With the ringing in of the Olympics today, we launch our blog series ‘Diversity in Sport’. The series will explore issues of race, gender identity, sex, sexual orientation, religion and disability in sport. As the world comes to London for the mega-event, we need to question where we are today in living up to the Olympic spirit of inclusivity and diversity.

This is the first in the ‘Diversity in Sport’ series. In this post, Caitlin Fisher, delivers a TED talk on how female athletes negotiate spaces and recreate their identities in order to enter the still very masculine arena of sports. She discusses the case of women’s football in Brazil, the discrimination and marginalisation female football players have faced and what’s the way forward.

Transcript of Caitlin’s talk:

Let me just start by saying that this morning I wasn’t going to come here dribbling because I thought I’d be too nervous, which I was. And then at the last minute I thought it would be cool to enter juggling. So I ran across the street and I thought where am I going to get a football. There was a waiter standing outside the restaurant, I ran up to him and asked him if he had a football, does anyone have a football? He said hold on one minute and he ran inside and went back into the kitchen, spoke to the chef, spoke to someone back there and comes out of the kitchen with the ball. He handed it to me and he said “Go, go, go, go!”

I stand here tonight before you representing the voice of one among many female football players in Brazil, attempting to carve a space for ourselves within a historically male sport. I also stand here as a carrier of many of these voices and it’s a privilege to be here.

I first came to Brazil eight years ago to play professional football and it quickly became evident that the nation of football was not the nation of woman’s football. We wore the jerseys of the men’s team from seven years prior. We walked forty five minutes to get to practice, no bus, often tired feet by the time we got there. We stayed up late at night washing our uniforms by hand in outdoor sinks. We were fed different food than the men’s team. The only thing we had in common with the men’s team was our team name.

My teammates shared stories with me of the struggles they faced to be accepted as female players. I soon learnt the word ‘preconceito’ or prejudice around the woman’s game. Although the ban that prohibited women from playing the sport in Brazil was lifted in 1979, female players continued to struggle with cultural stigma. Female players were marginalised and discriminated against, marked as other. Female bodies acting in this space were seen as gender deviant and thus met with lots of cultural disapproval.

But recently we’ve been seeing a shift starting to occur, the woman’s game in Brazil is starting to move in from the margins to the mainstream. Silver medal at the last two Olympics; Marta, the world’s best player, a Brazilian, has now become a national icon; new women’s protein springing up across the nation; media coverage increasing; fathers encouraging daughters to play; more fans. I went back to Santos recently and walked down the street with my team jacket on and I had men running up to me asking for my autograph! The same streets where we were once entirely invisible, or worse yet, laughed at or trivialised. It appears as though women’s entrance into this historically male space has started to dislodge gender stereotypes and we see signs of progress.

But when we look more closely we see something else occurring. As women are being accepted into the space, they’re also being expected to take on a new image, rather a traditional image of femininity. I reconnected with a lot of my old teammates recently and was surprised to see that the entire team had grown their hair long, even Fabiana who always had short hair. And I turned and I said, “What happened – did somebody tell you to grow your hair long?” and she said, “No, no, I started growing it long and  the other girls started encouraging me saying that it looked really pretty and it’d be good for the image of our sport.” She said the club even tried to get us to wear tighter uniforms but it didn’t work as we couldn’t move our arms to run.

What’s happening is the woman’s game in Brazil is being feminised, wherein only a feminine version of the game is being accepted. And only this female player is being allowed inside if she recreates her identity in this manner. So although the cultural stigma is starting to fade, the exclusion or ‘preconceito’ is reconfiguring itself and imposing itself on the only place left, the female body. The body of the female athlete is being policed, it’s being shaped, regulated and controlled by the intensification of feminine expectations. So although we see new gender roles emerging here, old gender norms and ideas are continuing to persist near the surface.

Shall we conclude then that women’s football in Brazil is not serving as a source of empowerment for female players? Well no, not exactly, because the interesting thing about oppression is that it’s always writhe with contradictions, tensions, ambiguities and resistance. Female players are experiencing their bodies and identities in complex ways and developing a diversity of strategies for navigating these tensions. She expresses agency through the labour that she exerts and embodies on the field and she develops a sense of solidarity with those around her but she works just as hard simultaneously at another form of bodily labour performing the appropriate balance of femininity within the still suspiciously masculine arena. Hair, nails, gestures become our tools. She crosses her legs for the interview but not on the bench, she wears eyeliner for the televised game but not off the field.

I recently turned to one of my teammates and I said what’s happening, the image of the game is shifting around with woman’s football. She said to me yeah, we’re taking on a more feminine image because it’s helping us, it’s helping our sport and us become more popular. But she said this femininity doesn’t necessarily say anything about me. We use it, I use it too. But one of the sacrifices involved here – how much identity is being lost, how much exploitation is present. The deeper structures aren’t changing, so the individual manoeuvres around them and changes herself.

At what point do we need to start thinking of changes in the deeper structures, changes that will truly loosen up space for individual expression? It starts now and it starts here by problematising our thinking on gender indifference. This is why I’m here, this is the Guerriras project and now you’re part of the dialogue. Thanks.

If you liked Caitlin’s talk, rate it to make it a part of TED 2013.

Caitlin Fisher is a Cambridge, Massachussetts native who captained Harvard women’s soccer team and played professionally in Brazil, Sweden and the United States. She completed her MSc at the Gender Insitute, LSE in 2010 and co-founded the Guerreiras Project. She is doing further research for the Guerriras Project as a Fullbright scholar.