This week I am pleased to share an excellent guest post by the wonderful Dr Karen Brooks; this was originally published by the Courier Mail. Dr Karen Brooks is an author and associate professor at the UQ Centre for Critical and Cultural Studies.
Ogling and forensically examining the bodies of athletic women is being turned into a sport.
Two champions have recently emerged in this growing field.
First is BBC commentator John Inverdale, who made disparaging remarks about Wimbledon women’s champion Marion Bartoli, claiming she “was never going to be a looker”.
Second is surf brand Roxy, which released a contentious promotional ad for the 2013 Women’s World Surfing Championships.
Featuring an elite female surfer’s body – now known to be five-time world champion Stephanie Gilmore – her face and ability in the water are totally erased as the camera lingers, often in extreme close-up, on a bed, her knickers, toned back, legs, decolletage and long blonde hair. After slowly waxing her board, only then does she enter the water, camera following her pert derriere.
Indignation followed Inverdale’s “casual sexism” and the provocative Roxy ad.
In many ways, Inverdale’s remark, his “if I caused any offence” apology and the raunchy advertisement expose the contradictory nature of women’s sport, as well as being symptoms of a society where the shape, appeal and value of female bodies are constantly scrutinised and debate about them made legitimate.
What’s being reinforced in women’s sport is the idea that success and possibly public acceptance are contingent on the female star being the next super (sport’s) model as well.
In many ways, women are damned if they do participate in a culture that insists sex sells sport and damned as “not being lookers” and forever chasing sponsorship and recognition if they don’t.
Ever since champion Australian golfer Jan Stephenson raised eyebrows and temperatures in the 1980s by embracing a sex-sells approach as a personal marketing strategy, posing naked in a bathtub filled with golf balls, there’s been a tension between appearance and ability, as if they’re either mutually exclusive or the breakfast, lunch and dinner of champions.
In professional sport, the more a person wins, the more media coverage they receive and the more money they make. Women have the added burden of having to look good while they do this.
If they don’t rate (appearance-wise) on the field, then they need to get attention off the field.
From magazine spreads to nude calendars, the female athletic body must be a sexy one as well. If it’s not deemed worthy, then it’s criticised and shamed.
Inverdale attempted this with Bartoli. The same occurred at the London Olympics when Leisel Jones’ body size and shape dominated front pages.
It wasn’t just Jones who was mocked either. The Brazilian women’s soccer team and British women’s beach volleyballers came under negative scrutiny – and not only for their skimpy outfits.
Too rarely is critical discussion surrounding sportswomen about their technique, training or ability.
Professional sportswomen cannot afford to think too deeply about this unhealthy and irrelevant focus, nor comment publicly about how they really feel when their bodies are held up for judgment, as it could affect the way their “brand” and sport, are perceived.
Condemning this kind of reductive focus could also damage their ability to draw crowds, earn sponsorship and viably remain in their chosen field. It’s much easier to be complicit in the marketing of their bodies as sexy, beautiful and capable – and reap the rewards.
The result of this complicity – the female athlete’s and ours, the sport-watching or ogling public – is evident in the Roxy campaign.
This ad for a world championship doesn’t even need to name or reveal the sporting identity who features to work. Why? Because her abilities are redundant next to her beauty and sex appeal.
This is why those such as Inverdale also get away with comments about sportswomen because, even when you win Wimbledon, if you’re not conventionally beautiful, your achievement not only doesn’t count, it isn’t respected either.
What makes a female athlete of interest for audiences, the media and sponsors – talent or sexiness? Obviously, the combination is nothing short of gold, but since when is it all sport promoters seek and audiences care about?
Are we really so shallow?
If we want to invest in women’s sport and the athletes, looks shouldn’t be part of the contract, conversation or game.
You may also be interested in the following Butterfly Effect posts, also by guest writers, as these deal with similar themes: