On the field, I wear a long French Braid.
It’s practical, really. It keeps the hair out of my eyes. Under my uniform, a sports bra stretches across my chest and spandex fits tight around my hips. In athletic clothes, my womanhood is still obvious.
During Spring Break, I was crammed into a house in North Myrtle Beach, South Carolina for an ultimate frisbee tournament with the men’s and women’s teams. One night, I was talking to someone from the guy’s team—mostly admiring his lime green Crocs—when another teammate who I barely knew tapped my shoulder from a few feet away. He looked at me, the only woman in the immediate area, and said, “Can you please make me a drink, sweetie?”
I smiled at him sarcastically and answered “absolutely not” with as much confidence as I could muster.
I wondered if he understood how loaded his question was, and whether it crossed his mind how it might’ve made me feel. In the middle of a conversation, I was interrupted and asked to fetch a drink. Because I was a woman, was I somehow less of a teammate, or a friend? More like a waitress? I felt like my actual contributions to the conversation meant little. I felt small.
Earlier that day during a game, a guy on my team let off the perfect deep throw—the frisbee must have traveled more than 50 yards, and I was open. When it came down to it, I just couldn’t run fast enough to catch the throw. My legs gave out too early and the disc fell, resulting in a turnover.
Though it could’ve happened to anyone, I blamed the drop on my gender. It seemed like if any of the men on the field had tried to chase down the disc, they could’ve gotten there. I cursed my twiggy legs, disappointed in their lack of strength.
That entire day, I juggled my womanhood and my athleticism in my hands. Suddenly, it felt unmanageable to hold both.
With such constant exposure to both the men’s and women’s teams that week, it struck me that while I played on a co-ed team, I felt like I had to manage my femininity depending on the setting.
On the field, I reeled it in, wearing instead an athletic, aggressive exterior. Back at the house, I amped up my traditionally feminine qualities, painting my lashes with mascara and helping cook dinner.
Perhaps athleticism and femininity could not coexist, I thought. Often, I didn’t feel ‘man’ enough to be respected on the field nor ‘woman’ enough to be respected socially.
I played very little over the next two days of the tournament. My confidence was shaken by my own femininity, a characteristic I’m usually so proud of.
Now, I want to kick myself for believing it could hinder my performance as an athlete. I can’t say my insecurities are completely resolved. I still struggle with playing co-ed. Usually the men’s and women’s teams practice and compete separately, and that tends to relieve some of the gendered pressures inherent in co-ed sports.
But yesterday I went to practice at the football field on 10th and Diamond streets, and I played really well. My teammates complimented my throws. My French Braid swung between my shoulder blades as I caught a deep throw much like the one I missed two weeks earlier in North Myrtle Beach.
Femininity and athleticism are not mutually exclusive, I realized. I am always a woman. I am always wearing my femininity, no matter the setting. The next time I run down a frisbee, I’ll be as much a woman as the next time I apply mascara.
And if you respect that, I just might make you a drink.
Michaela Winberg can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or on Twitter @mwinberg_.