Celebrating Women’s Athleticism? Or Cultural Beauty Ideals?

By Melanie Springer Mock
(With responses from Kendra Weddle and Letha Dawson Scanzoni)

Soccer Ball with ShoeDuring the London Olympics last week, I was watching a televised women’s soccer game when my ten-year-old son bounded into the room. An ardent soccer fan, Samuel flopped onto the floor to enjoy the game with me, cheering several brilliant plays before saying, “Wait a minute. These are girls?” I said yes (choosing not to correct him about the difference between girls and women). Then, I held my breath, conditioned by my many years of hearing women’s sports dismissed as boring or stupid to assume Samuel would probably similarly discount the game.

My son, bless his heart, merely shrugged, then continued rooting for Canada’s team, since his beloved cousins live there. And I was grateful that at least in our home, my sons are learning that women can be strong athletes, too, in part because they see their mom running or (before her knees turned gimpy) playing soccer on a women’s team. I am also silently thankful every time my son mentions the strongest soccer player in the fourth grade is a girl named Theresa, and that Samuel fears playing her at recess.

But I also worry that someday this lack of biases about gender and sports will change, that the culture will have had an influence on my sons, and that they too will see female athletes as sex symbols whose achievements matter less than the women’s skimpy clothes and chiseled bodies.

Because right now, as the Olympics continue to showcase the best male and female athletes in the world, the women Olympians who receive the most attention—by the media, by sponsors, by fans—are those who meet the long-held standard of beauty. It’s not the conditioned bodies and amazing athleticism that draws eyes toward these Olympians, but their nicely formed chests, long flowing hair (preferably blond), and dazzling smiles.

In a recent Slate article, Amanda Marcotte points out that “there’s still a lot of struggling with the idea that women might prioritize uses for their bodies above baby-making and being sex objects.” Even the rules governing Olympic uniforms reflect this anxiety about women being more focused on winning than on looking hot; the rules have required, for years, that beach volleyball players wear bikinis, as if the amazing spikes and serves the women deliver weren’t enough to attract fans. (The IOC finally relented, allowing women freer reign on what they wear in the sand.)

Although some may discount Marcotte’s argument, the comments following her article are telling. Many readers argued that female sports competitions are boring; that any male high school athlete could easily “man-handle” a female Olympian; and that female athletes need to wear skimpy clothes if people are going to watch women’s sports. I found the attitude of these commenters appalling, unhinged from the truth, but also—unfortunately—a too-true indication of the way our culture treats women’s sports.

Marcotte and others have pointed out that Sarah Robles, an Olympic weightlifter for the United States, has faced a good deal of attention because, despite overwhelming success in her discipline, she could not get endorsements or sponsors because she does not fit our cultural definition of beauty: she is 5-10 and weighs 275 pounds, much of her weight held in the muscles she uses to win competitions world-wide.

Without a sponsor, Robles continued to train and compete while living on $400 a month, motivated by her motto that Beauty=Strength. She says, “I’ve learned that if you love yourself now, you can do amazing things. If you don’t, you’re closing so many doors.” Finally, this July, ThinkProgress launched a petition to find her a sponsor and Solve Media responded, providing funding to carry her through the London games.

I’ve written elsewhere about how much I have struggled with body image issues, and how important Christian feminism has been in helping me to affirm that I was created in God’s image. Envisioning God as a woman with a big curly ‘do like my own has helped me celebrate the way I have been formed, and I am grateful for Christian feminists who have drawn my attention to the story of Genesis and to the wonder of my own creation.

But honestly, when I read about the denigration of female athletes who don’t meet our cultural standard of beauty; when I witness the pervasive misogyny in our country’s sports fans; when media images remind me that female Olympians continue to be prized as sex symbols first, and athletes later, it’s harder for me to embrace the idea that beauty = strength, or to feel that I am also created in God’s image.

Perhaps I don’t have enough faith that our culture will change any time soon, and that women will be celebrated for their remarkable athleticism, rather than how they fill out a bikini. Perhaps I don’t have enough faith that my son will continue to cheer for women’s sports teams as ardently as he does for men’s.

And, perhaps Kendra and Letha can provide another perspective, so that I can see more clearly the ways cultural attitudes about women in sports can still be changed, are changing, will change in the future so that we might all affirm that beauty truly does equal strength.

Response from Kendra: Social Media Activism Can Change Things

Tennis Shoes and Matching OutfitIn high school I tried out for our tennis team, despite other sports like basketball and track being more to my liking. Nevertheless, peer pressure won out and I decided to give tennis a go—even though my poor eyesight would clearly be an obstacle.

Each day after school we practiced for a couple of hours, and over time I figured out how to get the ball over the net occasionally and even developed a serve with a mean curve. As our first official meet grew closer, however, I realized I had a problem. All of the other team members were buying tennis skirts of various colors, complete with matching shirts. And I had no intention of wearing the same thing.

With some encouragement from a thoughtful friend, I went shopping at our local sporting store. In lieu of the ubiquitous skirt, I found some white shorts with pockets deep enough to secure a tennis ball (a pretty big deal since I hate the idea of sticking a ball under one’s underwear in-between uses) and a matching white shirt with a yellow collar for a touch of color.

This act of resistance was pretty minimal in retrospect and probably most people didn’t even notice. I’m not sure I understood then that by refusing to wear what most women do, I wasn’t doing anything other than simply donning what I liked and what made me feel comfortable. And yet, my clothing choice did make a statement, an important one: cultural expectations will not define me.

While Melanie’s rightful frustration with the ways in which our culture confines and objectifies women is a frustration I share (as I watched the parade of athletes during opening ceremonies I noted how the announcers focused on our male athletes, providing their names on the screen and remarking on their skills while only in passing identifying one female athlete) I know there are countless women (and men, I hope) who are intentional in supporting female athletes.

I see this when people arrive in time to watch the women’s volleyball or basketball games even though it means skipping dinner to make the early time slot (hint: wouldn’t it be nice to alternate the times?). I also see this when people post stats or other items of information about women’s teams in public places, like office doors and desks.

Due to our use of social media, however, it seems more than ever that we can make a determined effort to call attention to the remarkable skills of numerous women who play sports, even when they are ignored by most of our society or when they are treated poorly as earlier this year when Brittney Griner of Baylor University had to endure the onslaught of mean and demeaning comments even as she led her team to the national championship.

So, here is where I have to repent. I have not been the advocate I could be nor have I been as determined to assist others as have my feminist foremothers who knew how to organize and the cost of inaction. Oh, I am intentional in watching women’s sports but I seldom bring them into focus around the water cooler instead joining into the ongoing debates over whether or not the Cowboys will be any good this year or if the Rangers have enough in the bullpen to make another run at the World Series.

Click the image to sign the petition!

Maybe we should take a page from three young high school students who recently found out in their civics course that the last time a woman moderated a presidential debate was in 1992 when George H. Bush, Bill Clinton, and Ross Perot were candidates and decided the absence of female voices in our political process is wrong. In response to their assessment, they used resources we all have at the tips of our fingers and created a petition which CBS news reports has 117,000 signatures (as of July 30, 2012) and contacted the presidential candidates as well as the Commission on Presidential Debates.

Their activism illustrates the benefit of our time: more than ever before the concerted efforts on the part of a few can have tremendous ripples throughout our interconnected world.

Response from Letha: We’ve Come a Long Way. Really? Yes, Really!

Running ShoesI decided to take up Melanie’s closing challenge to “provide another perspective“ that might help her “see more clearly the ways cultural attitudes about women in sports can still be changed, are changing, will change in the future so that we might all affirm that beauty truly does equal strength. “

Hoping to provide some encouragement, I’d like to make three simple points.

1. Women’s participation in athletics has changed a great deal over time—for the better.

Women were banned from the ancient Olympics entirely. And even in more recent times, their participation was greatly restricted. In the 1900 Olympics in Paris, women were included for the first time, but they were limited to croquet, lawn tennis, and golf. Twenty years later, women’s swimming competition was added. Gymnastics opened up for women in the 1928 Olympics. Changes kept occurring gradually. The introduction of women’s boxing in this year’s Olympics means that no sport is any longer closed to women.

2. Things are still changing, , as shown in increasing media attention to women athletes and online discussions about gender equity in sports, including questioning traditional attitudes about beauty and femininity.

Melanie mentioned Amanda Marcotte’s excellent article in Slate. Marcotte also wrote an article that makes the same point in the American Prospect. “Since they first started competing in 1900, female Olympians have faced pressure to relieve sexist anxieties by turning up the girliness, even if doing so hurts their performance,” she reminds us.

But today’s women athletes resist such pressures to “turn up the girliness, ” and they don’t want to project “an image of the demure, petite female Olympian.” says Marcotte. “For no other reason than pure competition, women from all sorts of backgrounds have been redefining what’s acceptable.”

Other gender-related issues in women’s sports are also being highlighted in the media beyond the disturbing efforts to market female athletes as sex objects for leering.

In the Washington Post, for example, Megan Greenwell has called attention to the fact that as athletics for girls and women has reached greater prominence than ever because of Title IX, the number of female coaches has dropped. “Athletic directors consistently hire men over similarly qualified women,” Greenwell points out. By doing this, they not only deny young women athletes the role models who could encourage them to consider coaching careers themselves; “they send the message that men make better leaders.”

Shining a spotlight on these various issues around women’s athletics is a necessary step in bringing about change. We can be thankful that the media are paying attention.

And they are doing so in creative ways, including poking fun at some absurdities. The volleyball-bikini issue is an example. Nate Jones of MetroNew York decided to compare the way women playing beach volleyball were being photographed to highlight certain body parts and sexiness and how it contrasted with the way male Olympians were photographed to emphasize their athletic achievements. He wondered: What if men’s events were photographed as the bikini women were, concentrating on the lower half of the body rather than the whole person? And so he provided some pictures of what that would be like. The Sociological Images blog provided thoughtful commentary on this and an overview of how all other sports were photographed. The contrast is striking, and the pictures have created quite a buzz.

Not surprisingly, serious competitors in sports events don’t want to be viewed as sex objects— in spite of photographers and marketing efforts to make them appear so. The way women athletes should dress has become a subject of debate at the London Olympics. Liz Clarke had a good article about it in the Washington Post.

3. Things will continue to change. Young women athletes are feeling confident, determined, goal-centered, and empowered.

They are not going be sidetracked by the foolish statements and petty criticisms of those who miss the whole point of their accomplishments and the hard work, discipline, and skill behind it. Nor will they be held back or straitjacketed into roles that would keep them from being all that they aspire to be.

I love the spunk of these young women athletes who refuse to be bullied or shamed or psychologically manipulated into acting a certain way or dressing a certain way because it’s expected of their gender.

After winning two gold medals, teenage gymnast Gabby Douglas was shocked to read about all the online criticisms of how her hair looked during the performances! She said she has always worn her hair pulled back to keep it in place when she competes. In an Associated Press report in the Washington Post, she is quoted as saying that for people to be thinking about her hair at such a time when history was being made was “kind of stupid and crazy.” She said she didn’t plan to change anything about it, so people “might as well just stop talking about it.”

Then there were the female boxers who were at first told to wear skirts in the ring so that TV viewers could distinguish between the women and the men. Liz Clarke reported on the comments of some of the women. Seventeen-year-old Claressa Shields said she just couldn’t understand the reasoning behind the idea. “We got different names! Women got breasts! We got butts! Can’t you tell which one is who?” A woman on the coaching staff pointed out that this was a combative sport. So why would they “want to put sex into it?” she wondered. “The skirt equates sex; it equates to nothing else.” It was finally decided that the women could decide for themselves whether they wanted to wear skirts or trunks in the boxing ring.

And there were the beach volleyball players who were for the first time allowed to choose whether to wear the customary bikinis or instead wear something that provided more coverage (or that would be warmer if the London temperatures became a lot lower when the volleyball competition was held at night).

Besides the confidence and spunk of these athletes, there is the activism that Kendra pointed out in her response above that also gives me hope. Women are using social media to make a difference, as in the example Kendra cited. Another example was the recent online petition started by a young woman in high school that resulted in Seventeen magazine’s decision to make changes in its practice of digitally altering photos of models. Facebook, Twitter, blogs, and other online connections can bring women together to work for change in a way that we would never have thought possible.

We have reason to be optimistic. We really have come a long way. But there’s still a long way to go, and the journey continues.

FemFaith Authors
Kendra Weddle Irons teaches religion at Texas Wesleyan University in Fort Worth. Her first book, "Preaching on the Plains: Methodist Women Preachers in Kansas, 1920-1956," was published in 2007 by University Press of America. Melanie Springer Mock is a professor of English at George Fox University in Newberg, Oregon. In 2003, Cascadia Publishing House published her book, "Writing Peace: The Unheard Voices of Great War Mennonite Objectors." And in 2011, Barclay Press published "Just Moms: Conveying Justice in an Unjust World," a collection that Melanie co-edited with Rebekah D. Schneiter. Kendra and Melanie co-wrote "If Eve Only Knew: Freeing Yourself from Biblical Womanhood and Becoming All God Means for You to Be," published in 2015 by Chalice Press. Letha Dawson Scanzoni has authored or coauthored nine books, including "All We’re Meant to Be" (in 1974, with Nancy Hardesty), which many scholars consider to have played a major part in the launching and spread of biblical feminism. She served as the content editor for Christian Feminism Today from 1994 to 2014.

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