Why is it that when an athlete succeeds, their talent and success is questioned? Why is that when an athlete succeeds, they are scrutinized for their appearance?
We have been taught from an early age what kind of qualities we should possess, depending on the gender we identify with. While early ideas regarding gender roles has come to shape the expected role of all genders, the media has heightened this issue, depicting humans of not only the gender they identify with but what society expects of them. The coverage of news stories surrounding gender ideals is more prominent than ever. Females in particular, regardless of age, race, and religion, all face scrutiny regarding the appearance of their bodies. As females, we are so used to the narrative of being obsessed with our image and how the media will view us. In 2016, Britain took a poll of its elite female athletes where 80% of the participants acknowledged that they felt the pressure to conform to a particular body type – “muscular but not too muscular” (Mott & Griffiths, 2016). Though we have seen all gendered athletes scrutinized, female athletes continue to be a target for the media to sexualize and critique their appearance. “Mass media and sport are linked as two of the most prominent hegemonic social institutions in our culture, and within that relationship the inextricable link between athletics and masculinity has made gender a very pertinent issue” (Riebock, 2012).
It is important to understand the media’s role in the portrayal of females of all kind. “It stands to reason that without positive media images to look at, female athletes would feel a certain measure of pressure to conform to a thin, glamorous, and overly sexualized image” (Smith, 2051). Growing up, young girls look up to the people they see in the media and a develop an identity of themselves through other females. When there is a lack of diverse female representation in the media, individuals suffer with their body image. “Self-objectification occurs when an individual ceases to evaluate their own body with respect to its value and function, instead appraising it on its value and attractiveness to others” (Fredrickson et. al, 2011).
Body image is perhaps the most significant factor that prevents most females from participating in sport (Kessel, 2016). In a study presented by George, female college athletes reported having not only scrutinized their own bodies but would analyze their teammates bodies for excessive fat and muscles (2005). What is interesting is that many of the athletes appreciated their strong, muscular bodies but still showed signs of comparing themselves to beauty ideals presented in the media. “As the women reflected on their own physicality on and off the playing field, it became clear that many were simultaneously resisting and complying with hegemonic definitions of female beauty” (George, 2005). Instead of the focus being on the sport, greater attention is turned on to the appearance of female bodies. Thus, in turn, this kind of objectification and scrutiny devalues females as athletes (Varnes et. al, 2015).
In 2009, South African Olympian Caster Semenya won gold in the 800-meter race during the World Championships in Athletics. It wasn’t long after that Semenya’s face was flooded in the media – not for her accomplishment, but to look into how she captured such speed in her stride. Many also began to question Semenya’s masculine appearance and was ordered by the International Association of Athletics Federations to undergo gender tests (Sloop, 2010). While Semenya should have been celebrating her victory, her body was being brutally scrutinized and questioned.
“While ultra-successful female athletes were held under gender suspicion, women of colour in the U.S. context were also already suspicious to the degree that they did not perform “mainstream” femininity correctly. One cannot underestimate the way both race and nationalism work to intensify the reification of gender” (Sloop, 2010).
USA Olympian gymnast, Simone Biles, opened up earlier this year about her experience as a victim of bullying. She mentions that throughout high school she was made fun of because of her muscular physique. As a professional athlete, Biles intensity of training created muscular arms for best performance. Biles has mentioned in several interviews that she wore sweaters and jackets all year long just to cover up her arms in hopes of making the petty jabs stop. In all of this, she has found strength in her success and feeling proud of her body. She has also found inspiration from other gymnasts that have helped her embody a strong, confident woman. In an interview with Today, Bile says “as gymnasts, we look similar to each other, so we’ve helped each other love our bodies because it helps us with what we do. Everybody looked the same, had the same muscular build and we could all do things that other athletes couldn’t do” (Biles, 2018).
Though we have seen athletes of all genders scrutinized, female athletes continue to be a target for the media. Why is it that the success of athletes such as Simone Biles and Caster Semenya are questioned? Why can they not be complimented and congratulated for their hard work and determination for the sport they love? “The narratives of male athletes are free to focus on their athletic accomplishments, whereas the portrayals of female athletes focus on aspects of their femininity, possibly to make these female athletes appear more gender-role consistent” (Knight & Giuliano, 2001). The implications for such behavior not only impact the athletes themselves but will continue to have the same effect on generations to come. Whilst athletes should be praised for their ability and performance, many often find themselves taking bullets from the media.
Despite the pressure to conform to gender ideals, it is comforting to know resistance does exist. “Being forced to address this issue has enabled many women to speak powerful messages of body acceptance. Messages that places more emphasis on the functional ability of a body, as opposed to just its appearance is something that has become very important around this issue” (Girl Talk HQ, 2015). It is important that we continue the conversation. Females athletes made great strides in 1996 when the Olympic games became all about the woman and their accomplishments. “We need to move beyond the “sport is great for girls” model and confront some of the darker realities of racism, homophobia, and more, that are part of the sports world. We need to face them with bravery and conviction” (Heywood, 2003). The status quo needs to be challenged. “The risk of promoting any one shape as ideal is that those whose bodies do not conform naturally can easily be left feeling inadequate” (Hinsliff, 2018). Regardless of age, gender, race, religion, sex, and orientation, all athletes should be treated equally and recognized for their achievements, hard work, and determination in the game of sport.
Biles, S. (2018). Simon Biles: How I learned to love my muscles after years of covering them up. Today. Retrieved from https://www.today.com/series/love-your-body/olympian-simone-biles-why-she-loves-her-muscular-arms-t120860
Fredrickson, B.L. et. al (2011). Bringing back the body: A retrospective on the development of the objectification theory. Psychology of Women Quarterly, 35, 689-696.
Girl Talk HQ. (2015). We need to address the issue of female athletes being bullied for their bodies. Girl Talk HQ. Retrieved from http://girltalkhq.com/we-need-to-address-the-issue-of-female-athletes-being-bullied-for-their-bodies/
George, M. (2005). Making sense of muscle: The body experiences of collegiate women athletes. Sociological Inquiry, 75(3), 317-345.
Heywood, L., et. al. (2003). Sport as the stealth feminism of the third wave. University of Minnesota Press, 25-54.
Hinsliff, G. (2018). Has strong become the respectable face of skinny for young women? The Guardian. Retrieved from https://www.theguardian.com/lifeandstyle/2018/jan/17/has-strong-become-respectable-face-skinny-for-young-women
Kessel, A. (2016). Let’s get physical: How women’s sport can conquer body image. The Guardian. Retrieved from https://www.theguardian.com/lifeandstyle/2016/jun/12/women-and-sport-body-image-anna-kessel
Knight, J.L., & Giuliano, T.A. (2001). He’s a Laker; she’s a “looker”: The consequences of gender-stereotypical portrayals of male and female athletes by the print media. Sex Roles 45 (3/4), 217-229.
Mott, S., & Griffiths, R. (2005). BT Sport survey: Body image insecurities rife in women’s sport. BT Sport. Retrieved from http://sport.bt.com/women-in-sport/bt-sport-survey-body-image-insecurities-rife-in-womens-sport-S11363867248465
Riebock, A. (2012). Sexualized representation of female athletes in the media: How does it affect collegiate female athlete body perceptions? Texas Tech University, 1-58.
Sloop, J.M. (2010). “This is not natural:” Caster Semenya’s gender threats. Critical Studies in Media Communication 29 (2), 81-96.
Smith, L.R. (2016). What’s the best exposure? Examining media representations of female athletes and the impact on collegiate athletes’ self-objectification. Communication & Sport 43(3), 282-302.
Varnes, J.R., et. al. (2015). Body esteem and self-objectification among collegiate female athletes: Does societal objectification make a difference? Psychology of Women Quarterly 39(1), 95-108.