Today is day nine over at 14valentines , and they're focusing on athletics today.
I've mentioned a time or two that I was a competitive baton twirler from seventh grade until the day I graduated from high school; to this day, I still twirl knives with a marching band and grab my batons when I'm frustrated and need a good workout. I'm still very connected to the corps that I twirled with because I spent my adolescence twirling. I know more about the dramas there than I do about the boys I dated during that period.
I wrote this during my first year of college for an assignment that wanted us to look at sexuality in an environment that we knew well. I chose to look at the way that the athletic environment I grew up in—a competitive baton corps—constructed heterosexuality in such a way that every day norms are magnified to the point that an outsider would find them repulsive. For example, how many people have dealt with the angel/whore dichotomy? It is one thing to know that many men expect you to dress like a whore but act like an angel (or vice versa). However, the time I spent dealing with this attitude in an athletic arena remains one of the weirdest periods of my life partially because it was understood that no one talked about that particular attitude and its manifestation in our lives. And yet, it’s very hard to ignore when you’re wearing costumes that cling to every curve on your body complete with a skirt that barely covers your ass and yet you're still expected to act like a wholesome little angel.
For the purposes of “athletics day” there are many different ways I could have explored the six years I spent as a competitive baton twirler—I could have contrasted my own experience with that of a friend who twirled in a marching band in Texas. We had very different experiences—for instance, I know people who have competed on a national and international stage; she doesn’t know half the tricks I’d learned by the end of my first year. Looking at how the athleticism and prowess my corps was expected to display as opposed to the fact that she was just supposed to be “showy” produced two very different types of twirlers would be interesting. Or for that matter, why a basketball player is accepted as an athlete but a baton twirler is generally not would also be an interesting topic. Instead, because this was originally written for a class, I focused on the intersection of normative heterosexuality and a specific class of athletes—the competitive baton twirlers who I grew up with. Hopefully, this is at least semi-enlightening.
Constructing Sexuality and Innocence with Whore's Makeup
Most baton twirlers grow up twirling. The average length of a twirler’s competitive career is five to ten years, from the age of seven or eight to 15 or 16. That’s a long time to twirl, a time in which one is expected to progress from a little girl to a teenager. But in a baton corps, you go from child to woman long before you should without realizing it. There is something about the heavy makeup, skintight costumes, and the hairstyle indicative of a baton twirler that is supposed to present a unified front, a uniformity that bleeds into the way twirlers interact and think. This sounds like a strange statement, but the twirlers of the Alaskan baton corps I grew up in (referred to as “ABC”) are a breed apart, adolescent and preadolescent girls who adhere to both their age group’s standard and a standard that is a bizarre blend between a woman’s idea of promiscuous and chaste. And sexuality as it exists inside of the corps becomes a heavily regulated form of heterosexuality. The community I grew up in is a community where competition has both eroded and solidified relationships and, in the end, it’s done the same thing to normative heterosexual female gendered behavior.
One example of these dynamics is the relationship between two adolescent twirlers, M and J. They were no more than six years old when they started and both remain on parallel tracks nearly a decade later. Neither one shows signs of stopping now; between them, they have held most of the Alaska State championship titles for the past several years. The two blondes have twirled as pairs, on teams together, compete against each other in most categories, and they act like both best friends and bitter enemies. But most of the corps never picks up on the idea that M and J could be anything less than “MJ” the girls who are not only best friends, but almost one unit. It is outsiders who notice the hostile body language, the way they snipe at each other during practice, the way they ratchet up the competition if they’re the only two competing. It certainly seems like they hate each other sometimes, and yet, J wears M’s old costumes and they order matching costumes on a semi-regular basis. The corps remembers their pair routine to “Girls Just Wanna Have Fun” because of the funky costumes, the leopard print and pastel headbands. It was one of the performances choreographed solely for people outside of the corps; the routine, like the others at that performance, was meant to lure young girls to join ABC. But no one really remembers (or even thought about) the oddness that an outsider must have felt, watching two girls gyrating to this song or any of the other songs that day.
That is because the twirlers’ sexuality is something that is ignored in ABC. This attitude is slightly strange because some judges place just as much emphasis on makeup and costume as they do choreography. The girl whose costume deviates from the norm—either because the costume is older and therefore outdated or because she has chosen something unflattering—may get a note on the performance scoring sheet. Such a note mixed in with a technical critique of choreography, rolls and twirls serves as a rebuke and often means that the costume will never be found in the twirler’s costume bag again. But a girl who shows off her sexuality as it exists outside of and unfettered by the corps—she comes to practice in relatively revealing clothes, shows up to a practice or competition with a hickey on her neck, or brings her boyfriend to an event or meet—is just as likely to be censured. How does it come to a point where lines are blurred, when two girls barely in adolescence gyrating and twirling to “Girls Just Wanna Have Fun” is no longer strange, no longer forbidden, no longer sexual while at the same time, sexuality has become censored? This dichotomy of sexuality dictates the way Alaskan twirlers behave. An expression of sexuality that is at odds with the baton corps’ ideal becomes censored because the corps cannot count on each girl to exhibit her own innate sexuality in the same way. Instead, the twirler’s sexuality has been constructed in terms of what is correct for a twirler at events, at practice, at meets. As a result, once a twirler starts to behave in sexualized ways outside of the corps’ structure, she finds this new expression of sexuality marginalized and regulated in favor of something similar to what Eve Sedgwick calls “constructed sexuality.” Sedgwick is actually referring to how sexuality has been constructed with words and actions; I am using “constructed sexuality” as applied to constructing a heterosexual norm that combined a heterosexual sensuality that is not be all that normative outside of whorehouses and baton corps.
This construction takes place both subtly and forthrightly from the time one joins ABC. Subtle examples include the ideas listed above. One subtle way to restrict a twirler’s sexuality outside of the corps is for her boyfriend to be interrogated. Eventually, most of the older girls bring their boyfriends to a meet or an event…once. After forty girls have interrogated him and/or told the twirler their opinion of her dating habits, she tends to never bring a boy around again. It’s the extreme version of “Meet the Parents.” It serves to remind the twirler that she is part of a family and needs to set a good example for the younger twirlers. Alternatively, the girl who comes in with a hickey on her neck is bound to hear about it from not only her coach or the corps director, but also from the other twirlers. Because the tops of most costumes are cut extremely low, a hickey is perfectly visible even if she is attempting to cover it up. If she’s around the younger twirlers, they might ask her how precisely her baton hit her in the neck and which twirl was she performing. Moreover, they will want a demonstration because twirlers learn from others’ mistakes. If nothing else, this provides comedic relief because most of the younger twirlers think they have sexuality figured out. If she’s around the older twirlers, as I was, the older twirlers will lecture her about how careless it is to come to a meet with such a bruise prominently displayed. They will hand her makeup and tell her that she is corrupting the younger children by exposing such a sign of sexuality. The coaches’ reactions depend on which coach it is. K, who was a rather rebellious twirler herself once, laughs and asks the twirler not to corrupt the younger girls. C, who is also the corps director, tends to display a much stronger reaction. One example of this reaction is that when a girl gets so involved in a boyfriend that her twirling suffers, she is taken aside for a private talk. The line of questioning runs along the lines of, “Either spend more time here or stop wasting my time.” In short, choose. Choose between a relationship—something most teenage girls want to explore—or baton. Sometimes, it is easy to understand why so many girls leave near the beginning of high school; they do not want to put their sport before their lives.
Of course, there is one more example of how the corps director has shaped sexuality in the corps. She bluntly laid out rules for the twirlers during one of the competitions my last year of baton. Unlike previous rules, such as those promoting uniformity, this set of rules explicitly referred to both the twirler’s “normal” life and her twirling life. As the twirlers impatiently waited for the sportsmanship trophy, she launched into what will probably be remembered as the most painful lecture in the corps’ history. She started by telling us how well everyone was doing, and then said that twirlers should carry the attitudes learned in baton with them for the rest of their lives and apply them to other circumstances. She went on to explain that we were being trained as leaders, and that if you say no to drugs and alcohol, others will follow your example. Then she started talking about sex and how many girls feel pressured by peers to have sex at a young age and that there are often consequences. Therefore, she wanted us to know that we should always feel as though we have a choice and that the best choice is to wait until we’re ready. A message of “just say no” was given to all and sundry. After an embarrassing ten minutes of listening to this, she finished, went back to the original topic, and never broached the subject again. To be honest, most of us did not really think about it until later. But why would an authority figure, a woman who has slowly molded countless girls and young women, feel the need to explicitly state her expectations about our actions as it concerns our personal choices and our sexuality? Why would our parents—many of whom were present for this little chat—let her give us this lecture?
Ultimately, it comes down to the fact that sexuality in ABC is constructed and if one tries to find a different expression of sexuality (such as one that runs counter to heteronormativity—i.e. homosexuality), this impulse is squished. Moreover, the way that the corps has constructed sexuality is implied, but never referenced and prohibitions are strictly enforced. Good baton twirlers are to look like whores, but act like angels. The costume can be skintight, but one’s regular outfit should never be. Eventually, a girl is going to grow up and get married, but until such a time, relationships are not supposed to matter. In fact, relationships are not supposed to exist while a twirler is competing. Parents encourage these subtle hints and behaviors that the corps fosters because they want their daughter to know that one’s sexuality is never to be explored and that one’s sensuality is supposed to only be expressed when her costume’s on. But little girls must grow up. When a young girl is growing up in a competitive atmosphere surrounded by older girls, she is going to try to emulate them. That is why the stricter rules apply to the older twirlers. The constructed sexuality must be enforced by the community as a whole if the individuals are going to adhere to it. So the adults of the community, such as C, must make a decision. Does this subtle enforcement of constructed sexuality need public affirmation? With the majority of the older girls graduating in the past three or four years, she was losing her role models. Because few of us know each other outside of baton, it never mattered to her that we were never saints; she had crafted us to be such and that was how she viewed us. With our impending loss, she needed to set these mythical traits in stone for a younger generation to emulate. None of us questioned this sex talk; none of our parents wished to refute these worthwhile traits. Eventually, the younger girls will learn that twirler’s makeup implies other things outside of baton and that such clothing opens a girl up to a certain type of look.
But few will ever truly see the quirks of the world of baton, such as the blending of young girls who are supposed to be chaste wearing whore’s makeup, as anything sexualized. Outside of baton, they will understand that it is very sexual. But they have a constructed view of sexuality that does not allow such ideas to be applied to baton. Few would understand how M and J’s routine must have made onlookers feel especially since even though both are adolescents, J’s small and appears much younger than she actually is. This is normal to someone in ABC, but it could understandably confuse an outsider. Most twirlers will never understand that. Few would understand how completely skewed a twirler’s view of sexuality and sensuality becomes. C has her ideals and even if a twirler thinks there’s something screwy about them, she’s never going to say a word. After all, Coach always knows best.