About a week ago, I wrote an article about how the media markets the masculinity of the US’s Men’s Olympic Swim Team and how such marketing affects heterosexual women consumers. To my surprise, a reader commented on my post asking:
“What do you make of the packaging of the female body throughout the Olympics?”
To that, I agreed women athletes are used as marketing tools like male athletes and both appeal to a female audience. However, there is a different heteronormative approach in this type of marketing. This I addressed in a poorly humorous manner, which I revise here:
When the media markets male athletes to straight women, the approach is structured in a way that says, “This is my sexy, hard-as-rock body. You want to have kinky sex in public places with this body.” The media wants the female population to respond with, yes.
When the media markets women to women, it’s generally scripted to say, “I’m beautiful. And I’m on a commercial for my beauty while you’re not.” This insinuates, “I’m better than you. And because of that, I’m the one that gets to have kinky sex in public places with the male athletes that have sexy, hard-as-rock bodies.” This is part of the girl vs. girl, woman vs. woman issue in our society. But when female athletes are used to market to a female audience during the Olympics, beauty becomes more than just an expression of femininity, it is associated with strength, courage and athleticism. However, there’s a gradient in this packaging of the athletic female body, ranging from what is questionably sexist, to adherence to gender norms, and to bridging the gender gap.
The division between men and women in the sports world, or sports gender, is inherently sexist. To divide men and women assumes there are physical feats better suited for either the male or female physique.
The separation of apparatuses in gymnastics, according to Jezebel contributor, Dvora Meyers, occurred due to the physical attributes of women and the evolving gender norms over the past century. Male gymnasts compete in floor exercise, pommel horse, rings, vault, parallel bars, and high bar, which require upper body strength—a trait that women apparently don’t have. Female gymnasts compete in vault, uneven bars, balance beam, and floor, which require more leg strength, a trait they have supposedly due to their hips. Women’s floor exercise also differences from men’s as women are expected to perform dance moves in addition to their flips and turns, while the men perform more dangerous tumbling skills, without having to do a pirouette to poorly edited music. But female gymnasts these days are ripped. Have you taken a good look at The Fab Five? Aly Raisman has the abs of a god Gabby Douglas could crush me with her thighs.
In addition to the revolution of the female gymnast body, white women no longer dominate the image of the All-Around winner. Gabby Douglas is the first African-American to be the individual all-around champion at the Olympics. That is huge for young African-American girls who dream of going to the Olympics. Douglas’s participation in the Olympics not only shows that young girls desiring to be gymnasts can be physically powerful, but they can be of any ethnicity too.
And we must remember that these are young girls. They shouldn’t be wearing leotards that ride so high up in the front. Their leotards fit high above the hipbone and have a thin region between the legs to give the appearance of a longer leg. I’m not fully informed of their choice in the matter—whether they may wear something less revealing if they desire to, or they prefer to wear their leotard higher so that it doesn’t cut them—but we’re talking about fifteen and sixteen-year-old girls who should be allowed to properly cover up the lower regions of their bodies, especially if the male gymnasts get to wear “booty” shorts.
Other skin-bearing sports, such as beach volleyball, cause even more controversy than my lonely opinions on female gymnast’s dress.
Back in March, the International Volleyball Federation permitted female players to wear shorts and sleeved tops instead of mandated bikinis. Some feminist organizations would see this rule change as progress. “They are using women’s bodies as sex. It is all about money. It makes women look like objects and it is a clear case of sexism,” says Annie Sugier, spokeswoman for the International League for Women’s Rights. Sugier is right, sex appeal and money are a large part of beach volleyball culture and some of the “pervy” camera angles do objectify the athletes, but she isn’t speaking on behalf of a majority of female beach volleyball players.
First of all, the biggest problem with the bikini attire wasn’t that it sexually objectified women, but that it excluded women. Some women aren’t allowed to play beach volleyball because the rule mandated beach attire. However, now that the rule has changed, women from all backgrounds can clothe themselves in a manner their respective cultures approve.
But before the rule change, when women didn’t have the choice to choose between wearing a bikini or something more modest, beach volleyball attire should be considered demeaning and sexist. This is because women didn’t have a choice. Many of these athletes choose to wear bikinis when they play their sport because it is more comfortable and it is a part of the beach culture from which the sport evolved. It just so happens that bikinis play a large role in the politics of attraction. But if a women is aware of her sex appeal, as many top women players are aware that their sweaty bodies in bikinis draws in audiences and generates media interest, then they aren’t necessarily objectified. Objects don’t get to make decisions. This is the difference between sexual objectification and sexual subjectification. The first is a passive role while the second is active. And many players choose to embrace their sex appeal.
Even though I stated I have a problem with female gymnasts dressed in questionable leotards, I don’t have a problem with female beach volleyball players choosing to wear bikinis. Beach volleyball players are generally older than female gymnasts. It’s perfectly okay for grown women to use their sex appeal as a marketing tool, but not for minors.
However, the choice isn’t just about sex appeal, it’s also about healthy body images. “The female body is a masterpiece. Everyone likes to look at the female body, especially in dynamic, athletic sport,” said Natalie Cook, gold medalist at Sydney in 2000 and Australia’s first woman athlete in any sport to compete in five Olympics. This linkage between beauty and athleticism is both a celebratory moment for women and their relationship to their bodies as well as a marketing tool for many gender specific companies.
Companies selling products intended for a female market used female athletes this year, such as swimmer Natalie Coughlin as a spokeswoman for Pantene and boxer Marlen Esparza as the new CoverGirl.
In Coughlin’s commercial for Pantene, clips of Coughlin swimming play as she talks about how Pantene fixes her chlorine-damaged hair. But the commercial concludes with, “I want to win as an athlete and shine as a woman,” as Coughlin, dressed in a gown, waves to a filled stadium. The line is innocent enough, but there is a lot going on between the lines. The line makes Coughlin a woman and an athlete, but not a female athlete. The line dissociates her femininity from her athleticism. Which is problematic, because the line associates her beauty to her femininity, as her plan as an athlete is to win and her plan as a woman is to “shine,” or be beautiful, and not her athleticism. This invalidates the beauty of the athletic female body, the one that Natalie Cook enjoys celebrating.
Marlen Esparza’s GoverGirl commercial has a very different tone from the Pantene commercial. She equates her strength and beauty together when she says, “I’m strong. I’m beautiful. I’m CoverGirl.” Also, when Esparza states she is beautiful, she is training at her gym. She finds beauty in her sport and is proud that she finally has the chance to compete in the Olympics and won bronze. Esparza is also in another commercial that celebrates women athletes. However, this one is not for CoverGirl, but created by Nike and Wieden + Kennedy.
The commercial titled “Voices” first appeared back in late June for the 40th anniversary of Title IX, but because it featured two 2012 Olympians the commercial has been playing with more frequency of late. In the commercial, Olympic marathoner Joan Benoit Samuelson, Esparza, and WBNA icons Lisa Leslie and Diana Taurasi tell stories about the sexism they faced early on in their sports intermittently through young girls dressed in sports gear. From being told they aren’t good enough to getting spat on, these women demonstrate fearlessness and a fierce love for their sport. Their stories are supposed to be encouraging, and it is intended for the audience to find beauty in their strength. “Voices” completely throws out notions of femininity, “Just because I’m a girls doesn’t mean I have to wear a skirt,” says Esparza. “I’m a model who can dunk,” prides Lisa Leslie, embracing and weaving her identity, as opposed to isolating her beauty as a model from her basketball skills. This commercial does not celebrate the beauty of femininity, but the beauty of feminism.
From complete sports-gender divisions that emphasize femininity and masculinity, to women who challenged men in their respective sports and disregarded gender roles, the packaging of the female body during the Olympics is diverse. There are setbacks; there are triumphs, and there are issues that live in the gray. If women are ever going to bridge the gender gap, they should have more Olympics like these as each country in attendance had a female competitor, women were finally allowed to box, and people spoke out about the injustice done towards Caster Semenya. More women than men were on the US team this Olympics and they received 29 out of the 46 gold medals from Basketball, Water Polo, Swimming, Rowing, Track and Field, Soccer, and Gymnastics. These moments aren’t just victories for themselves or for their country, but they carve a place for women in sports. How we market these women greatly shapes the outcome of women in sports, women in society, and women as global citizens.
We must be diligent and fearless, like these beautiful women, if we are to ever bridge the gender gap in the sports world.