The Salt Life: Older Women and Exercise (by Sasha)

Throughout Sarasota, women “of AARP age” are exercising. You can see them walking the beach, running over the Ringling Bridge, biking the roadways, pumping iron at the gym, competing on tennis courts and golf courses, and practicing at yoga studios.

Whenever my sister Cat and I see these women, we say in unison “You Go Girl!” We don’t care how they look, what they wear, or whether they are good at what they are doing. We admire them. We are each one of them.

And we can’t help but recall how much has changed for American women and exercise.

When we were growing up in the 1960s, it was a dim time for girls and “physical education” (a misnomer if any there was one). Unfortunately, these classes taught us that we as females were not meant to be physical:

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  • We wore  cloth gym suits that had to be starched and ironed;
  • On our feet were ill-fitting Keds that we kept white by applying shoe polish;
  • We were graded not on what we achieved in class, but according to whether we “tried” and whether our uniforms passed inspection;
  • When we had cramps from our menstrual cycle, we were allowed to skip gym class—and we did, as often as possible;
  • We never warmed up our muscles or stretched before or after exercise;
  • Every year our “fitness” was assessed by the number of jumping jacks, sit-ups, and chin-ups we could do in a timed session;
  • Only girls were introduced to gymnastics and dance; only boys to lacrosse, soccer, weightlifting, wrestling, and football;
  • When we played basketball, we had to dribble three times then pass, and we only played half-court;
  • In the locker room, we were our own worst enemies; we judged each other (and ourselves) by cup size, leg stubble, and body fat;
  • We chose up teams and ridiculed those chosen last, and labeled as lesbian any girl who was a “jock;” mediocrity was the safest route to go;
  • We tried our best not to sweat in order to avoid ruining our hair or having to shower in the locker room;
  • We were encouraged to join team spirit (for only the boys’ teams) by becoming a cheerleader, joining the pep squad, twirling batons;
  • When we joined one of the few competitive girls’ teams, we lacked uniforms, equipment, coaches, travel budgets, and time to practice on the field or courts;
  • When we asked for more resources, we were made to feel guilty that we were taking money away from the serious athletes (i.e., boys).

Then in 1972 along came Title IX. 

Title IX of the Education Amendments of 1972 states: “No person in the United States shall, on the basis of sex, be excluded from participation in, be denied the benefits of, or be subjected to discrimination under any education program or activity receiving Federal financial assistance.”

Given this language, it was anticipated that Title IX would be used–and it was–to challenge and change discriminatory practices in education in general (like scholarships, admissions policies, discipline policies, and treatment of pregnant girls.)  Few foresaw that Title IX would also apply to sports. But since sports is an activity within education, and the inequality was blatant, it wasn’t long before Title IX began to literally change the playing field for girls.

The impact can’t be underestimated: in 1971 only 294,000 girls played high school sports; in 2011 that number was 3.2 million. (National Federation of State High School Associations).

So, a shout out today to:

  • female athletes who compete with sculpted muscles and sweat drenching their uniforms,  and who have altered what it means to  “play like a girl;”
  • my elderly neighbor who, using her walker, walks down the road even on the hottest of days, and sets new goals to meet each week (the next mailbox, the next driveway);
  • those of us who came of age before the impact of Title IX and somehow found our way to exercise and even sports competition; and
  • those in the future who will take to exercise and sports as ducks to water.

With that as background, it is a pleasure, a triumph, to watch the Summer Olympics, or grand slam tennis matches, or witness all the older women who work out daily in Sarasota. To each of you: You Go Girl!

2 thoughts on “The Salt Life: Older Women and Exercise (by Sasha)”

  1. I often think that I would have been a different person if I had been a few years younger, so that I could have benefited from Title IX in the athletics department. In high school I tried to start a soccer team, but there wasn’t enough interest. A few years later, my sisters played soccer along with what what seemed like every other girl in town. Bad memories of my own sea foam green gym uniform… good memories of a few gym teachers, including the gym teacher who introduced me to track and field, running and jumping alongside of us although she was very visibly pregnant.

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