numbers. No one ever got hurt and we always kept at LEAST 5 or 6 adults on the ice to keep the little darlings in line.

    I appreciate the perspective and will keep my eye out for a post if you do one. Thanks. :)

  27. Josette, I have ALWAYS thought the same thing about Trixie Shuba and the way she is described as a bigger/heavier skater. I believe I first read a description about her in Christine Brennan's book, and then when I later saw the clip you posted (that's part of a great documentary, btw) I was really surprised. She certainly doesn't look that much heavier than Janet to me.

  28. They all looked heavier as well because they were skating outdoors and had multiple layers on, including tights. My problem with Trixie Schuba wasn't her weight or body type, it was her boring awful skating. ;)