Monday, September 21, 2009

Pleasing Men... this has not suddenly morphed into a Cosmo magazine blog. I've got no advice on that particular men-pleasing front. But both women I interviewed this morning had a few things to say about the not-always-comfortable co-habitation of sports and men in a woman's life.

Katrine has been with her now-husband for five years. In fact, it was he who got her into serious running and doing triathlons (when they were married, their three-layer wedding cake was triathlon-themed: the miniature bride and groom ascended through the layers in the various sports to cross the finish line on the top of the cake). Now they are both equally dedicated athletes. In the beginning, Katrine was very competitive with her mate. Because he was faster than she was, Katrine had trouble seeing her own accomplishments as worthy. To compensate for his gender handicap (kind of like a golf handicap, but harder to change), Katrine would instead drive herself to train at least as much as him, if not more. When she was laid up after knee surgery, it would drive her crazy when he headed off for a run or bike or swim. She knew it was selfish, but it made her feel worse to see him training when she couldn't. After a few years of living in the swirl of her own self-generated competitiveness, she realized that she needed to "beat that beast" out of her mind. She needed to be comfortable with, no more than that, happy and proud of her own accomplishments, and stop comparing herself to her speedier mate's. It took a couple of years, but Katrine's attitude has evolved to a better balance. I'm impressed. I know what that kind of intra-relationship competitiveness can feel like. We women sometimes have to reach deep inside ourselves to find our strength in the face of our male partner's seeming superiority (after all, they do have a natural physical advantage---never mind the socio-economic advantages). I wish I could say that it only took five years to beat that beast in my case. Sigh.

One thing that struck me when I was speaking with Katrine was when she said, "he's faster than me, obviously." Why does it have to be obvious? Yes, as a statistical generalization, men are faster than women. Within any relationship though, there's no guarantee that will be the case. Except...except for the niggling fact that it seems to be a rare man who will partner up with a woman stronger and faster than he is. Mary Beth, the other woman I interviewed this morning, has experienced the short end of that stick. She's a successful, super-athletic (and yes, beautiful) woman in her mid-thirties. She's had a series of relationships go south in the face of her athleticism. In high school, she allowed her relationship to side track her from participating in Track & Field, to compensate for her boyfriend's insecurity with her strength, and to avoid his less-than-supportive retaliatory behaviour when she did take part in sports. Then in college Mary Beth decided against playing basketball to try to maintain the balance in a long distance relationship she was involved in. To no avail. As she's gotten older, Mary Beth has made the conscious decision to be the best she can in the sports and fitness activities she's passionate about, and which give her so much joy (more to come on Mary Beth in another post). She decided to stop holding herself back in an effort to please men intimidated by her vigour. I'm sad and disappointed to report that the result is that Mary Beth is still single, despite her desire for a life partner. She recently got out of a dying relationship, largely because he couldn't deal with her being as strong and fast as he was.

No, not all men are threatened by women who are more talented athletes than they are. Men who aren't athletes themselves, for example, are often quite content to support their athletic partner. But it's a rare and precious man who can be in a relationship with a woman who participates in the same sport he does, and is "better" at it than he is. Men don't like to be beaten by women. They feel emasculated (I'm not a man, yet even when I hear that word it has an uncomfortable onomatopoeic ring to it). Not that women aren't complicit, too, in the power-balance-dance around sports. A lot of women don't want to beat men. We become enablers, by purposely holding ourselves back to bolster a male ego.

I wish I had a solution. I know what I don't think the solution is--not being true to our nature. Slowing down. Playing weak. Pretending fragility. It turns out that pleasing men is a conundrum with a lot more complexity than Cosmo lets on. In the meantime, be yourself.