As a ten-year-old girl growing up in the summer of 1999, I struggled to understand my place in a quickly changing world. As a budding fifth grader, I didn’t quite know who I was yet, but the possibilities still seemed infinite. I didn’t understand that I was catapulting into womanhood. I didn’t know that once I reached it, there would suddenly be things young women could do and things that society said they shouldn’t. Up until this point, I had assumed gender differences could be summed up by anatomical variations and little more. I had no concept of social norms and their implications. But that summer, I began to suspect their existence.
Also during the summer of 1999 was an event that felt monumentally important: the Women’s World Cup. It was mesmerizing. The moment Briana Scurry dove across the goal to make what seemed like an impossibly difficult shootout save is memorialized in my mind. The cool intensity with which she pumped her fist in the save’s wake — she hardly cracked a smile despite an athletic feat that would propel the team to a World Cup title — was awe-inspiring. And as I ran around my living room in euphoric delight at the win, Brandi Chastain slid across the field on her knees, her jersey whipped off in a frazzled celebration.
I didn’t know then that Chastain’s image — which so aptly summarized my understanding of women and community at the time — was controversial. I didn’t know there were viewers scandalized by the sight of a sports bra-clad woman on national TV. I looked at Brandi Chastain lost in the glory of hard work and accomplishment and I didn’t see a woman’s (kind of) bare body; I saw a woman with worth, and I saw a community that unequivocally embraced her. In that moment the first traces of worry that my girlhood marked me as somehow insignificant were assuaged — but they were replaced by the intrinsically flawed notion that girlhood carried no different meaning than boyhood. My first fledgling idea of gender equality translated to gender sameness, a concept that not only missed the mark, but also left me vulnerable as I grew.My identity and my community were so different than the expectations I’d formed for them at ten; but when your expectations for womanhood are formed without any real concept of what womanhood means, there are bound to be discrepancies.
If the 1999 World Cup was summed up by the image of Brandi Chastain’s euphoric slide across the field, 2003 was summed up by the image of Mia Hamm, my childhood idol, missing what should have been an easy penalty kick during the quarterfinals. I probably remember this so vividly because, thanks to my dad and a SARS outbreak in China, I was afforded the opportunity to watch it in person.
Watching in 2003 was nothing like watching in 1999. I was more self-aware at fourteen than I was at ten. In 1999, I watched through the eyes of a child who longed to be convinced that community did not differentiate between men and women. By 2003, I was (just barely) surviving puberty and it did not surprise me one bit that the Women’s World Cup was an event with a niche following.
Mia Hamm’s missed penalty kick shouldn’t really stick out to me now, more than a decade after the fact. After all, the U.S. ended up winning, but the missed shot felt somehow symbolic. It paralleled the defeat I felt in realizing that women were different, something I’d gathered just before the World Cup. To someone who assumed gender equality lay in gender neutrality, adolescence was a pretty tough pill to swallow. But more than that, it also mirrored the way I engaged with community — not as an infinitely large populous, as I had imagined in 1999, but in a manner that prioritized relationship. I approached the tournament more with the solitude of a player readying for a penalty kick than one celebrating in front of more than 90,000 people.
None of my friends cared that I’d been to the Women’s World Cup quarterfinals when I returned to school the next day. There was no hype, imagined or otherwise. There was, however, a day with just my dad. There was a quiet fishing trip that morning on an abandoned pond, and lunch wherever I wanted before we drove to the game. There was a sixty dollar sweatshirt, an awkward picture in front of the stadium, and my dad’s muttered curse when Mia Hamm missed. No, the world did not care about this game, and in many ways that devastated me, but a quiet curse under the bright lights of Gillette Stadium reminded me that my dad did, and that seemed infinitely more important. For the first time, I considered the possibility that a community’s perception of something as insignificant did not necessarily make it so; I considered that relationship could succeed where community failed.
During the 2007 World Cup, I was a freshman at Liberty University. I was eighteen years old and quietly wondering if I was a feminist because I resented the way the Church addressed modesty — and if I was, was that okay?
When the World Cup started, the naïve glee of the ten-year-old girl who believed women could do anything was all but gone. My best friends (who were men) debated whether or not a woman could ever morally be allowed to lead a company, not to mention a country. (The consensus was “no.”) I looked back to the summer of 1999 with longing and nostalgia. I casually tuned in to the 2007 matches, but it was like gazing at a fossil and expecting it to move you; it did not.
If the 1999 World Cup was the image of Brandi Chastain whipping off her jersey and 2003 was Mia Hamm’s missed penalty kick, then 2007 was Briana Scurry — all but a giant in my mind — giving up four goals to lose in the knockouts. It stung that we lost; it killed me that this was my last real memory of Briana Scurry.
At eighteen years old in 2007, I rarely felt important to my community, and in the moments that I did, it was in spite of my womanhood, not in tandem with it. My ten-year-old self felt more than eight years away; it was the difference between a title-winning save and a four-goal loss.
In 1999, I longed to know that women were important, but I had no real concept of what womanhood was. By 2003 I’d gathered that it was different than manhood, but I struggled to know how different. Popular culture’s idea of gender equality avoided differentiation. Later, when my church addressed womanhood, it tended to focus on roles women couldn’t fill and behaviors they shouldn’t model. It mostly lacked affirmation of a woman’s personhood, and it left me utterly ill-equipped to navigate the ways in which my community changed as I grew into myself. There were small changes, like the fact that nearly all of the girls in my class either refused to participate in gym or were shamed when they tried. There were bigger changes, too, like hearing that it was more important for men to attend college because they were all apparently destined to grow into various forms of Willy Loman, provider of money, bearer of the American dream.
My identity and my community were so different than the expectations I’d formed for them at ten; but when your expectations for womanhood are formed without any real concept of what womanhood means, there are bound to be discrepancies. I oscillated from one cultural adaptation of womanhood to another. At ten, I desired something more akin to genderlessness than empowered womanhood; while a new Christian in 2007, my church community saw femininity as counterproductive gender norms and misrepresented Biblical precepts. Neither affirmed me as an image-bearer simultaneously feminine and important to my community, and so I drifted along, trying to find myself in the various clichéd images of womanhood offered up by the Church and popular culture.
The 2011 World Cup began while I was on my honeymoon. I mentioned it to my husband with something between cautious optimism and nostalgia. He made sure we were by a TV to watch the first matches. He listened to me rave about 1999; he engaged in the tournament with genuine interest and camaraderie. But then, this was not surprising to me. My husband and I have always connected in somewhat atypical ways. We share a love of sports and progressive rock music. He cooks. I work. He craves love as much as I desire respect. He knows I’m a feminist. Somehow it all works.
I vividly remember the World Cup finals that year. We were huddled around a TV in my sister-in-law’s living room, everyone waiting with bated breath to see if the U.S. would take home another title. By this point in 2011, I’d filled my life with relationships that simultaneously defied gender norm clichés and exemplified God’s use of gender differences to highlight personhood. Just weeks before I’d stood at an altar exchanging vows with my husband, who saw me as womanly in a way that was not limiting or stereotypical. By my side were my sisters and high school girlfriends, but also the person who led me to Christ: a man I am forever grateful to share friendship with. So as I watched with my new husband and family, it seemed like perfect symmetry to me that the US was competing for their first World Cup title since 1999. To make it even more perfect, the match was still scoreless at the end of extra time, which meant it would be decided by a shootout. It was so much like 1999, and yet, the way I watched it was so different.
It would have made for a really great story had the U.S. won, but we didn’t. Sometimes you don’t. I similarly still struggled to find resolution in society’s perception of womanhood. What I found instead was value in my personhood and relationship with people who saw me outside social norms. And if 1999 was Brandi Chastain’s euphoria, 2003 was Mia Hamm’s missed penalty kick, and 2007 was Briana Scurry’s fall from greatness, then 2011 was being disappointed alongside my new in-laws — in-laws who are by no stretch of the imagination avid women’s soccer fans, but who watched as avid fans beside me. It wasn’t perfect, but it was honest. And anyway, my experience with women’s soccer has always been more about truth than perfection — even if I didn’t know that when I was ten.