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'It can be tough to keep girls in team sports as you don't get a lot of social capital for it'

Eimear Ryan is our latest guest on Behind the Lines.

Cork's Amy O’Connor and Shauna Healy of Galway clash in the All-Ireland camogie final.
Cork's Amy O’Connor and Shauna Healy of Galway clash in the All-Ireland camogie final.
Image: Laszlo Geczo/INPHO

Updated Thu 5:07 PM

“TEAM SPORT DOES something to a girl”, once wrote Eimear Ryan on the pages of the Irish Examiner.

“You get to think about your body in terms of what it can do, rather than how it looks. You become more engine than ornament. It is the only context in which I have ever been praised for aggression. It teaches you to be commanding, to take your ground. To assert, rather than mitigate, your physical presence.”

Eimear was this week’s guest on our sportswriting podcast, Behind the Lines and among the pieces of writing she discussed on air was a piece that laid out the counterpoint to her above treatise: “The Tyranny of the Ideal Woman”, written by Jia Tolentino for the Guardian in 2019. 

“The ideal woman”, writes Tolentino, “is always optimising.

“She takes advantage of technology, both in the way she broadcasts her image and in the meticulous improvement of that image itself. Her hair looks expensive. She spends lots of money taking care of her skin, a process that has taken on the holy aspect of a spiritual ritual and the mundane regularity of setting a morning alarm.” 

Tolentino’s ideal woman works too hard, eats $12 salads and spends too much money on high-intensity, time-effective lunchtime workouts like barre, described as a “manic and ritualised activity, often set to deafening music and lighting changes” with a “rapid-fire series of positions and movements…that resembled what a ballerina might do if you concussed her and then made her snort caffeine pills.” 

It’s all done, writes Tolentino, to cultivate an image that’s rewarded on Instagram. “This woman is sincerely interested in whatever the market demands of her (good looks, the impression of indefinitely extended youth, advanced skills in self-presentation and self-surveillance)”, she writes.

“She is equally interested in whatever the market offers her – in the tools that will allow her to look more appealing, to be even more endlessly presentable, to wring as much value out of her particular position as she can.” 

In the context of Tolentino’s thesis, is playing physical team sports a rebellion against all of this?

“I think so”, says Eimear on Behind the Lines. 

“It can be tough to keep girls in team sports, especially if it’s a physical team sport like rugby or camogie or Gaelic football, you don’t get a lot of social capital for it. When I was growing up I was often teased for it, and called masculine. Young men who play team sports do get that social capital. It bolsters their standing as young men. But I think if you get a group of girls together who are all friends, support each other and keep each other in it, that’s how you keep that team together. 


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“There are definitely a lot of social pressures and outside influences that don’t particularly encourage you to keep at it.” 

Does Eimear think those pressures and influences still reign?

“I hope they are less, and I think they are. Even in terms of the visibility of women’s team sports over the last 10 years. Was it in 2016 that the All-Ireland camogie semi-finals were broadcast for the first time? Which seems incredibly recent, given we’re now able to watch a lot of camogie on television, which is great. 

“That increased visibility will do a lot to end those attitudes or perceptions about women playing sport.” 

Listen to the full interview with Eimear by subscribing at members.the42.ie

About the author:

Gavin Cooney

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