There must have been something about feminism that resonated with me in my adolescence because when I was 16 I spent my hard-earned babysitting money on Naomi Wolf’s The Beauty Myth. Not long afterwards, I stole The Female Eunuch from the school library (I’m pretty sure it was never missed). Feminism was certainly nothing my mother, grandmother or aunts every talked about, although my family was decidedly matriarchal in its make-up (and notably full of absent fathers). But I didn’t actually identify as a feminist until I was studying Arts/Social Sciences at La Trobe Uni. It was there as the injustices and inequalities of the world began to make more sense, I began to understand my life experiences; the burning indignation I felt as a child when a grown man looked at me in a sexual way; the shame of my first period, the hurt of being named ‘slut’; the rejection felt when told I was not the ‘right kind of girl’ to be chosen for a high school exchange program; the loathing I felt toward my body. Feminism became the framework for understanding at first my life and then the lives of women everywhere in the world.
I had my first baby quite young by today’s standards. It was his birth that really politicised me. I had two more children all before I turned 30. Raising children has made me so much more aware of the inherent sexism and misogyny in society (if you’ve ever walked through the toy shop lately you’ll know what I mean). However, I also became aware of the ways in which motherhood and childbearing are devalued in our culture. I think it was the cliché moment at a party when asked what I ‘do’ and the response to my answer was disdain and quick exit to someone more interesting.
I also came to understand that as long as women’s bodies were disrespected and objectified, what women’s bodies did were never going to be respected or appreciated. For me the second wave feminist adage that the ‘personal is political’, really rang true and in my work as an academic I’ve always endeavoured to ‘illuminate the lived experiences of women’s every day lives’ as sociologist Beverly Skeggs wrote. So both my honours thesis and (unfinished) PhD thesis have explored women’s experiences of reproduction, in particular birth and breastfeeding.
I believe that we as a culture have completely lost our faith in the ability of women’s bodies to birth babies, to the point that 35% of Australian women now have surgery rather than give birth. Of course the reasons for this are multifaceted, not least because of the success of long-standing medical hegemony and control over childbirth.
The personal really did become political for me in 2006 when I gave birth to my son at home after having had 2 unwanted and unnecessary c-sections it was the single most empowering, life-changing and powerful thing I’ve ever done.
I guess for me then, my feminism is very connected to the body. I sometimes identify as a radical feminist, sometimes as corporeal feminist , sometimes as socialist feminist; I really don’t think it matters. What I firmly believe though is that our bodies are often the primary site of battle, inequality and oppression. The way they are constructed in discourse, the way they are experienced in reality, the way they are represented and misrepresented, treated and mistreated, controlled, sold for profit, shamed, debased, denigrated, devalued, abused, objectified or made invisible to a male norm, shaved, waxed, plucked, lasered, liposuctioned and c-sectioned, pathologized, patronised, and penetrated against our will. I think unfortunately that Western culture is becoming more, not less sexist and oppressive to women. To use but one example; the pornification of every day life to the point that it’s culturally acceptable to wear eroticized violence as fashion and that children’s movies such as a Marmaduke and Hop can have porn-inspired images such as animals pole dancing.
The body can also be a site of resistance and transgression of course and there are plenty of examples of men and women in popular culture who buck the norm… which brings me to roller derby.
Lately I’ve been living my feminism in a much different way, though still very much corporeal. I’ve been involved in roller derby with the Victorian Roller Derby League (VRDL) for a little over 12 months. I was first attracted to derby for its alternative/punk/feminist/ image. It seemed sexy but not in a mainstream way, it seemed sporty but not in netball kind of way, and it seemed feminist but not in an academic way. I was right, but it is also so much more than just an image.
Roller derby is a full contact non-professional sport run (mostly) by women, for women. Contrary to popular belief and misrepresentations, it is not about women in fishnet stockings beating the crap out of each other on roller-skates. There are rules and strategies and you need to be really quite fit and strong to compete (which is why the average training time before being allowed to play is 9 months). There is ongoing debate within roller derby circles about ‘sport over spectacle’. While some leagues do tend to emphasize the sex appeal and focus on the outfits, most including the VRDL promote athleticism over exhibitionism. A common (mis)interpretation of roller derby by some feminists is that it reinforces a ‘malestream’ and erotised view of women in sport. Certainly media depictions of the sport tend to do this, but in reality nothing could be further from the truth and here’s why.
Roller derby encompasses women of all different shapes, sizes and ages. Body shape is really no barrier to competing and a large bum is seen as an asset! Never have I loved my body more than in the last 12 months- yes my arse is bigger and my thighs are huge but its from the 3 days a week of skating and strength exercises that have left me stronger and fitter than I ever imagined. I could crush nuts between my thighs! I think that physical strength and fitness have led to a more positive body image and self-confidence in all aspects of my life. Because there is no emphasis on being thin, roller derby lacks the focus on dieting that many other female sports tend to do. Moreover, roller derby is not a sport solely for young women. Our oldest league member is 50 and our youngest is 19. There is a regional league in Victoria that has a mother and daughter duo! Where else would you find that in the sporting world?
Roller derby transgresses gender norms. There are not many acceptable avenues for women to express aggression or frustration, and we’ve been told since childhood not to behave in competitive or ‘masculine’ ways. I’m an aggressive and often angry person so roller derby gives me a much needed outlet. There’s nothing better than the smashing into your friends for 2 hours to make you feel good, especially after a day of dealing with demanding children. Sport induced adrenaline is cheaper than therapy or anti-depressants!
I have a theory about male friendships and the reason they are less complicated than women’s. It’s because competitiveness and aggression toward a friend or foe can often be expressed through sport. In other words men have more opportunities to ‘get it all out’ the field rather than letting issues simmer and stew. Women on the other hand are less likely to play competitive or contact sports with each other and have no valid outlet for aggression, therefore tending to internalise anger. This leads me to another point about roller derby; female friendships.
We all know the myth that large groups of women tend to be bitchy and full of jealousy. This long standing patriarchal archetype (c.f Janice Raymond) only serves to silence the many examples of female solidarity and friendship. As I mentioned earlier, roller derby is run for women, by women# and my involvement in the VRDL has shown me that women in large groups are supportive, competent, organised, non-hierarchical and for the most part not bitchy. I’ve seen so many examples of true friendship and camaraderie and when issues do arise they are dealt with in a respectful, professional way (and probably with harder hits on the track!).
I think often the perceptions and representations of roller derby in the media are part of a sexist attitude to women in sport in general – female athletes are often sexualised perhaps because strong, fit, healthy women are a threat to masculinity. Patriarchy prefers its women thin, juvenile and weak (and preferably on all fours).
So that’s how I live my feminism; as a feminist academic, as a mother and through my involvement in roller derby. My daughter has posters of roller derby skaters on her wall the way other girls have posters of horses or pop stars; a small but hopeful sign that she may find her feminism much younger than I did.
[Editors note: If you are interested in learning more about Roller Derby in Victoria and hearing the opinions of some of the local skaters check out the Physically Active Feminausts podcast Concrete is Damn Hard]
- There are lots of lovely men involved in roller derby as well including referees, officials, volunteers and fans. I personally wouldn’t be able to partake in the sport if it wasn’t for the free babysitting my male partner (not my children’s father) provides twice a week.
Monica Campo skates under the name Mon-U-Mental with the Victorian Roller Derby League. She is a mother of three and works as a research assistant at Melbourne Law School. She has been completing a Phd in Sociology on and off for way too long now and hopes to submit her thesis one day…really.