Wednesday, June 18, 2008

You knew it was coming

The recent spate of studies and articles on injury rates--most of which focus on ACL tears--in female athletes could be part of a trend of inferiorizing the female body, which of course has ramifications for women's sports and female athletes and future female athletes. Maybe I am sounding the alarm a little early here, but this article in Science News that is reporting on a study of amenorrhea in young (teenage or early 20s) female athletes makes me nervous. If you have read Patricia Vertinsky's excellent book The Eternally Wounded Woman you will know why.
As much as research like Michael Sokolove's on ACL tears and even other studies on injuries like concussions provide often good evidence of the cultural factors that influence injury rates, we cannot control or predict how such work will be received. The media that reports on these studies serves as receptor and purveyor of this information and the coverage of this research never fails to mention Title IX. The suggestion is out there for those who want to take it (and do very bad things with it): equality has hurt--literally--women. No one is saying that outright. Most of the work and press mentions the benefits of sport and exercise. But in a culture that already largely believes that women's bodies are weaker such seemingly extreme interpretations of these studies are not out of the realm of possibility.
And as problematic as I find some of the coverage of ACL injuries to be, I am more concerned about this Harvard/Mass General study about amenorrhea. Because knees can be fixed or even replaced if need be. But start talking about a woman's reproductive system and people get a little panicky. The article reports that a quarter of high school and college athletes stop having their period "at some point" which results in "temporary infertility."
The article does point out that this is easily reversible, could be a result of evolutionary tactics that prevent pregnancy in bodies that cannot sustain them, and is not as severe as the other consequence: loss of bone density.
But it's already out there: interruptions in the reproductive system. Never mind that most of these women aren't really all that keen on getting pregnant anyway or that many of them could be on birth control--also something that results in temporary infertility.
And of course, at the end of the article, we get the Title IX mention:
With the 1972 law change called Title IX that ensures girls get equal treatment to boys in educational and athletic programs, more girls have become involved in sports during adolescence. While that has been good in general, [Misra, study's co-author] says, it might also explain why amenorrhea has become more prevalent in recent decades.
Or it could be the rise in eating disorders, which certainly as afflicted female athletes. Or it could be environmental factors. Or it could be specialization. Or it could be a combination of these things. But I am pretty sure that passing a law that mandates equity didn't result in girls' periods stopping.