SINCE LAST SUMMER, I’ve played pool once a week with my roommate. We call it our “roommate date.”
Pool night is my favorite night of the week. The sound of your mark hitting the pocket, the centrifugal dispersion of a good break, the co-work of cognition and physicality toward a desired end (and, of course, classic rock and whiskey).
But pool nights aren’t all fun and games. My interactions around the table have left me with some things to mull over. One thing I’ve learned, which might sound kind of nice, is that, if you’re a woman and you’re even half-way decent at the game, you’re considered to be exceptional. You are a shark. But it’s not so nice; you’re only seen as being great because you’ve exceeded extremely low expectations.
Another thing I’ve learned is that some dudes really do not like losing to women (“girls,” as these dudes call us). It was not a gentle lesson. After repeatedly proclaiming that he would not — could not — lose to girls, a young man threatened to throw my roommate and I out the window in the middle of a close game (we were playing doubles). Most of the fragile men aren’t nearly as aggressive, but “losing to a girl” is not a rare lament.
A third thing I’ve been thinking about, and that I’d like to dwell on at some length, is that, when men comment on my female status during a game, I play worse. I’m overcome with an urgent desire to run the table, but I choke instead. I may have pulled off some Minnesota Fats-level magic during my last turn, but give me an easy shot after remarking that I’m a girl, and I’ll likely blow it (great – now my guy friends know my weakness).
A 2005 study found that young girls exhibiting high levels of self-objectification performed poorly when throwing a ball compared to girls who self-objectified less. Another study found that women’s performance on math tasks – something else women are supposed to suck at – suffered when they were observed by a man.
When I was little, I didn’t have a clear concept of gender difference in athletic ability. I watched baseball with my dad religiously, and, though the players were all men, the games were often proceeded or followed by batting lessons with my dad. I played softball for many years in elementary and middle school. My early conception of my body was of a strong and functional part of myself that teamed up with my mind to fulfill intentions, and I think that helped me avoid objectifying my body at a young age.
I’m not sure what happened over the years. At some point in my teens, I became self-conscious about using my body in athletic ways. Gym class was the worst, and I stopped playing sports. I have a good arm, but ask me to throw something and I get nervous. (And since I’m nervous, my arm probably won’t be so good.)
Getting back to the pool bar: I think pool has helped me regain a relationship with my body that fits my conception of the athletic – the whole “mind + body = results” thing – and that’s something I greatly value. But when someone reduces me to “girl,” it shakes that fragile, still-rekindling relationship. It’s so easy to remember that girls aren’t supposed to be good at things – and that I’m probably not good at things, that the sweet shots I’ve made were the products of luck and not skill, that I’m cognitively and physically inferior, that my body is for being seen and not for doing things. It’s hard to ignore such pervasive messages even when you know they aren’t true.
I have lots of goals when it comes to pool – stepping up my bank shot game, taking more risks with combinations, not rushing my shots. But I also have the goal of maintaining that athletic relationship with my body, even when the strength of that relationship is called into question. And, sure, the goal of someday running the f*cking table on someone who poses that question.