Giving numbers of women athletes is weighty issue, but shouldn't be

September 05, 2000|By Susan Reimer

IT MUST BE a number thing.

When young girls learn their weight, they freak.

Their clothes might fit the same. They might not have changed sizes. They might see the same body when they look in the mirror. But when they hear the actual number (usually at the pediatrician's office) and realize that they have exceeded some magical weight, young girls can become frantic.

"More than 100 pounds? I weigh more than 100 pounds? God, I can't believe it. I'm huge!"

Or: "I am never going to weigh more than 105 pounds in my life!"

Or: "I have to get back to 125 before school starts."

"Girls today are setting the floor lower than they did in the past," says Joan Jacobs Brumberg, a professor at Cornell University and author of "The Body Project: An Intimate History of American Girls." "And what we know about the developmental psychology of adolescent girls sets them up to get hooked on some arbitrary number."

That number, that weight, is arbitrary because young girls don't know what other women weigh. It is as taboo to ask a woman her weight as it is to ask a man how much he earns.

So a 12-year-old girl who is horrified to learn that she has broken into "triple digits" has nothing with which to compare that number. She doesn't even know what her athlete-heroes weigh.

The souvenir program for the U.S. women's soccer team, which also serves as the men's program, lists the heights and weights of the men, but only the heights of the women. The same is true of almost every college game program and press guide: Weights are listed for men, even in sports where an athlete's weight has little bearing, but not listed for women, even in basketball, where the weight of an inside player might indeed have a bearing on the game.

"I've been in the business for 20 years," says Dave Haglund, associate athletic director for media relations at the University of Maryland, "and I don't recall ever using weights for women. Essentially, it was because it is something female athletes and coaches of female programs didn't think was necessary and, if included, might create or exacerbate a problem. Female student athletes might be sensitive to it."

Tom Bates, assistant athletic director for National Collegiate Athletic Association compliance at the U.S. Naval Academy, was sports information director when women first entered the academy in 1976. He included women's weights in his press guides without a second thought.

Then he was told to take the information out. Why? "Because women don't like to disclose their weight," Bates says.

You can find out the weight for some U.S. women Olympians if you dig around the Internet for it, but not for all.

Wouldn't it help a 14-year-old girl who just found out that she weighs 140 pounds to know that Olympic swimmer Jenny Thompson weighs 165?

Wouldn't it help all those soccer girls to know that Mia Hamm is not much taller than they and she weighs 130 pounds?

"It would be disrespectful to include it," says Brian Chinault, manager of public relations for U.S. Soccer.

Then he adds: "Actually, I don't have a good answer. It is an unwritten rule. I think we assumed."

Maryland's Haglund says that kind of information about female athletes has never been included because reporters have never asked for it.

"It is such a measuring stick for the men," he says. "On the women's side, that isn't true."

But the press guides published by the Women's National Basketball Association include it as a routine bit of information that reporters might require.

"Weight is a standard statistic in professional sports," says Julie Demeo, director of the Washington Mystics. "We include any indices or descriptive information that a reporter might need, and there is no reason to hide the weights of healthy women.

"I can see where a college athlete might be sensitive about having her weight known all around campus. She might not be as confident.

"But these women are proud of their bodies. They don't need to have their feelings protected."

And, Demeo adds, "It is a good thing to have role models with healthy body weights."

Shannon Higgins-Cirovski, women's soccer coach at Maryland, saw her weight printed in game programs when she was a player at North Carolina, and she wasn't happy about it.

"The only numbers you ever heard were 110 or 115. You never heard about anybody who weighed 150 and looked great," she says.

But her players at Maryland have educated her.

"They look good. They feel great. They aren't concerned about the number."

But still, their weights are not included in the Maryland press guide.

Television commentators at the U.S. Open Tennis tournament in New York discussed the height and weight of Venus Williams (6-foot-1, 169 pounds), but I suspect that their comments had less to do with an egalitarian ease with the topic than it did with the remarkable physical phenomenon of the Williams sisters, and I was left wondering if anyone was going to mention that second-seed Lindsay Davenport weighs 175.

And I will leave you wondering, too. I don't plan to mention my weight. I, too, have a lot of trouble with, you know, the number.

I might not if I knew what the women around me weigh, but I don't because we don't ask and we don't tell.

But I'd like something better for my daughter and her friends as I watch them struggle with their powerful sensitivities.

"It will be difficult for some women to say publicly what they weigh," says Brumberg.

"But these young athletes are the kinds of women where we could try it. The fact that they weigh 150 or 175 probably doesn't upset them because their body is not about appearance, it is about performance.

"It would be a wonderful place to begin," she says. "A very healthy thing."

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