Neoliberalism, sport, and the working class

Toronto Workers’ History Project event features U of T academics

Neoliberalism, sport, and the working class

United Steelworkers Hall hosted one of the Toronto Workers’ History Project’s monthly talks on January 8. Featuring two University of Toronto academics, the event was a discussion and presentation on the history of workers and sport in Toronto.

Held in a basement room, audience members sat in fold-out chairs filling the space. Clearly, most had been there before: they called back and forth to one another, saying hello and exchanging news. No one was on their phone, or even sitting alone. It was initially discomfiting, in some ways, to feel so present — and somehow welcome — in a room full of strangers.

The night was segmented into two brief but connected lectures and a discussion and Q&A session. Former UTSC Principal and Officer of the Order of Canada recipient Professor Bruce Kidd spoke first, providing a brief overview of historical generalizations about sport and its development in the modern period.

Sports, Kidd asserted, began as a classed, gendered, and racialized practice. The sports most popular today in the Global North were not always universal, he explained. Rather, modern athletics were created for and by the upper class men of imperial Britain. Further, the values they attempted to inculcate through sport — masculinity, elitism, achievement — still dominate much of our contemporary conceptions of the practice.

Kidd went on to highlight how the excluded have fought and continue to fight for inclusion in sport. Working class people, especially women, faced a series of barriers to participation. First and foremost were their long, grueling work hours, which prohibited any possibility of leisure time. Although Kidd mainly referred to this impediment as a modern phenomenon, it’s clearly evident in the contemporary world as well — just look at neoliberalism’s marketization and atomization of every speck of free time an individual can muster.

Not to be constantly working, constantly online, constantly striving is the ultimate failure. As demands on our time increase, so too does the cost of participation. While this was a barrier in the 20th century, the increased elitism of sports as we know them today consistently favour the wealthy. Kidd quoted a fellow scholar to exclaim that “if Gordie Howe were alive today, he wouldn’t have made the NHL!”

Nevertheless, the working class did mount a resistance to the wealthy dominance of sports. One of the most powerful organizations was the giant ‘Socialist Workers’ Sport International,’ which counted two million members at its peak between the world wars. Every six years, they held ‘International Workers’ Olympiads,’ which admitted all interested workers, dismissed the idea of national teams, and enthusiastically included female athletes.

After the Second World War, the organization regrouped and is still active, but in a more collaborative capacity with establishment sports institutions such as the International Olympic Committee.

Other, smaller groups also cropped up between world wars, such as the Jewish Women’s Working Sports Association, whose members met at Spadina Street and College Street to practice gymnastics and other activities. However, today, most of these organizations are gone.

Participation in organized sport has fallen dramatically in the past twenty years, while the class stratification between athletes and the public has only increased. Kidd relates this gap to an atrophication in the public provision of leisure and sporting activities, as well as the dogma of neoliberal performance and elitism.

Kidd was followed by Janelle Joseph, an adjunct lecture at U of T’s Faculty of Kinesiology and Physical Education Professor. Joseph, the author of the recent Sport in the Black Atlantic: Cricket, Canada and the Caribbean Diaspora, discussed her research and shared stories from her ethnographic interviews with older, male Canadian-Caribbean cricketers.

She quickly introduced the audience to a few key concepts in Black diaspora studies, such as the power of routes, the process of travel, and roots — cultural push-pull — before grounding these concepts in the wave of Caribbean immigration to Canada in the late 1960s and early 1970s.

Many of these Caribbean immigrants settled in the Golden Horseshoe region, and many played cricket. The cricket leagues that formed were often extremely competitive but also extremely leisurely — players and spectators worked to recreate a carnival-like atmosphere around the cricket fields. Joseph described constant music, camaraderie, food and drink, and less demanding recreational activities, such as playing dominoes and dancing.

These cricket teams provided both an anchor and a barrier for new Caribbean immigrants, allowing them to feel at home in Canada and to create a space for themselves outside the often white-dominated spaces which they lived and worked in. Joseph also spoke to the distinctly masculine nature of these cricket teams, explaining the processes of performance and communication embedded in different methods of play.

Many of these Caribbean cricketers are aging out of the game, instead choosing to play in ‘Masters Leagues’, where the emphasis is on fun rather than competition. Many of these players struggled to encourage their sons to take up the game, and as such represent a last generation of committed and talented Caribbean-Canadian cricket players.

Furthermore, the Caribbean dominance of Canadian cricket is today quickly being displaced by a strong contingent of South and Southeast Asian players. Sometimes, Joseph explained, tensions between the two groups of players can erupt, as both try to navigate their shared colonial attachment to cricket and its place in their cultural histories.

Sports and the working class are intimately tied, both as a site of struggle and as a place of self-expression. Historically, working people have mobilized with incredible power to build parallel sporting institutions that were open to all, equitable, and firmly anti-capital. Today, the power of these institutions — as well as public services more generally — has dramatically waned.

As Joseph highlighted in her talk, independently organized sporting events and organizations are a vital ground for building community — but the cricket leagues which she discussed were private undertakings, not a success of public services. In the era of neoliberalism, mainstream sports have effectively doubled down on their ugly roots: classed, gendered, and racialized.

Rejecting the self-care paradigm

Pushing back against the corporatization of growth

Rejecting the self-care paradigm

It’s now 2019, which means that I, along with the rest of the world, have decided to fix my life. Not an easy task, I’ll have you know. At the time I’m writing this, it is six days into the new year and I have no idea what’s going on. Off to a great start.

Every December 31, many of us fall victim to the idea of ringing in the new year with a list of personal chores. It’s kind of ridiculous, really. We set ourselves up for failure, and then we blame ourselves for being unable to accomplish impractical tasks. And although, rationally, I know this is the case, I’m no exception.

One of my new year’s resolutions is to read more books for my own pleasure, not just for class. In 2018, the constant drone of university ate away at my love and appreciation for books. So I decided that for 2019, I would invest more time in reading books, rather than wasting it aimlessly scrolling through Twitter. New year, new me, or whatever it is we’re saying these days.

I’m not saying that we shouldn’t make new year’s resolutions. It’s healthy to challenge ourselves and try to spend the year bettering ourselves. The problem is the things many people put on these lists. We make note of how to take better care of ourselves, usually based on what the internet tells us.

But what we often don’t realize is that these ideas have been shaped by a society that obscures the definition of self-care. These ideas, in turn, completely shift our perspective and self-understanding, specifically for women. Suddenly women are pitted against one another, rather than lifting each other up. Consequently, this shapes our social interactions, and the cycle repeats itself.

To kick off the year, I decided to start reading Mark Manson’s The Subtle Art of Not Giving a F*ck. Interesting choice to begin a new year, I know. This self-help book is designed to help readers care less about the things they waste their time caring about. Considering that I need as much help as I can possibly get when it comes to silencing my overly analytical brain, I figured this book would be a great place to start. And as I kept reading, I found that it had a large focus on exactly what I wanted to write about in this piece: what it means to self-improve.

So many of us view self-care as spa days and hitting the gym four days a week, or getting over eight hours of sleep per night. Here’s a disclaimer: I’m not saying that any of those things are unimportant. Of course they’re important. But the fact that these are examples of what we see as the pinnacle of self-care and self-improvement is what I want to put under scrutiny here.

I want to emphasize that I am speaking to my individual experience as a woman living in a society that remains rather misogynistic. However, as an able-bodied, white-presenting, cisgender woman, I have a lot of privilege, and don’t experience the same type of misogyny that women of other identities do.

Subtle misogyny is the hardest to pinpoint, and it’s often exhibited through social media that targets women and our desire to ‘self-care.’ The standard white-feminist, one-dimensional mindset of what it means to be a woman nowadays is plastered across the internet, and is viewed as the only “right way” to be a woman, which pisses me off to no end.

There’s no doubt that we’re living in an age of shattering glass ceilings. There’s been more conversation and dialogue about ‘female power’ now than ever before and that’s great. It is. It’s about time.

However, it’s important to note that this is not entirely the case for individuals who fall outside of the white, able-bodied, heterosexual, middle-class model of ‘woman’. Women of colour, queer women, disabled women, and women who identify as anything other than this model of ‘woman’ are not so lucky. And where these identities intersect, this reality is made even more complex.

Social media and the privatization of care have completely warped our idea of what self-care and self-improvement really mean. Rather than viewing self-improvement as a kind of organic mechanism for growth, it’s mostly about aesthetic presentation. Social media and society in general focus on how we, as women, need to dedicate ourselves to improving our image, whether that be our bodies, our skin, our teeth, the clothing we wear, or our hair colour — because god forbid our roots go two weeks without a touch-up.

We’re called frauds with or without makeup on. We feel the need to Facetune and filter our selfies to change how our skin looks, the whiteness of our teeth, our jawlines, because we feel like it’s the only way society will accept us. And then we’re made to feel ashamed about it. But then we’re also shamed for having acne scars and skin pigmentation. We’re expected to wax our upper lips, shave our armpits, our legs, our arms, and wax our bodies until they’re raw, because hair on a woman is seen as ‘gross’ and ‘unclean.’

We live in a society that currently preaches the importance of self-care, but simultaneously shatters women’s self-confidence and sense of individuality. It’s impossible to achieve. But that’s what makes it so perfect — it’s making the unachievable seem achievable. People (read: companies) feed off of this. The need to ‘self-care’ is what makes those diet pills and detox teas for flat tummies sell. It’s what makes Facetune subscriptions sell. It’s what keeps Instagram running. Women are the perfect prey. And if we fight back in any way — choosing not to shave, embracing our weight, wearing what we want to wear, not filtering ourselves — we’re labeled as radicals, and we are silenced. The cycle is endless.

I became hyperaware of this recently, when I had an acne flare up due to intense stress on my mind and body. I’ve never had acne in my life. Throughout high school, I’d get the occasional pimple around my period, and that was pretty much it. But this year, with assignment deadlines approaching, my sleep schedule practically nonexistent, and my mental health rapidly falling off a cliff, my hormones went ballistic, and my skin blew up. My previously smooth skin quickly became riddled with deep, painful cystic acne. 
In hindsight, it’s horrible to think that my first thought wasn’t, ‘What is causing me to break out and how can I fix that part of my life to help heal my body and mind?’ Instead, it was ‘what can I do to hide this so that I stop feeling ugly and dirty, and prevent people around me from thinking the same?’ I was embarrassed and ashamed, and I felt like my skin wasn’t my own.

I’d scroll through Instagram and look at pictures of women with perfect complexions and toned bodies and wonder what was wrong with me. I’d been conditioned to see my breakout as abnormal, as defective, as disgusting, rather than a natural process that the body undergoes — a way for my body to tell me that I am stressed, not sleeping enough, not eating healthily enough, and not treating myself with the kindness and care that I deserve. I was prioritizing the aesthetic that I wanted to present to the world above my own health.

This was further exacerbated when, at my doctor’s suggestion, I stopped wearing makeup to give my skin time to breathe. Now, not only was my face covered in bright red marks, but now I couldn’t even hide them. I soon began to worry that I’d lose my femininity by not wearing makeup. I already dress in a fairly masculine fashion, and I relied on makeup to add a feminine touch to my everyday appearance — due to the fact that we have all been conditioned to see makeup as feminine.

Without makeup to cover my bumps and marks, I worried my professionalism would be questioned while at work and in class. I worried that people would wonder why I didn’t look “put together” or “presentable,” as if me having pimples somehow made me a morally bad, unprofessional person.

In writing this article, I’ve realized that we’ve come to moralize self-care. In a recent article for The Atlantic, Amanda Mull perfectly summarized this point: “The moral halo around ‘good skin’ isn’t a coincidence. The behaviours associated with a clear, even-toned complexion require those who want it to reject hedonism in a way that is still deeply ingrained as virtuous in American culture; that the wealthy have mastered the look that reinforces capitalistic notions of success and who achieves it (the ascetic, dedicated, and hardworking).”

Now, as my skin slowly but surely heals, I am left with scarring, bumps, discoloration, hyperpigmentation, and flaky, peeling dryness. But I am happier than I was before. I’m sleeping more. I’m speaking to someone weekly to strengthen my mental health. I have to give my skin time to heal — I’ve accepted that. I can’t afford expensive treatments to speed up the process. I’m a student. I’m broke.

I spent a lot of my free time over the holiday break thinking about this. While scouring the internet for acne remedies (hello, Dr. Pimple Popper, teach me your ways), I noticed that the immediate solutions that most websites recommend are professional treatments like laser scar removal, chemical peels, facials, and other expensive products. All of which, no surprise, specifically benefit the wealthy, ‘hardworking’, and ‘dedicated’. We’ve been trained to think that having perfect complexions, sculpted bodies, and straight teeth is ‘right,’ and grow to despise every aspect of ourselves that doesn’t meet this expectation.

To move past this, we need to learn to understand self-care and self-improvement in a different way, contrary to how we are conditioned to think. This process is no easy feat. Redefining self-care involves deconstructing everything social media and society has taught us to believe is a matter of fact.

Manson’s The Subtle Art of Not Giving a F*ck emphasizes that “our culture today is obsessively focused on unrealistically positive expectations: be happier. be healthier. Be the best, better than the rest. Be smarter, faster, richer, sexier, more popular, more productive, more envied, and more admired.” In essence, these ‘modern’ ideas of self-care and self-improvement are primarily focused on having the most positive experience possible, which, paradoxically, turns out to be a negative experience in and of itself. This is because we are stuck fixating on the things we lack and emphasizing the things we wish we could have, rather than appreciating the things that we do have. We compare ourselves to others and shame ourselves for not being perfect.

True self-care is about accepting that things suck sometimes, and that’s okay. By accepting this, we can begin to shift toward accepting what Manson dubbed “the benefits of experiencing healthy doses of pain.” It’s the trials and tribulations of our lives that make us grow. In shifting my own mindset from valuing my aesthetic presentation to valuing my own health, I was able to accept the fact that my skin sucks right now, but it’s getting better, because I am engaging in truly positive self-care.

While I encourage readers to set goals and resolutions for 2019, I want to emphasize the importance of achievable goals that promote true self-care and growth, rather than the type we are expected to achieve. Take a moment to think about what you truly value, and what that means for yourself. And then ask yourself: what can I do to improve? It’s when we start asking those questions, and challenging what we think we already know, that we begin to see real progress.