From the oddly choreographed Dawn of the Industrial Age dance number (as interpreted by mimes) to the Spice Girls reunion, complete with Posh robot (why on earth is she still singing? Stick with designing absolutely adorable dresses!) and all the leaps, be-grilled Lochtes, butt smacks, Gold-Medal Gabbys, Usain Bolt hilarity and scandals in between (you did hear about them playing the Borat version of the Kazakh nation anthem, yes? Real life, better than movies!), this year I was glued to the Olympics. Gymnastics has always enthralled me but as I’ve gotten older I’ve gained an appreciation for swimming (Phelps helped, not gonna lie), soccer, pole vaulting and the 4×100 relay. But the one sport I still can’t get into? Beach volleyball. And it isn’t because I don’t appreciate the amazing athleticism and sisterhood of Misty May Treanor and Kerry Walsh. I’m just tired of hearing about their bodies, that’s all.

Is it just me or was the bodytalk absolutely inescapable during the XXX Olympiad? (Ha! I just caught that!) Whether it was people debating whether Jessica Ennis was too fat (SERIOUSLY?), whether Leisel Jones was too fat (side note: I always wanted to be named Leisel, I love The Sound of Music that much), whether Rebecca Adlington was too fat (someone on Twitter called her a “f****** whale”), whether Holley Mangold was too fat (seeing a trend yet?), or whether the entire Brazilian women’s soccer team was too fat (SIGH) there was a lot of talking about the female athletes’ bodies. And that’s not even mentioning all the nonsense about whether Zoe Smith looked like a dude (because she’s got mad muscles and only dudes get to have muscles) or whether Gabby Douglas should be ashamed of her natural hair.

And it didn’t stop with talking. The butt shots of beach volleyball players got to be so ubiquitous they earned their own hilarious meme of “What if every Olympic sport was photographed like beach volleyball.” The official NBC video footage drew criticism for only featuring conventionally pretty female athletes like volleyball players, runners, and gymnasts (and zooming in too much on their butts and boobs) while sidelining the basketballers, skeet shooters, and weight lifters. The BBC even unveiled a hugely popular online app called “Your Olympic Athlete Body Match” where you can enter your height and weight and compare your body to professional athletes. Fun!

But not all the body talk was bad says Jo Swinson, a British Member of Parliament and founding member of the U.K. Campaign for Body Confidence, because at least we were all discussing bodies that were actually doing something they’d been trained long and hard to do well instead of just discussing their ability to be a clothes hanger.

“There is an honesty about these athletes. It’s very obvious that it takes them hours and hours of dedication and discipline to look the way they do,” says Swinson. With celebrities, by contrast, there’s often “the pretense that they woke up out of bed and look like that.” Instead, for two weeks, spectators around the world get to look at real faces and real bodies. “It’s one of the times we actually get to see women without makeup on on television.” She adds, “The Olympics are fantastic for celebrating a diversity of body shapes.”

My first thought upon reading this quote was that Swinson clearly had not seen the Russian gymnasts. The only thing they had more of than hair clippies was shiny eye shadow. While I do agree with her that we lose the pretentiousness of celebrity beauty I would say that she is rosying up the situation a bit. First because we turn our favorite athletes into celebrities, complete with magical hair straightening and teeth whitening. And second because for a lot of female sports looking female is an important part of the game. In gymnastics sparkly leotards, hair bows, overplucked eyebrows and enough makeup for a whole season of Toddlers and Tiaras are de rigueur.

In track there have been several scandals involving gender testing of female athletes that didn’t look girly enough- case in point is the terrible story of Santhi Soundjaran who was stripped of her wins after a fellow competitor questioned her girl card — even though she didn’t run as fast as a man. She actually came in second to a long-limbed blond-ponytailed white woman in a pink bra of whom no one even thought to question her sex despite her athletic prowess. It turned out that Santhi did possess a genetic anomaly that made her, for lack of a better phrase, not entirely female in the XX sense. But she isn’t a man either. And if genetics giving her an advantage is so awful then why haven’t we banned Lance Armstrong for being born with a freakishly large lung capacity or Michael Phelps for having a highly abnormal 6’7″ wingspan?

In a year where for the first time America had more female athletes than male and women took home 56% of the medals and 66% of the golds, I am so over hearing about whether or not they are “too fat.”

What did you think of the Olympics this year? Were you as bothered by the body talk as I was or did you see it as more encouraging of different female shapes? Did you have a fave Olympic moment??


around the web

One Comment

  1. I wished this post a bit more nuanced. Is it about gender or stereotypical representations of femininity?

Leave a Reply