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Sportswomen Judged On Their Looks, Not Their Careers
January 17, 2014 2:28 AM   Subscribe

Britain's elite sportswomen fear that the way they look is judged to be more important than what they achieve in their sporting careers.

The BT Sport survey was commissioned following Rebecca Adlington's appearance on I'm A Celebrity, Get Me Out Of Here in which Britain's most successful swimmer spoke about her insecurity over her looks.
posted by ninebelow (34 comments total) 12 users marked this as a favorite

 
'Fear' should be changed to 'comment upon'. Because anyone who believes that it's not a solid social norm is deluding themselves.
posted by ZaneJ. at 2:36 AM on January 17 [5 favorites]


Let's see what Sports Illustrated has to say about this issue. Hmm... I guess they forgot to put sports in that issue.

ESPN appears to keep it more evenly men and women, though the pressure is obliviously still on looks. It's the beautiful body they're interested in. And breasts.
posted by pracowity at 3:23 AM on January 17 [2 favorites]


This sucks, and I'm not sure how it can be fixed.
posted by BrotherCaine at 3:26 AM on January 17 [1 favorite]


Here are some more links that help to contextualize how pervasive focus on appearance is for women athletes.

Christy Henrich died at 22 of anorexia after an international gymnastics judge told her she was "fat"
WNBA’s rookie orientation program included sessions on make-up application and fashion tips (in 2013 or whenever Brittney Griner's rookie year was- 2012?)
Serena Williams – Female Icon or Masculine Impersonator?
Gabrielle Douglas's hair did look exactly as some people wanted it to when she won a gold medal at the London Olympics
Muscular gymnasts can't be "artistic" (especially if they're black)
Beach volleyball players are mostly reduced to their naked asses
About 4% of all Sports Illustrated covers have portrayed women, and when women are featured on the cover of SI, they are more likely than not to be in sexualized poses and not in action.
Lolo Jones is "drop dead gorgeous" but still does not have any Olympic medals; have you heard of Dawn Harper?

I could keep going, that only took me 26 minutes.
posted by Snarl Furillo at 3:26 AM on January 17 [21 favorites]


More on Rebecca Adlington: Rebecca Adlington gave up Twitter during the London Olympics lest critical comments about her appearance distract her from swimming.
posted by Snarl Furillo at 3:50 AM on January 17 [2 favorites]


This is so messed up. They are elite athletes - they are at the physical peak of humanity. And still people criticize them?

This isn't just world upside-down - it's the world upside-down and inside out and twisted.
posted by jb at 4:30 AM on January 17 [1 favorite]


None of this is surprising, of course, no matter how appalling it is. Every one of the female athletes mentioned in the Guardian article is an attractive, healthy woman and has no legitimate reason whatsoever to feel negative about her appearance. Well, except for the expectations of people that, not only should they have the physique of a top-level athlete, they should also look like a runway model at the same time. The increased focus on preparing athletes for a future after they retire from top-level sport is something of a two-edged sword - undoubtedly a good thing in preventing the fate of so many top-level athletes (particularly amateur athletes) being ill-prepared to earn a living any other way, but there is way too much expectation that a future as a media star is the only path. The fault of this lies with the national sporting organisations to a large degree, because they often don't pay enough attention to what happens to people after sport. To be fair, of course, they are under enormous pressure to nurture high-performing athletes and usually don't attract funding for much else. Some sports do this far better than others and it's expensive.

Some sports have contributed to the problem also (not that it wouldn't be there anyway). When beach volleyball was being heavily promoted as an up and coming sport, the rules included maximum dimensions for the sides of female players uniforms (both top and bottom).
posted by dg at 4:35 AM on January 17


Britain's elite sportswomen fear that the way they look is judged to be more important than what they achieve in their sporting careers.

Women in sports are just a subset of women. I don't know why women in sports being held to the normal cultural measuring stick the rest of us are beaten with is particularly surprising or shocking.
posted by DarlingBri at 4:37 AM on January 17 [15 favorites]


DarlingBri, I think that the point here is that women whose bodies are objectively superior to most of humanity's--in terms of measurable performance--are rated as subjectively inferior.
posted by Halloween Jack at 4:41 AM on January 17 [14 favorites]


I don't know why women in sports being held to the normal cultural measuring stick the rest of us are beaten with is particularly surprising or shocking.

Except that these particular women happen to be the most physically fit of the lot and performing at the absolute top of their careers. So, no, not shocking exactly, just underlines the pervasiveness of the problem. Of course, on the other hand, perhaps their physical insecurities helped drive them in a world that is based on pushing your body to its fullest.
posted by The 10th Regiment of Foot at 4:42 AM on January 17 [1 favorite]


Without taking away from the nastiness that is the way female athletes are viewed, I can only imagine how the 'average woman' feels when a world class athlete is called fat by the people who are supposed to be supporting that person. Reports like that do nothing but harm to all women and, while I'm not claiming there's any real damage to men, reflect badly on everyone. It's no different to the bias that all women face every day in the differing expectations that are placed on them with regard to appearance but all the more farcical when these sort of statements are made. I wonder what distorted, grotesque image these people have in their heads of the 'perfect woman'.
posted by dg at 5:09 AM on January 17 [1 favorite]


perhaps their physical insecurities helped drive them

From all I've ever seen they only ever have the opposite effect.

See above: Rebecca Adlington gave up Twitter during the London Olympics lest critical comments about her appearance distract her from swimming.
posted by tigrrrlily at 5:14 AM on January 17


I think that the point here is that women whose bodies are objectively superior to most of humanity's--in terms of measurable performance--are rated as subjectively inferior.

To me, the issue is the material consequences of appearance pressure on female athletes, and not whether the athletes in question have superior or inferior bodies, however we measure that. Monetarily, sponsorships flow to sportswomen based on appearance first and skill second. Physically, appearance pressure leads to the female athlete triad, which includes eating disorders, damage to reproductive health, and osteoporosis.
posted by Snarl Furillo at 5:14 AM on January 17


In the buildup to London 2012 Jessica Ennis's coach, Toni Minichiello, alleged that a senior official at UK Athletics had labelled his charge "fat"

Wow. There is no way, in any universe, that this woman is fat.
posted by I am the Walrus at 5:50 AM on January 17 [1 favorite]


There is no way, in any universe, that this woman is fat.

Sadly, we also live in a universe where this can exist.
posted by The 10th Regiment of Foot at 6:01 AM on January 17


I don't know why women in sports being held to the normal cultural measuring stick the rest of us are beaten with is particularly surprising or shocking.

It's the extra absurdity of calling these Olympians physically lacking when they're all fairly objectively in the top 0.01 percent of the population in terms of fitness.
In the buildup to London 2012 Jessica Ennis's coach, Toni Minichiello, alleged that a senior official at UK Athletics had labelled his charge "fat", while Ennis's fellow heptathlete Louise Hazel said she had been subjected to similar comments from individuals within the governing body. The former Olympic triathlete Hollie Avil announced her retirement before the Games, citing an eating disorder that she said began as a teenager after a coach made an unguarded remark about her weight.
Ennis is the world champion at a seven-sport Olympic track-and-field event. You can see the muscles rippling beneath her skin. She can outrun and outjump most wild animals, and she could probably kill with her bare hands almost anything that dared catch up to her. What the fuck else does a gal have to do to not be called a fatty?
posted by pracowity at 6:36 AM on January 17 [7 favorites]


And apparently, these are people who've already spent a lifetime overcoming the looks issue before they were even in the spotlight.

There used to be a billboard ad in downtown Toronto that talked about how many girls gave up swimming because they didn't feel like they could wear a bathing suit when they were still young. I don't remember what the product was (Dove, maybe? Something that was using the 'we empower women' angle.) but I do remember feeling pretty heart broken at the thought that even small girls get driven out of things they love over body shame issues.
posted by jacquilynne at 6:51 AM on January 17 [2 favorites]


Actually, turns out, that was easier to google than I thought (and the ads were from Dove):

60% of girls have quit sports because of their looks.
posted by jacquilynne at 6:53 AM on January 17 [7 favorites]


If someone believes an ideal woman's physical state should be as thin/weak/fragile/childlike as possible except for oversized breasts, then that person will likely find a healthy woman athlete to be "fat" and "manlike" and such. Why, it is almost as if they're judging women as objects against an arbitrary, unrealistic artificial standard...
posted by davejay at 6:55 AM on January 17 [3 favorites]


Is there a point at which we are going to have to redefine nasty misogynistic comments about, say, a world class athlete being fat as a type of hate speech? This stuff is both pervasive and corrosive, but that very pervasiveness makes it hard to address.
posted by Dip Flash at 7:05 AM on January 17 [1 favorite]


Ever since Title IX, US Women have been a key part of the US dominance at the Olympics. So many Americans cheer the US having large medal totals, but 2/3 of those medals are won by women who get no glory and no fame. Sad.
posted by Flood at 7:24 AM on January 17


To be fair the other 1/3 are won by men that get no glory or fame. Americans just care very little about olympic sports when the olympics aren't on tv.
posted by The 10th Regiment of Foot at 8:09 AM on January 17


Oh, also: there are a lot of people who, upon seeing someone work hard and succeed in any capacity, feel self-loathing and mitigate it by diminishing the successful person in some way. If you're an athlete, you can't be shamed for lack of physical prowess, so "fat" and "manlike" and such are a way to achieve that. Similarly, see "ballbuster" etc. for women who succeed in business, "bitch" and "stuck up" for women who succeed socially, and so on and so forth. Tons of people probably do this (ever think something judgmental about a person driving too quickly/too slowly?) but typically they're small personal viewpoints that only pollute that person's inner life. The internet gives people an opportunity to externalize those internal viewpoints, making them seem legitimate and powerful (and making the people who said them feel that way, too.) It's like a social drug, but the negative impact is on others instead of yourself.
posted by davejay at 8:11 AM on January 17 [2 favorites]


There used to be a billboard ad in downtown Toronto that talked about how many girls gave up swimming because they didn't feel like they could wear a bathing suit when they were still young.

I was in swimming and, while my racing ability was subpar (only first was in flutter-kick), I was on the track to becoming trained as a life-guard. Until I was 14 and was too embarrassed to be seen in a suit that showed off my thunder thighs. That was also why I didn't take advantage of a chance for free gymnastics lessons when I was 11 - didn't want to wear a leotard.

Body shaming makes kids less healthy, not more.
posted by jb at 8:31 AM on January 17 [1 favorite]


"A guy doesn't get comments on his weight or his looks. They just don't care, guys, do they? But for women it is difficult because we get criticised for our weight or how we look. It's just how it is."

I think this is definitely changing---we women do talk a lot about how men look. Then again, it has probably always been the case. I mean, Channing Tatum isn't an athlete but is pretty marvelous physically but the whole "no neck" and "looks like a thumb" thing goes on.

People say Giselle Bundchen looks like a man even though she's gorgeous. They say the same thing about Jennifer Aniston. People have said hideous things about Michelle Obama even though she's fit, fabulous, and brilliant. Madonna gets fit and everyone says she has "gollum arms."

People can be mean, cruel, and pretty awful, especially on social media. I doubt it will ever change. It's just going to get worse for both sexes. And we're all just going to have to shrug and figure out to be okay with ourselves and surround ourselves with positive people who are supportive.
posted by discopolo at 8:32 AM on January 17


In the buildup to London 2012 Jessica Ennis's coach, Toni Minichiello, alleged that a senior official at UK Athletics had labelled his charge "fat"

I think every woman has sat through overhearing two or more guys arguing whether or not they would fuck some supermodel way out of their league or who is hot and who is not.

Somewhere along the line either you take it seriously or you laugh at how ridiculous the conversation is.
posted by discopolo at 8:42 AM on January 17


I think every woman has sat through overhearing two or more guys arguing whether or not they would fuck some supermodel way out of their league or who is hot and who is not.

Somewhere along the line either you take it seriously or you laugh at how ridiculous the conversation is.


I think one problem is that a lot of us do both.
posted by JanetLand at 8:48 AM on January 17 [2 favorites]


I think one problem is that a lot of us do both.

Yup! I roll my eyes and take them less seriously but I also tear up every time I see a mirror.
posted by Mrs. Pterodactyl at 8:51 AM on January 17 [3 favorites]


The ESPN Nine for IX episode Branded is really good and dives into this topic. Unfortunately the Nine for IX series isn't on Netflix yet but hopefully it will be.
posted by misskaz at 8:51 AM on January 17


What Branded helped me realize is how dependent many of these athletes are on funding. Much lot of the funding comes from company sponsorship -- and sponsors want traditionally attractive people alongside their products.

In the case of female athletes, then, the pressure is to be a top performer AND be attractive enough to get money so you can continue participating in the sport you love. While I understand this happens to men as well, I think men are allowed a wider range of "acceptable" body and even personality types in advertising.

The Tonya Harding-Nancy Kerrigan 30 for 30 that was on last night also touched on this. Harding had to sew her own costumes because she had no money. Sponsors weren't interested in her (even post-winning the US Championship and pre-knee-capping incident); she was seen as unattractive, brash, and trashy. Meanwhile Kerrigan, who also came from a blue collar background, had the "ice princess" look and was willing to portray the feminine demeanor that sponsors and figure skating judges preferred. She then had money to buy classy designer costumes, while Harding was still in home-made hot pink numbers that didn't match judges' tastes.
posted by misskaz at 9:13 AM on January 17 [5 favorites]


Daniela Hantuchova's career is a perfect example of how media attention has re-routed appropriate attention and diverted it into a damaging focus on appearances.

When she crashed on to the WTA tour in 2002 by walloping Martina Hingis in the finals of Indian Wells, she was capable of pounding forehands and backhands all over the court. Then, with that high-profile win, came attention that focused not so much on her tennis, but on her looks. At that stage, the media was captivated by her (but mostly her looks). What followed was a period of two years where she lost a tremendous amount of weight from her already-gangly frame. She insisted there was nothing wrong, but her coach disagreed. Former players did, as well.

Hantuchova essentially forfeited the next five years of her career. It wouldn't be until 2007 that she won another tournament (Indian Wells, once again)--something that a player with her strokes and skill absolutely ought to have been able to do, especially in 2004-2006, when lots of the top players were injured during key stretches of the hardcourt and grass seasons.

When she started winning again, all people talked about was her weight, and very little about her tennis. This time around, it was about her recovery from what she refused to label an eating disorder, but nevertheless, all people really wanted to talk about was how she looked.

It's just conjecture, but I'd venture to say that if Hantuchova had been at her healthiest during her lost years, she would have won at least one of the major tournaments (probably the US Open or the Australian Open). Her legacy might be completely different today, when instead of thinking about her as a champion, we think about her as a cautionary tale.
posted by yellowcandy at 10:05 AM on January 17 [4 favorites]


A guy doesn't get comments on his weight or his looks. They just don't care, guys, do they?

...I think this is definitely changing

It's flat out not true is what it is, but it's a totally different conversation and certainly not as insidious and omnipresent as it is with respect to female athletes by comparison to their male counterparts.
posted by Hoopo at 10:42 AM on January 17 [4 favorites]


Yep, women are too fat. All of them. As the Onion put it, Women: why don't they lose some weight?

I spent a week camping with no mirrors, and realized at the end how happy it made me to have no idea how I looked and to have not thought at all, for a whole week, about my appearance. I was able to think about how I felt and what was functional, not about how things looked. It was good to brush my hair because it was getting tangled in the wind and the tangles annoyed me; I didn't need to brush it to look smooth and perfect to try to impress my friends with my shiny, shiny hair. When I got back to a mirror I realized that I had dirt smudges on my face and had this moment of oh no! dirty face! before realizing that when I'm camping it doesn't matter at all if I have dirt on my face.

Appearance is one of those things that pretty much doesn't matter for anything. Because it doesn't matter, we've had to construct a huge industry to convince people that it really, really matters and is actually the most important thing ever. OK, maybe what you look like matters a little bit because it helps people who think you're cute and want to date you find you. But how good you look in a swimsuit, the precise curve of your nose, the color of your hair, the texture of your skin, how smooth your fingernails are, all of that stuff has no relevance to anything you might actually care about doing, like writing a cool story or going hiking or doing a science experiment or having a baby or playing a song with your band. But there's this whole bullshit industrial machine that needs to sell you a bunch of stupid crap to make you look nicer*, and the machine has to constantly hammer on you that your thighs are too fat, your face is too wrinkled, your breasts are too wrongly sized, your chin is too hairy, everything about you is wrong. Who the fuck cares what Olympic athletes look like? Their appearance is completely irrelevant to what they do. They don't need to shave their armpits to completely obliterate you in their sport. Oh, but the machine needs examples of women who look better than you to make you feel bad so you'll buy crap*, and Olympic athletes seem like they would be a good source of perfect-looking women. Too bad some of them don't look perfect enough. They're just all too fat.

*This comment is not intended to blame or guilt-trip women who try to look nice and spend money to make that happen. What the hell else are we supposed to do? Of course I try to look nice, my life would be a complete nightmare if I stopped washing dirt off my face to try to fight the machine. My goal here is not to shame women because they are stuck living in our stupid society but to comment on how extraordinary it is that we put so much effort into making something that's totally unimportant the be-all and end-all of female value.
posted by medusa at 9:58 PM on January 17 [5 favorites]


UK gymnast Beth Tweddle, a three-time Olympian, 2012 Olympic bronze medalist on uneven bars and six-time World Champion, participated in a Twitter Q&A aimed at promoting women in sports today, which quickly devolved into a vile and sexist free-for-all.
posted by Snarl Furillo at 9:07 PM on January 21


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