It’s a brisk fall day in Poughkeepsie, the bleachers full of shivering fans as they await the referee to call, “Crouch. Touch. Pause. Engage.” The two teams rise and crash into one another, the oblong rugby ball barely visible amidst the skirmish of legs and dust. With a howl from the opposing side, the ball breaks loose from the scrum, deftly picked up by the scrum half and flicked along the back line. On the sidelines, my grandfather, a pilot during the Cold War, and my father, a dedicated football fanatic, cheer in unison. I don’t think either would have ever expected to have a granddaughter and daughter playing one of the roughest sports in the world against Army’s women’s rugby team. But the rugby pitch is the one place where I’ve felt most liberated and alive in my body. Without trafficking in platitudes, women’s rugby teams are composed of a constellation of shapes and sizes, builds that rupture conventional notions of the aesthetics of athleticism and forge a sense of solidarity that has allowed me to travel the world. I’ve played in South Africa and Ireland, swapped strategies with ruggers on the beaches of Barbados. If you consider cross-cultural exchange an essential element of the Peace Corps, I taught my home stay family that women, too, can be strong and fast, joining the all male rugby matches on the school fields of my village at dusk every night. Any female rugger will tell you that it’s not simply a sport — rugby is an exercise in grit and resolution, learning to love our bodies for the incredible work they do on and off the field.
The Rio 2016 Olympics this summer have been dogged by controversy — political unrest and protests around government corruption, an economic recession, displacement of favela communities, fear of the mosquito-borne Zika virus, and now another doping scandal. The ongoing issues plaguing the Rio Olympics also come on the heels of the U.S. Women’s soccer team’s demand for equal pay and safe playing conditions. Yet few have discussed the premier of rugby sevens at the Olympics this year. Rugby was dropped from the summer Olympics in after the 1924 games, despite the fact that it’s the second most popular game in the world. To an outsider, the sport, often referred to as “football without pads,” may seem inherently masculine — you must scrum, ruck, maul, punt and tackle your way up the field to score a try, lining up in rows like soldiers in the heat of battle. Despite the international rugby fan base, however, women’s rugby has been largely marginalized, victims of the same flawed promotional logic which presumes that people don’t want to watch women play sports. Yet with the competition of women’s rugby teams alongside men’s at the Olympics this year, female players were finally provided with an international spotlight to showcase their incredible athleticism and skill.
I started playing rugby my freshmen year of high school, having tried to join and been promptly denied a spot on my middle school’s football team. The injustice of the denial stung in part because I knew, with many of the players still in the beginning pangs of puberty, I could likely tackle most of the boys on the field. As a travel soccer player for seven years, I was known to take the instruction of tackle a little too literally. I’d been a multi-sport athlete for years before I discovered rugby but my body never seemed to quite fit in the other games I played. I had the endurance and the on-field aggression, but no matter how much I ran and trained, I never cut the willowy figure of so many of my female peers. It sometimes seemed like my place on a soccer team felt as much tied to size as how many points you scored in a game. Girls would examine their bodies in the mirror of the locker rooms, comparing weights and skipping meals even after a hard training session. Even the skimpy running shorts of my cross-country team made me uncomfortable — with no thigh gap to speak of and specks of cellulite, it was hard to feel confident during a 5 K race.
Rugby was a whole other animal entirely. Perhaps due to the tenacious nature of the game, rugby attracts a certain strength of character in players. You have to not only be willing to throw your body against an oncoming opponent — you have to look forward to it, relish it. It’s not bloodlust so much as an opportunity to test the boundaries of your body in a way that is rarely afforded to women. In an expose on the history of women’s sports forThe New York Times, Padawer explains how sport, as the province of strength, has traditionally been thought of as a masculine domain. People worried that women would become too “mannish” and unattractive if they developed the kinds of musculature needed to compete. Athletics were so stratified along gender lines in the early 20th century that a Women’s Olympics was established in 1922, which, despite the success, recapitulated sexist conceptions of sport. The controversy over what kinds of sports women were permitted to play often swirled around discourses of propriety, beauty and femininity. It’s not surprising that the rise in diets and exercise among women was also contemporaneous with the shift in the beauty paradigm towards the celebration of slim women. Particularly during the aerobics craze of the 80s and 90s, women were encouraged to tone and sculpt the presumably plasticine female form into a trim and fit figure. Fat shaming partially emerges from the perception that body transformation is possible so long as you have the right will power. And yet women are expected to run, lift weights, and strength train not to improve the functionality of their muscles, but rather to fulfill the aesthetic pleasure of a “healthy” body. Let us not forget how Australian swimmer Leisel Jones was castigated for being “too fat” to compete in the London 2012 Olympics or the intense body scrutiny and shaming female gymnasts are subject to.
Perhaps part of the reason women’s rugby has remained on the fringes of sport culture is that rugby, more than any other sport I’ve played, accepts all bodies as good bodies. What matters most is your ability to handle the ball, run fast and hit hard. Women who might be characterized as overweight in other settings are celebrated in the forward line for their ability to hold up a ruck. It doesn’t matter if you can run a six-minute mile as long as you can crash the defense and stay onsides. In part due to the physical nature of the sport, rugby also engenders a new relationship with your body and the bodies of your teammates. You might spend most of the game with your head in between the thighs of the locks or looping your arm around the crotches of the first row in a scrum. There is no room for insecurity about your weight if you’re being lifted by two women in a lineout. Your body is not only the vehicle for winning the game — it’s the barrier the stands between a defender and your teammates on the back line.
The women on my high school rugby team were self-possessed in a way I’d never even imagined. I’d grown up thoroughly uncomfortable in my own skin, constantly pinching my stomach and my hips like calipers to measure the body fat. I hated my body — it always felt too big, too broad, the “wrong” side of athletic. I’d go on dates and men would comment on the breadth of my shoulders, the distinct curvature of my calves and I’d wince, unsure how to respond. Rugby changed the way I looked at myself and fundamentally altered my relationship with my body. Suddenly, my shoulders were hailed as battering rams for tackling, my big thighs perfect for pushing through a maul or throwing off a defender. I came to value my body for its strength rather than its size, the girth of my arms an indicator that I had been training well and would be able to throw that much further. I ran mile after mile not to whittle my waist down but so I knew I could stay in for both 40-minute halves and still outpace the defense. For so long I’d been self conscious about wearing shorts or skirts. Yet after games or on the ride back from tournaments, we’d lovingly compare incipient bruises, wounds from the battles we’d fought. I suddenly found myself wanting to show off my body, picking outfits that would flaunt my cuts, scrapes and purpling bruises, as well as the muscles that had helped us win so many games.
Rugby has inspired healthy body image for many of its female players. Back in 2014, the Harvard Women’s Rugby Team published “Rugged Grace,” a series of photographs of the players in their bras and underwear with inspirational messages scrawled across their shoulders, stomachs and legs, notes from teammates about what they appreciated about one another’s bodies. The images include phrases like “so strong,” “ripped,” “power ≠ size,” “battle scars” and “fearless.” These women joyfully flaunt their bodies, unabashedly exposing their body hair and stretch marks to completely dismantle the ideal body type and instead celebrate the kinds of bodies that make up a team. The project emphasizes a more inclusive notion of beauty. Recently, Emory Women’s Rugby launched the “Because of Rugby” campaign to spotlight the incredible capacity for rugby to empower its players. Bethany Studnicky, who has been playing rugby for 15 years writes, “Because of Rugby I am proud of my body.” Other testimonials discuss finding strength in beauty and beauty in strength, becoming more confident in their bodies and overcoming mental health issues through rugby. Photographer Alejandra Carles-Tolra also documented the women’s rugby team at Brown University, noting, “I hope people see my photographs as a celebration of these women’s strengths and identity, which I believe play an important role in challenging the meaning of masculine sports, and pushing the boundaries of female identity.”
The inclusion of women’s rugby in the Rio 2016 Olympics this year is not merely a matter of gaining a more international audience. While Title IX often makes the news for college sexual assault scandals, the law was also enacted to ensure that men and women have equal opportunities to participate in athletics. When I got recruited to play rugby in undergrad, I was lucky enough to attend a Seven Sisters college that had championed women’s sports since the 1800’s. Many women are not given the same opportunities to play or to see women’s rugby teams compete on a local or a national scale. Female rugby players are not only demonstrating that their athleticism and skill is equal to that of their male counterparts, but they also offer an alternative to prescriptive health and beauty norms. We can celebrate the US Women’s Rugby team for their tenacity on the field, their handling skills, and their endurance without quibbling over whether or not their weight in any way undermines their status as Olympic level athletes. Young girls and boys were able to watch the women vie for the Gold Medal, subverting conceptions of masculine sports and proving that women, too, can be warriors.