The Sexualization of Female Athletes

You are correct to think that this poster shows a male rather than female body, and not a very sexy one at that. Created by the Parisian advertising agency Leg, it encourages French attendance at the upcoming summer Olympic Games in London by poking fun at the stereotypical British physique; this softly beer-gutted man is more likely to throw darts than a javelin. Here is another image from the recent campaign, which portrays a rotund Roman patriarch shooting pool:

Pub body on display in the Paris metro, June 2012.

These clever ads are targeted at a select train-boarding French audience—ABT confirms that none are on view within London itself—combining references to the antique foundations of the Olympic tradition and the collections at the British Museum with allusions to the legendary non-athleticism of the British population. Funny as these posters may be—and I like them a lot—they are obviously far from accurate, for the Brits are especially skilled in cycling and running this year, with many competitive athletes, including such women as Jessica Ennis and, I believe, Paula Radcliffe, on the current UK team.  

‘Wait a minute,’ you might be asking yourself: ‘Given the diversity of the British population, why are white men exclusively subject to this ridicule? Isn’t it only fair to be inclusive, casting aspersions on men of colour and/or various women at the same time? Could this be yet another case of reverse racism or, even worse, political correctness? Oh the poor oppressed white man of the modern era,’ you sigh in disgust. [Aside: I actually doubt that any FFG fans would be so foolish, but I am in need of a straw reader so please indulge me for a moment]. All I would say to such a mythical response is: Wrong! First of all, racism is based on historical power dynamics, which cannot simply be ‘reversed’ in a superficial way. Secondly, I am baffled by the offhand use of the confusing term ‘political correctness.’ What is meant by it? It seems to be either an aggressive enforcement of ‘conservative correctness’ and conservative values, or else a way of saying ‘shut the fuck up as I refuse to think in general, and certainly not about the point you raise.’ Well, unfortunately I am a big fan of thinking. Here you should picture me adopting a pompous tone and mounting a podium [aside: no, not like that you dirty buggers]. The problem with stereotypes is not that they exist—of course they do—but that some groups are blessed with manifold options and others with few. How many differing images of white men in popular culture can you currently imagine? Now how many representations of Aboriginal peoples? About 10,000 versus 10? Yeah, that’s the problem. Such images impact how people live in the world, creating both possibilities and limitations; we do not think ‘freely’ per se but necessarily within the structures that enable thought, including language, images, and culturally mediated sensations. 

It would furthermore be redundant, and thus far from amusing, to ridicule black or female athletes, highlighting stereotypes to cast doubt on their abilities. Such negative and narrow representations are already abundant and are too familiar to have any traction in an advertising campaign. It occurs to me that showing fluffy white boys as the norm in relation to the Olympics depends upon the structuring absence of the image of the ‘naturally’ fit black man, who beats whitey because of his racial advantage, one arising from an accident of birth rather than extensive training. At the same time, the references to pudgy Romans link white men with the supposed foundations of European civilization, indicating that the Leg advertising campaign is hardly entirely negative toward your average football thug. But I digress. Instead of pursuing the politics of whiteness, I must turn to the primary topic of concern, the sexualization of female athletes. An FFG reader recently asked me to blog about why serious female bodybuilders regularly pose in a sexy way, drawing attention to forms of femininity that suggest vulnerability and weakness, rather than hard-earned strength. Good question. Here goes: Despite all of that self-help clap-trap about the power of positive thinking, we do not and cannot simply choose who we are and what we will become. I say this without malice, as a sickeningly upbeat person blessed with loads of energy and visions of a happy future. Yet it is difficult to challenge norms, and not particularly effective or rewarding if everyone refuses to acknowledge those challenges. There remains little wiggle room for women in terms of representation. Just take a look around to see what I mean. North-American mass culture narrowly promotes images of women as malleable young things who always say go, and never say no. Those women who do not fit this category are either exceptions that prove the rule, or else older divas who somehow conform to that same ideal, clinging to it for their dear lives. One aspect of the European media that I have appreciated since landing in Rome over 50 days ago is its more respectful portrayal of older women: women who are not always slender and even have wrinkles around their eyes and mouths are still considered sexy. Do I like that? Hells yeah. Am I grasping at any straw, any slightly different image of a woman because they are so rare? Well, yeah. Back to female athletes: If these women want to be looked at and taken seriously, and obviously they do—this is not meant as a criticism for we do not exist without the visual recognition of an-other—they must adopt comprehensible poses. According to Professor Cahn at the University of Buffalo, female athletes inherently express strength and independence, qualities which are not traditionally feminine, leading them to be characterized as masculine and lesbian. Since women who play sports or bodybuild have little earning potential, many assert their femininity and embrace the media’s sexualization of their bodies, thereby obtaining exposure and endorsements. Women benefit financially from sexualization, making it difficult to resist.

Consider the furor caused when Brandi Chastain removed her football jersey after scoring at the 1999 Women’s World Cup tournament.

What can be done to make this situation better? Here is my advice, which you can take or leave as you see fit: 1) be aware of the complex ways in which images signify. They do not powerfully force people to have eating disorders or body dysmorphia per se. But too much of the same thing can be overwhelming and limiting. That is why you could 2) respond to and support non-traditional images in any way you can, and 3) experiment with the creation of non-stereotypical representations, realizing that you cannot control what they will ultimately mean to a range of different audiences. Shout out to female power lifters or other athletes of any sexuality or gender who might like to try this approach, publishing the results on this site! I have engaged with all three responses, and will now share with you some of my efforts to create alternative views of the female body. As you probably know, for me the FFG project was an experiment in conformity to a feminine ideal, something that I had never deliberately pursued before. In 2011, I dieted, donned a bikini, and tried to walk like a girl. I also posed for many photographs, a practice analyzed more fully in the final chapter of my FFG book, which will be submitted to SUNY Press in a few months. Some of these images are typical and thus relatively uninteresting; they show me on-stage smiling, hand on hip, gut sucked in, and butt pushed out. Luckily I also had DAD, that fabulous artist and photographer, shoot other kinds of images of me as he saw fit, based on my trust in his skill and understanding of my project. Among the results is a picture of my veiny arm hovering over cooking food, emphasizing a non-sexualized part of my body instead of ‘the whole package.’ Take a look below to see pre-competition pictures that highlight material corporeality, revealing the disciplined practices that produced my body instead of offering up my on-stage image as some kind of mirage that could easily be maintained. I like DAD’s portrayals of me working out and learning how to pose, which often include my interlocutors, mostly women who helped me, taking away the usual false emphasis on individual achievement.

Photo by Patrick Reed.

My delightful designer also took some shots of me essentially naked, while being ‘painted’ with tanning goop by G-Smash [now IFBB Pro G-Smash] and I include a few of the close-ups here. I considered posting some of the full-body photos but have decided against it, although I do not find them particularly sexual and enjoy their emphasis on community. Much to my delight, I look like ass in them, entirely drained of energy the night before the show. Still, given the wider world and my inability to control it, I have decided that I cannot make public in this venue such consumable portrayals of the female body, which would probably be appraised against the current fantasy ideals…or worse. Guess you cheap asses will just have to buy the book!

June 3, 2011. Photo by Patrick Reed (as above).

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About feministfiguregirl

I am a 46-year-old professor named Lianne McTavish who receives as much satisfaction from working out at the gym as from publishing my academic research. I decided to combine my two primary identities (scholar/gym rat) to create "Feminist Figure Girl," a fictional character who both analyzes and participates in bodybuilding. I competed in my first figure show in June of 2011, and then wrote a book inspired by the process, to be published by SUNY Press. In this blog I will write about and consider my ongoing research on the body, while regularly making fun of myself. I recommend that you start reading my first post from August 2010 (available on the home page), instead of backwards from the most recent one, in order to get the full FFG effect.

11 thoughts on “The Sexualization of Female Athletes

  1. The French Olympics campaign is all over the newspapers here in London – apparently the English are offended ;) I have to admit that when I moved here, I envisioned everyone being fat, lazy, and drinking beer all day. It is widely promoted that all Brits are like that, and it didn’t help that the few I knew back in Australia embodied that stereotype well. But I was honestly blown away at how fit everyone is! Maybe it’s just my neighbourhood, but I live near a large park and see hundreds of runners per day – regardless of the weather. The guys in my gym look like they have stepped out of a fitness magazine. I have never seen more fit people in one place!

  2. So strong women must be portrayed as fuckable in order to be accepted by mainstream culture and hence make a living.

    Can we interpret comparable standards applying to women in power positions in politics or business: the misplaced attention on their looks is a means of undermining their strength so that they are more acceptable to social standards? Are the often unpleasantly judgmental results are penalty for not being the “well-behaved women” that are more palatable to wider society? Were these women staying in the kitchen and/or bedroom where they belong would they be appreciated rather than vilified?

    It’s disappointing that women athletes need to sexualise their image in order to get a sponsorship, but I often forget the world is not populated with freethinkers.

  3. I can’t wait for the book. Definitely a must read. As a bikini competitor in the CBBF i thought muscle definition would be crucial. Little did i know that ass-jutting and breast implants would have neen far more beneficial than a conditioned physique. …yes, I’m bitter.

    • Hi Sandra, Yes it is not all that different in figure competitions either, unfortunately. I may have to write a post about breast implants, placing them within the wider history of the female breast, for an upcoming post, to try to understand their appeal more fully, epecially for women. I would also love to hear more about your competition experiences. Maybe a communal post about ‘things I found surprising during my first show?’ Let me know what you think…

  4. As a powerlifter (not yet, but soon-to-be, competitive), I’ve found that I have begun to think about my body in terms of its proportions–NOT the “chest-hip-waist” ratio, but the “how long are my arms versus the length of my legs versus the length of my torso, and how is this going to determine my ability to efficiently complete lifts?” terms. This concern filters further out to thinking about female bodies–ANY bodies–in terms of their proportions. I look at the image of a woman and my eyes automatically scan for a short humerus (holy benching advantage, batman!) or a broad shoulder width or even the direction in which their knees are naturally inclined to orient themselves throughout a walking or running stride. In other words, I think about the image of a woman very honestly in terms of what she can likely DO before I think of the sexualized nature or lackthereof of the image before me. I scan male bodies with the same interest. I’m so focused on how to work around my proportional shortcomings (very long arms are great for deadlifting but crap for benching) that it transfers as an interest in how other people’s bodies have the capability to function, and what signifiers exist to indicate their proportional strengths and weaknesses.

    I WISH more people would reach a relationship with their own bodies more based on an understanding of biomechanics than is typical. I will tell you that as someone who formerly suffered from anorexia, the experience of strength training and now specifically powerlifting has radically changed how I interpret/read the body. I can tell you, as someone who formerly suffered from anorexia, that it is possible for someone’s conception of the image of the human body to change based on a significant change in the way he or she uses his or her own.

    When I encounter an image of a female athlete or a male athlete, my first response is to consider how the skeletal frame beneath the soft tissue is probably proportioned, then to look at what he or she has or has not developed in his or her musculature. At the foundation of physique competition and powerlifting competition training alike is a question of what the body can DO. There remains a gulf of a disconnect between the conception of the body as functional and a conception of it as aesthetic, and I wish this was not the case. I’m somewhat certain there would be fewer eating disorders were it not.

    • Dear Babyeaterlifts,

      Thank you so much for this fascinating comment. I would invite you to write at greater length about this issue in a guest post if you wish, given your fine ideas and writing style. The notion that a biomechanical undertanding of the body could be one basis of a feminist intervention in body politics is striking, since the medicalization of the body from the eighteenth century on, and then its biomedicalization, are typically seen to have been negative for women within even recent scholarly accounts. Viewing the body as a machine composed of parts is, so the argument goes, a central apsect of the objectification of female embodied experience, enabling attempts to claim the female body by such specialized professional practices as gynaecology. Your claims suggest otherwise….

      • I would REALLY enjoy that. I have been thinking about this theory for a while, and it has its holes and its limitations. But I think that compartmentalization of the body in context of biomechanics is not congruous with modes of objectification of the female form that have been based on other motives for breaking the body down into individually-focused-upon parts. I’m in the last year of my MFA (painting and drawing) and have a working (not expansive, but working) exposure to the history of the objectification of the female figure in visual art. It has made the manner in which I conceive of my own image one that I evaluate and re-evaluate constantly, particularly as my body continues to change. Right now, I am watching my body develop a six-pack with a kind of astonishment and amusement. I’d like to think I don’t think about this recent development with vanity; what astonishes me most about this six-pack is that it signals my correct use of my abdomen during heavy compound movements. It’s a positive feedback signal in relation to my performance, and that is foremost how I think of it when I encounter its image. Here, compartmentalizing my body is a sort of self-congratulation for something I’ve done, not the way I look. I can squat 60 pounds over my body weight in part because I am using my abdomen effectively when doing so. It’s a freaking miracle.

        I’d love and would be honored to do a guest blog post at some point. I’m a huge fan of this blog and I like to argue points in its content with my boyfriend, a nationally-ranked powerlifter who is also pursuing a PhD in film studies. The layering of strength training brain with academic brain is fun (and not something I get to experience too often with my cohorts in academia).

  5. Sandra, I am very much in aggreement with what you said. I thought when I started competing my lack of breast tissue would not be the focus point of my physique, but my symmetry and poise (oh and not to mention my wicked LAT spread! hee hee) would win me points hands down. However, I now realise, and am not in denial, that I would place much higher with breast implants OR the illusion of large breasts with the help of FFG’s wonderful padded suit!

    • I hate to say it, but this is one of the reasons I opted to move away from training for a physique-based competition…the day I tried deadlifting for a PR for the first time was the day I thought “alright, listen, this just feels better. This is what I’m going to do. I don’t want to worry about how I look. I just want to DO.” That said, I hope that small-chested women (I’m one, perhaps obviously) continue to compete in figure and MAYBE something shifts in terms of the breast size bias. I’m likely being somewhat delusional on this one, but I want to see it happen.

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