The rugged grace of rugby empowering women

13:44, Jul 17 2014
BEAUTIES: Rugby-playing Harvard students write what the sport means to them on each other.

Using rugby to promote female strength and beauty might be a stretch for Kiwis more accustomed to images of tough men muddied in short shorts, but that's what they're doing at Harvard University.

The Ivy League university is using their Harvard Women's Rugby team in a photo project called "Rugged Grace".

It's won coverage in the Harvard Political Review in which rugby was described as being "one of the most physically demanding sports in the world".

"Lasting 80 minutes long with no substitutions," the HPR said with some confusion over the rules, "the amount of physical contact an individual on the field might receive makes American football look like a walk in the park."

In the project, the photographers asked the rugby players to explore what sport and community meant for their bodies and identities.

"We asked team-mates to write what they loved and appreciated about each player on their body, in the hopes of opening a visual discussion about beauty, strength, and appreciation," the project said.


"Rugby is so much about physically throwing your body on the line for your team-mates during games and training, and that intense appreciation, love, trust, and support for each other is what we wanted to reflect.

"The sport necessitates a strength that we find beautiful and powerful."

HPR said some of the words written on the bodies directly addressed the physical: "squat master" on the muscles they built for their game, or "caught it" on one woman's hands. Others focused on the woman's personality: "fearless", "powerful", "open heart", "inspired/inspiring", "passion and drive."

One of the players, Helen Clark, was quoted saying it was refreshing to see a group of women being proud of the strength they've achieved through hours of training, and to see them celebrating the physical manifestations of that strength.

"While many female athletes struggle to balance societal expectations that say women should be small and delicate with the expectation that athletes need to be strong, our team has created a culture that celebrates every kind of body," Clark said.

"We want to send the message that women's bodies are not merely decorations for billboards and magazine advertisements, but rather the physical presentation of strong, powerful people."

Harvard graduate Shelby Lin said the players all showed appreciation about each others' bodies, attitudes, and characters.

"I didn't expect the process to be so emotional, but after each day I felt full of pride for the women involved and how much we respect both ourselves and each other."

HPR also celebrated that the core rules of the sport were the same for men and women.

"The number of players on the field is the same; unlike basketball, the ball size is the same; and unlike lacrosse, the level of contact is the same," it said, saying rugby was a source of empowerment.

"Women players are taught to use the strength of their bodies in ways they had never even conceived," HRP said.

"Where society appreciates the meek timidity that is supposed to accompany female beauty, rugby encourages women to be a dominating presence-fearless in pursuit of her goals."

There is no ideal body type in rugby and the 10 separate positions require every kind of physique to have a role.

"Every body type is celebrated and appreciated. There is no such thing as an ideal rugby body."

The Harvard team said that more than a few of their girls had struggled with negative body image at some point in their lives.

"But if you ever had the chance to spend time with our team, you would never know it.

"We rejoice as a group when a girl proudly declares that she's gained a few pounds as the result of our weight training.

"We admire each other's widening thighs and thickening arms throughout the season."

They said it was a liberating feeling being part of a team with such body positivity.

"Rugby, and our team in particular, only pressures players to utilise and to be proud of the parts of their bodies that make them unique."

The photos by Shelby Lin and Lydia Burns demonstrate "that there is the potential out there for women to be proud of their bodies, no matter what".

The online comments to the HPR article were supportive with "Ironside", a male former player, saying parents have told him "rugby saved their daughters".

"We see one-time wall flowers blossom as they realise what they can achieve. Getting out there, being knocked down, getting bruised and battered and then getting back up again and into the play instils a level of confidence that carries over into everyday life."