The Female Gaze Redux

Last week Runner’s World reported on a study by some researchers at the School of Life Sciences at Northumbria University in Britain:

[They] had 10 male runners do moderately paced 20-minute runs under three conditions: with no one watching; with a woman appearing after 10 minutes to watch; and with a man appearing after 10 minutes to watch.

The men reported that running felt easier with a woman watching them and more difficult with a man watching them.


As Maude Lebowski said in The Big Lebowski, “You can imagine where it goes from here.”

The study itself did have a point, which I’ll address briefly later. But what was most interesting was the reaction to the study.

As Runner’s World put it: “A new study backs the boost that male Boston Marathon runners get from running by Wellesley College.”

Scene of the Wellesley Scream Tunnel

A Scene of the Wellesley Scream Tunnel. Kill Me Now.

Wellesley is a women’s college; the students come out in droves to cheer on the marathoners and are famously loud; the “Wellesley scream tunnel” can be heard a half-mile or more away. In addition, the Wellesley women hold up signs saying “Kiss Me!” and some runners stop to kiss them (mostly male runners, but some female runners also—and I saw a reference somewhere to one woman holding up a sign saying “Kiss Me Only If You’re a Girl”).

The first commenter to the RW article asked why they studied only male runners and joked that since half of runners these days are women, the researchers should get only half of the grant money that funded the study.

Which was followed (as expected) by an asshole delighted at the chance to badmouth anything smacking of feminism.

Holy crap, crazy feminist alert. Everything’s not fair, whine whine whine. The study was on men. Deal with it, or go do your own study on women, they weren’t obligated.

Because, of course, we wouldn’t want things to be fair.

While the original article was an ordinary psychological study report about male runners (and fairly interesting), the RW article (and some of the comments to it) jumped quickly to a boys-club atmosphere. The article ended with a joke:

May we suggest a new 5K to be held solely within the confines of Wellesley College?

To which once commenter replied:

If we host such a 5K on the campus I think the entire field would PR [i.e., achieve a personal record for that distance].

They happily seem to assume a field of runners that is entirely male. Female runners were not only absent from the study; in the RW article, they quickly disappear from the races entirely.

Another commenter added:

It would be interesting if such a study also looked at how the running men perceived the attractiveness of the women onlookers. My guess is that the men would perceive the least effort when they thought the woman was the most attractive.

It is interesting how comfortable they are in making these assumptions (that men would run faster—would PR—with women watching, and that more attractive women would elicit even better responses from the men, who are all assumed to be heterosexual). And one commenter happily jumped to an explanation of why these assumptions make perfect sense and are, in fact, inherent:

I think it has to do with our ancestors … the faster runners could chase down food better then slower runners, so women were more naturally attracted to the faster guys because of being able to provide.

Really? Really?! That isn’t even an accurate portrayal of early hominid life. They never chased animals down with speed. There is a theory that some early hominids used persistence hunting, but that involves long-distance endurance running, not speed.

And the idea of early hominid females depending on males for food seems perhaps more sexist wishful thinking than fact. Among the rapidly evolving chimpanzees of Fongoli, who have been spotted exhibiting quite human-like behavior (like hunting with primitive spears and seemingly understanding how wildfires move across the landscape), it is the females who have taken up hunting.

Adult female and juvenile chimps—the low rankers—have been seen hunting bush babies most often. This makes sense. Dominant males are not generous with food they find, and no one can force them to share. Fongoli females appear to have taken matters into their own hands.

For the most part, these commenters took the headline and the salacious idea of the cheering Wellesley women asking for kisses and used them to nourish their various sexist attitudes. They were very happy to find what they thought was scientific confirmation of their sexism.

I was annoyed enough by the RW article and comments that I read the original study, “Observer Effects on the Rating of Perceived Exertion and Affect during Exercise in Recreationally Active Males,” published in the journal Perception and Motor Skills (it’s not available online—but interlibrary loan’s article-photocopying service is brilliant). It doesn’t say anything the commenters think it says.

The commenters adore the idea of female observers improving performance (such that at a hypothetical Wellesley College 5k, everyone would PR). But the study says nothing about how fast the runners ran. It’s just about how they feel. With a woman watching, the men said that they felt more comfortable, and after they stopped running, their happiness with their work-out performance was unusually inflated if a woman had been watching. The researchers suggest this was two levels of “self-presentation.” Basically, if I understand it correctly, the men were showing off. They tried to look really good during the exercise and then bragged a bit about how good they felt afterward.

The article says that this and other studies on athletes’ perceived efforts show that this kind of a feel-good boost only affects people exercising at a moderate pace. The faster you run, the more your mind concentrates only on . . . you know . . . running. The perceived boost a male runner gets from a female observer fades. So the assumption that everyone would PR at the Wellesley 5k is doubly shot down.

And regarding the rather depressing suggestion from one commenter that more attractive female observers would create an even higher boost, the article points to earlier studies that suggest otherwise. The sex of an observer has been shown to make a difference, but the attractiveness of the observer has far less of an effect.

The article in Perceptual and Motor Skills is one of a large number of studies of perceived effort. They’re trying to figure out what makes athletes tick, what different things affect them and how (and not all the studies are about only male athletes). That’s really interesting.

Reading back over the RW article and comments after reading the original study, the contrast is sharp. Scott Douglas, who wrote the RW article, doesn’t seem to have read anything more than the abstract of the study. He and the others jumped on it, happy to assume their prejudices were confirmed by a scientific study.

And their prejudices are exceedingly depressing. The picture one gets is of women existing as cheerleaders, the importance of women supporting and buoying men’s efforts, women being naturally attracted to and dependent on men (“so women were more naturally attracted to the faster guys because of being able to provide”), women existing as attractive sex objects to turn on and excite and improve the performance of men . . . and that’s it.

Note: I changed the title of this piece after I first published it. I realized the original title, “The Female Gaze for Men: It’s All about Men,” might give the impression that I was arguing that all men feel the same way as the few commenters in the RW article I was writing about.

About eteokretan

Interests include: books, art, movies, history, mythology, wandering around, people watching, being a bit weird, running, soccer.
This entry was posted in feminism, gender issues, sports and tagged , , . Bookmark the permalink.

2 Responses to The Female Gaze Redux

  1. Thanks for posting this. It’s quite sad that this study even found its way into Runner’s World. The study seems like pseudo science. Also, the article completely neglects to mention female athletes, which seem to be overlooked quite frequently. Let’s not forget that the Boston Marathon did not even allow women to participate until 1972!

    • eteokretan says:

      It seems such a vague and difficult thing to study: what kinds of things affect how you FEEL while running. I’ve had days when I physically felt awful (and thus felt I was not running as fast as I’d hoped to) but actually posted a good time. The article has nearly 3 pages of bibliography of other articles on similar performance studies, so clearly a lot of work is done on this. I think it’s interesting, but just a bit weird. But then, it’s not my field.

      The article mentioned other studies that had included women. I’ve no problem with them wanting to study men specifically in this study as long as there’s some balance in the field as a whole–and I’ve no clue how often women are included in these types of studies.

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