Olympic sexism

The fast-approaching Olympic Games should present a fantastic opportunity to combat sexist stereotypes by profiling talented and successful female athletes from around the world.

With the release of a UK government report this week revealing that girls as young as 5 are worried about their appearance, and an Association of Teachers and Lecturers study showing that 32% of UK secondary school girls most aspire to be like Paris Hilton, it has never been clearer that the media objectification of women and the focus on female valuation being derived from appearance alone is having an enormous impact on young women. Never has it been more important to draw attention to strong, skilled women in a wide variety of fields.

With its potential to show women excelling in the field of sport, which is often unfairly portrayed as a ‘male’ arena, and its focus on healthy, strong bodies, the Olympics should be the ideal opportunity to combat the current trend of sexualising women in the public arena. A wonderful chance to show that women are perfectly able to compete, and excel, in the same fields as men; that they can succeed in strong, physically demanding careers; that they can become prominent and highly respected for skills and talents that are completely unrelated to appearance or ‘sexiness’; and, above all, that they are more than the clothes, make-up and diet regimes modern magazines and newspapers all too frequently attempt to reduce them to.

Unfortunately, however, the media seems to have other ideas.

From the moment coverage of the Olympics began, there have been marked differences in the way male and female athletes have been portrayed, pictured, interviewed and written about. It began with the announcement that female volleyball players would have the option to wear shorts and t-shirts this year instead of the ubiquitous bikinis; a minor administrative change that makes no sporting difference whatsoever. Yet the issue was covered in excruciating detail by the press, replete, of course, with full-spread photos of bikini-clad athletes and tired sexist gags about the impact the decision might have on viewing figures. The reams of sexist comments trailing at the bottom of each and every article on the topic only served to clarify further the need to tackle sexism in sport and in sporting coverage; an issue the media has overwhelmingly ignored in Olympic reportage. One such comment on a Huffington Post article read “Get real. The only reason anyone watches this “sport” is for the half-naked women who are in tip-top shape. Cover them up and you may as well watch golf!”

The announcement of the all-male line up for the BBC Sports Personality of the Year award was the next indication of gender imbalance in sport. The low profile of female sports stars is partly driven, of course, by their sheer lack of visibility, with only a shockingly low 2% of mainstream sports coverage featuring women’s sport and 0.5% of UK sports sponsorship going to women, according to a recent Stylist magazine article on sexism in sport. But the media reaction revealed the real reason why female athletes aren’t taken seriously enough, with painfully ironic articles from the Daily Mail and Evening Standard with titles like “Going for Glamour: Women Athletes Show BBC Sports Fans What They’re Missing” featuring top Olympic athletes in revealing evening gowns and layers of make-up.

This penchant for featuring female sports stars in typically feminine or sexual poses, with make-up, styled hair and fashionable gowns emphasising their looks rather than their talent, was repeated by a plethora of news outlets and adverts. From Harpers Bazaar’s fashion spread featuring Victoria Pendleton, Louise Hazel and Francesca Halsall to the Daily Mail Sports section’s sickeningly twee shoot where six female athletes were dressed as angels, the focus was clearly on image and appearance at the expense of all else. Meanwhile, male athletes were photographed in their kit, with images complimenting sports-focussed articles which concentrated on their sporting prowess. And the sexist angle didn’t stop with the photographs, with headlines like “Olympic Sextet” and “Who put the sex into cycling?” accurately reflecting the type of article that followed. Photo captions also reverted to traditional media objectification, with Olympic cycling gold medallist Pendleton described as a “Pin-up girl”, her strong legs referred to as “perfect pins” and heptathlete Louise Hazel labelled a “multi-tasker” (a description often stereotypically applied to women) in a caption that referenced her boyfriend and romantic habits. These linguistic details may seem minor but they are hugely influential in persuading readers to see female athletes in a sexualised, objectified light, likening them to strippers, models and fashionistas rather than focussing on their sporting talent.

Perhaps worst of all, however, was the way in which the text of the articles about female Olympians forced traditional gender stereotypes upon them, subjecting them to the very mantle of objectification and body fascism that they are our best chance of fighting. One article focussed on body insecurities and flaws the female Olympic athletes perceived in themselves, asking them what their greatest body hang-ups are and prompting unhelpful responses such as Pendleton’s lament that her muscular thighs, the very symbol of her sporting prowess, mean that “fitting into skinny jeans is impossible”.

This association of female athletes with the impossible standards and expectations imposed on women and their bodies by the media turns what should be an incredibly empowering opportunity to reset the focus into a doubly damaging blow, by sending the message that no matter what field women are in and no matter how successful they are, they will, without exception, still be judged on their appearance and expected to conform to the media’s incredibly narrow and unhealthy version of female aesthetic perfection.

Other traditional female stereotypes are superimposed onto female athletes too, with frenzied coverage of American hurdler Lolo Jones focussing almost exclusively on the issue of her virginity, with only the most tenuous efforts to pretend that the articles could be classed as ‘sports coverage’. British heptathlete Louise Hazel was asked (in an Evening Standard interview illustrated with a photograph of her in a revealing red latex body suit) “do you have a pre-race beauty regime?” and “what food do you tend to avoid?” And most recently, media hype has exploded over suggestions that Jessica Ennis, one of Britain’s brightest Olympic hopes, has been labelled “fat” by a UK Athletics official – with media coverage of the story so expansive as to dwarf the column inches devoted to her sporting prowess.

Because stories about a woman’s weight (all illustrated, of course, with revealing photographs of Ennis’s figure) sell far more copies than those about female athletes in which gender is an irrelevant detail. The fact that so many of these stories appear in the sports sections exacerbate the problem by suggesting that looks and figure are all there is to women’s sport, whilst highlighting the dearth of genuine sports coverage focussing on female athletes.

While athletes are not to blame for interviewers who deliberately angle questions in this direction, some have done little to help the cause by posing for an all-female Olympic 2012 lingerie calendar, which features them in full make-up and sexy lingerie, striking sexually provocative poses and bears no relation whatsoever to their sporting roles. This particularly calls to mind the ever-growing Lingerie Football League; a mock-NFL style organisation that features matches played by women wearing only their underwear, who sign contracts accepting the inevitability of ‘accidental nudity’ and wear little protection of any kind to prevent injury. The damage this does to sports like women’s football as they struggle to achieve the recognition, visibility and equal respect they deserve is immeasurable.

So while we are presented with an invaluable opportunity to promote the visibility of strong, powerful women succeeding in a world where looks are irrelevant and bodily fitness far more important than body image, we are using it instead to repeatedly drive home the message that women are objects, to be critiqued and discussed on the basis of their looks and size above all else, no matter how many gold medals they might be poised to win.

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4 Comments

  1. Posted May 31, 2012 at 9:31 pm | Permalink

    Association of Teachers and Lecturers study showing that 32% of UK secondary school girls most aspire to be like Paris Hilton

    Just for the record, the study (from 2008) didn’t state that 32% of UK secondary school girls most aspire to be like Paris Hilton; instead it stated that 32% of secondary teachers said pupils modelled [sic] themselves on heiress Paris Hilton.

    To be honest, that whole study read as pretty much fear-mongering fluff. It didn’t say much at all about actual student beliefs, but rather about how teachers perceived student beliefs.

    Sorry for the derail; misquoted or misunderstood studies are a particular pet peeve of mine.

  2. Posted June 1, 2012 at 5:07 am | Permalink

    Thanks @unequivocal, apologies for the mistake, I’ve tried to edit to correct, but am unable to do so from this end.

    • Posted June 1, 2012 at 2:18 pm | Permalink

      Hope I didn’t come across as overly pedantic there. =)

      I also wish it was possible to edit posted articles and replies.

  3. Posted June 6, 2012 at 1:34 pm | Permalink

    The problem I have with your arguments is that there is very clear proof of what sells and what doesn’t, who the primary sports audience is, etc. when it comes to sports.

    They KNOW they will get more viewers/readers with this approach. They’ve tried to promote female non-sexy sports equally and they know it doesn’t work (and even then men are still the primary viewers).

    So you can’t blame them for doing what will maximize their readership/viewership.

    What you should be doing is trying to convince SOCIETY to change. Especially to get more women to watch sports. That’s a worthwhile and valid strategy. But you can’t criticize these companies for acting in their own best business interests.

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