Sports
Gender

What Wrestling Teaches About What Gender Discrimination Is — And Isn’t

My school is the only one in our region to have a girl’s team. Nationally, girls make up only 2% of all scholastic wrestlers.

Deep lover of podcasts, chai tea, and Billy Joel. Trying to make an impact through the power of the written word and pun-related protest signs.

On one of the very first days of practice, we practiced the “Table Top” drill. The bottom person sits on their hands and knees, while the top spins over them, chest to back. One by one, however, the girls fall off of their partners, winced faces and clutched breasts. Our coaches apologize profusely, as they assure us the intention was an ab workout, not searing pain. We all look at each other and at the horrified looks on our couches faces and laugh. My partner Illiana shakes her head at me, smiling, “This sport was not made for us.”

We scoured every supply closet in the school for a singlet in women’s sizes. There aren’t any. So instead, my teammates and I, all four of us, stand awkwardly before the locker room mirror. The waistband hugs my hips so tight that I can feel every bone through the fabric. The neckline and sides are cut so low that they hang closer to my stomach than my chest. We laugh lightheartedly at the ridiculous uniform, at our own exposure, hiding the genuine fear of facing the rest of our team behind gritted teeth.

This sport is not made for us.

Now at the first tournament of the season, my hands shake as we await hydration testing. A tall man with sunglasses on the inside and a yardstick in hand barks at us as we are shoved into a long line of teenage boys that stretches around the gym. As we approach the front, another man, whose head reflects the fluorescent lights like a mirror, hands me a cup. I turn to see if the boys around me are laughing or staring, and they’re not. They couldn’t care less. I am nothing but more competition. And it’s then that we see that there are no stall doors. We are the only girls in a room filled with indifferent boys, forced to pee into a cup in a stall with no doors.

This sport was not made for us.

Maybe if he hadn’t have said anything, it would be different. The man with the shiny head takes back my cup and sticks a thermometer into it. He takes Illiana’s with the other hand. After a few moments, he says, “Y’all must be on the same diet or something.” I smile with the same gritted teeth, “We’re actually not dieting this season.” He blinks, and now the boys, the terrible smell, the stall doors, and Illiana have all disappeared and it’s just me and his damn baldness. “Bold choice,” as he laughed my uniform felt tighter and the lump in my throat swelled, “Let me know how that works out.”

This sport was not made for us.

When people hear my teammates and I discuss wrestling, their first reaction is often if not always: “I could never! It just seems so… intimate.” And to their credit, it is. Not only is the sport itself physical, but my teammates and I know each other’s weight and pee color to a T. But it has never been weird. The next question, which is always whispered, is “Do you all have to wrestle… the boys?” Of course, we do. Our team has four girls, all of which are in completely separate weight classes. If we didn’t wrestle the boys, we would crush and probably kill each other. But despite the obviousness of my answer, the gaping mouths and squinted eyes echo the same judgment of the other coaches at tournaments, sizing me up more like meat than a competitor. Shaking heads and alarmed faces make me feel small and vulnerable like I did something wrong just by being here.

There exists a taboo on co-gendered sports of any kind of physicality. And it’s not the athletes. In fact, the boys I wrestle, both in practice and live match, have never made me feel inferior. My gender plays no role between opponents. They shake my hand and play fair, and it has never been weird. Rather, it is the adults creating the stigma.

By stereotyping teenagers of both genders, the sport becomes sexualized, and it is the girls who face those consequences. Girls who are banned from wrestling by parents, or even more commonly, their schools. Girls who lack the resources such as uniforms to attend tournaments because the school values their team as lesser than. Girls who are forced into situations where they are stripping before male opponents because there “aren’t enough of them” to justify unlocking another locker room.

Wrestling is being denied to female athletes because it is easier to sexualize young girls than to adapt the sport to accommodate their needs.

Many schools refuse to open their team to girls because school policy regulates co-ed sport amongst students. But the fact that the sport is contact does not justify the sexualization of children. Many schools attribute their lack of female wrestlers to a lack of interest when the option is never even given to the students.

Because of restraints like these, my school is the only second division school in our region to have a girl’s team. Nationally, girls make up only 2% of all scholastic wrestlers.

In a sport where controversy rules from racism to eating disorders, the unspoken controversy is discrimination against the female minority. By discouraging girls from wrestling, schools are directly contributing to a stereotype that paints them as fragile and meek, as well as a stereotype that portrays wrestling as an outdated and inherently bigoted sport.