Female Athletes Still Having Sex Appeal Put Ahead of Performance

A Blog About the Olympic Games
July 27 2012 11:01 AM

Girly Police Descend on Female Olympians

Zoe Smith.
British weightlifter Zoe Smith on July 24, 2012 in London

Photo by Alex Grimm/Getty Images for adidas

While there have been some events already going on today, the Olympics opening ceremony is tonight, which means that the public is about to get an eyeful of thousands of female athletes doing all sorts of amazing things with their bodies. Even though women have competed in the Olympics for 112 years now, and even though female athletes have become a commonplace part of life, especially in more liberal societies, it seems 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. Alyssa has already discussed how this has hurt the career of weightlifter Sarah Robles, but the issue goes far beyond the inability of sponsors to get behind an athlete who falls so out of the norm of typical beauty standards.

Liz Clarke at the Washington Post addressed the issue of how the rules governing female Olympic uniforms demonstrate deep anxieties about the conflict between athleticism and traditional femininity, leading to some openly ridiculous attempts to preserve the semblance of girliness in the face of women who clearly put winning ahead of looking good. The Olympic committee finally relented and allowed beach volleyball players to wear something other than bikinis, which, Clarke says, "has devastated legions of male fans who cheer the sport’s skimpy attire as much as its athleticism." Personally, I struggle with the notion that modern men are so hard up for the image of a half-naked female ass that their only real shot at seeing one is watching Olympic beach volleyball every four years, and so I'm going to guess that these men will survive. Other attempts to impose artificial femininity on women who don't want it have also failed, including requiring female boxers and badminton players to wear skirts.

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While the Olympic authorities are reluctantly abandoning mandatory girliness for female athletes, that doesn't mean the public at large has given up on freaking out when confronted with women who are more interested in gold medals than gold eyeshadow. One British weightlifter, 18-year-old Zoe Smith, faced a ton of online abuse from threatened dudes accusing her of looking like a man and generallly committing the crime of not putting their boners over her dedication to her sport. Smith responded online by saying, "It makes me laugh that you think we'd give a toss what a closed-minded, clearly weak fool like yourself who can't handle a bit of muscle thinks anyway!" She added, "Now piss off back to the kitchen and make your boyfriend a sandwich he's hungry," demonstrating that the Brits may have a leg up on Americans in the sport of running down trolls on the Internet. By any reasonable measure, Smith falls well within the narrow parameters of what society accepts as beautiful, making it clear that this has nothing to do with looks and everything to do with punishing women for not accepting stringent, sexist limits on what they're supposed to do with their bodies.

Equally disappointing is the reaction to Australian swimmer and three-time gold medalist Leisel Jones, who has been subject to a bunch of nasty trolling about her weight from the Melbourne newspaper the Herald-Sun. The Herald-Sun is just concerned, you see, that Jones, age 26, doesn't look like her younger self, doing unforgiveable things such as developing cellulite and appearing to be heavier than she was in the past. The piece caused a backlash from Jones' teammates and a number of former Olympians, who point out that eyeballing someone's figure really isn't an adequate measure of their ability to perform athletically. It seems that the idea that women become athletes in service of being better sex objects might take another century to shake. 

Amanda Marcotte is a Brooklyn-based writer and DoubleX contributor. She also writes regularly for the Daily Beast, AlterNet, and USA Today. Follow her on Twitter.