On Get-Ups and Glitter: The Conflict of Appearance and Athleticism for Women at the Olympic Games

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The Rio Olympics have been underway for less than a week, and already, a few notable trends have emerged: those athletes who happen to be women are kicking ass; and many of those involved in reporting on the Games just can’t get over the fact that these awesome athletes happen to be women. My news feed is full of indignant (and justified) responses from feminist commentators (google “sexism olympics” for the latest criticism).

It’s heartening to see this response–we’re still a very long way from equality anywhere, but you can see the tide starting to turn. One reason that sexism has persisted is that it has, in the way of all pernicious ideologies, made itself seem totally normal and unremarkable over the span of…well, always. But bit by bit (and thanks to a combination of influences ranging from Title IX, to activism against racism, sexism, ableism, and queer-phobia, to the bizarrely-random-but-occasionally-democratizing social media), we’ve started to really see just how weird and wrong it is to limit our definitions of the individual according to the appearance of their body. Moreover, the meaning of the body is no longer just the special and obscure concern of academics–people everywhere are asking why one group of people get to define how other groups ought to be, and are getting really impatient when the answer is no more rational, no less lame than “because we said so.”

But change happens slowly, and lessons have to be repeated over and over again before they sink in.

Ten years ago, in the wake of the 2004 Athens and 2006 Beijing Olympics, I put in my feminist two cents, critiquing the way in which women were held to unfair standards of appearance in many sports. The article was academic, and probably longer than you want to read now–I’m re-posting a condensed version here, but if you’d like to read the whole thing (and see my carefully-cited sources), it’s online here.

“The Woman Athlete Revealed:

The Problem of Get-Ups and Glitter for Female Olympians” 

Popular Culture Review. 18.1 (2007): 49-60.

In most events of the Olympic games, while the athlete’s appearance plays a role in psychological competition with her opponent, her choices for physical presentation are largely dictated by function, by what will help her be faster, stronger, more focused. Nevertheless, in a significant handful of events—those that attract the most spectators and media coverage— clothes seem literally to make the girl. Unlike their male counterparts, in events like beach volleyball and gymnastics women are required to make their appearance part of their performance, on top of, and as a distraction from, their athletic ability. That they must wear costumes means that both they and the audience are made self-consciously aware of their femininity and sexuality, in a way that is not expected from men or women in most other events. The requirement of many women athletes to focus on the appearance of their bodies, rather than their function or skill, is a sign of a persistent inequality both on and off the playing field.

…[O]ur culture has so far been very reluctant to accept the crossing of gender lines by either sex in athletics. When we encounter athletic events where men demonstrate “feminine” skills and appearance and vice versa (men’s figure skating vs. women’s softball), our conceptions of safe normalcy become disturbed, and our discomfort becomes channeled into suspicions about the athletes’ adherence to gender norms and expectations about gender propriety.

To alleviate or deny this suspicion, most sports still maintain “separate spheres,” or division along gender lines. Within the realm of women’s, or ladies’ sport, female athletes are encouraged to demonstrate the “feminine apologetic” (Roth and Basow 252), to reassure spectators—not to mention themselves to a certain extent—of their femininity and heterosexuality, of their conformity to and support of social conventions and the sexual status quo… 

…In spite of the prevailing assumptions about gender and bodily comportment, female athletes in many sport events have long appreciated and pursued the same kinds of achievements of strength, speed, and aggression that have always appealed to men. Women athletes today have proven their skill, fitness, and competitiveness, have narrowed the performance gap with men in many events, and have won the attention and admiration of spectators. Nevertheless, media coverage of women’s sport outside the Olympics is so scanty as to give the impression that there is none. As Shields et al. have found, 90% of non-Olympic sport coverage focuses on men; over the course of the 1996, 1998, 2000, and 2002 Olympics, while women received proportionately more coverage than male athletes, it remained “largely focused on sports/events traditionally stereotyped as ‘appropriate’ for women and girls [and] unless a ‘gold medal’ was at stake, the coverage of less ‘feminine’ sports/events was at best thin” (Shields et al. 5). At the same time, women who do not do well at the feminine apologetic by virtue of appearance and interests are regarded with suspicion as somehow not quite properly female (both their sexuality and their sex are conflated and called into question) and receive less media attention (which often translates into reduced financial support for their events).

In the cases of those female athletes who appear appropriately feminine, enough to secure media attention and commercial endorsements, marketing strategy directly exploits their heterosexual attractiveness as much as it highlights their abilities…[And] when women do attract media attention it is often for reasons other than pure interest in their game. 

Of course, it is important to acknowledge that appearance and the choice of what to wear in Olympic or international competition is not solely defined by gender conventions. In fact, the lack of concern with appearance in so many events makes those few where it seems primary stand out all the more strikingly. For example, in equestrian events or rowing, the choice of what to wear is determined by tradition and function, rather than gender. Long pants, high boots and a helmet make sense for straddling the back of a large animal, the jumps of which can take a rider several dangerous feet off the ground; equestrian sports have been quite egalitarian in participation and attire throughout their history in the Olympics. Similarly, in rowing, while men and women do not compete against one another, they are at least equal in terms of how they perform their sports and dress for them. In the hot weather of a typical summer Games, tank tops and shorts are good choices for mobility and comfort for both sexes.

In many sports, the body is certainly on display, but mostly for the simple reason that too much clothing can get in the way: it can be hot, and excess material soaked in sweat from heat and exertion can be uncomfortable and add weight. Moreover, with today’s technology, athletic clothes are often designed to be tight and form-fitting, not for the sake of sexiness (or not primarily so), but so that the material can provide support to muscles and delicate areas, or enhance speed by reducing friction or drag. It is for this reason that swimmers have actually started to wear more clothing rather than less: the new unitards or leggings are supposed to make the swimmer faster than the skimpier Speedos of the past. Display of the body is also undoubtedly a legitimate psychological strategy, to intimidate the opponent and build confidence within the athlete’s mind. A body that looks invincible, through the choice of how to cover it, may actually be so; a player who wears a small amount of clothing, or clothing or accessories that attract attention for their own sake, may give an impression of confidence, insouciance, or irreverence that may effectively rattle an opponent.

Beyond the value of possible psychological advantage, there is the value to the player of publicity—and here is where appearance can start to have political or ideological ramifications. …Many observers would argue that adding a bit of sex and glamour to a sport is a legitimate, necessary strategy to attract spectators and money in a very competitive marketplace—and the idea that sport exists for its own pure, noble sake is simply naïve. Better to get the money and the attention than be forced to give up the game. Witness the enduring problems of women’s basketball and soccer. Title IX has made all sport far more accessible for girls and women than ever before, and there are excellent female athletes competing at the highest levels; but even the biggest team sports cannot compete with men’s leagues for media attention and fan support (Shields et al. 1, “Media” 9). In a male-dominated industry, producers, governing bodies, and commentators often argue that women may be capable of impressive athleticism, but they simply do not play as fast, aggressively, and skillfully as men. If men will not accept women in some sports as athletes, then it seems to be a necessary evil to appeal to their interest and money as sponsors and consumers through sex appeal.

It is hard to argue when the athletes themselves insist that their bodies are their own, and they can decide freely what to do with them. While feminists may feel concern for the female athlete’s soul, the athlete herself may feel very positively about her participation in the spectacle of sport…From a certain post-feminist point of view, marketing the athletic female body can be “empowering…allow[ing] women to revalue their own bodies as a source of pleasure, freedom, and legitimation in their own terms and as a resource for their own power” (Carty, 5). 

…But one may be skeptical that these athletes are making their choices in complete freedom—that their concept of freedom is not in fact one that has actually been constructed for them in a culture that has tolerated a certain amount of sexual equality, but which has also found ways to assimilate and commodify feminist principles of choice to serve its own ends: “Though women may be voluntarily posing to show off their muscular bodies, these new body types had to be first accepted by men and then be transfigured into [commodified] images of sexuality” (Carty 6). The sexualized, eroticized bodies of both male and female athletes are sold by the media, and eagerly consumed by the fans, making such bodies objects, not autonomous subjects with real political power: consequently, “the kinds of individual ‘empowerment’ that can be purchased through consumerism seriously reduce women’s abilities to identify their collective interests” (Dworkin and Messner, 350).

Take, for example, one of the most popular events at the 2004 Olympics in Athens, Greece: beach volleyball. Jose Cuervo, the tequila company, created beach volleyball through heavy sponsorship in the late 1970s, and, according to one company spokesman, intended it to be a “legitimate sport with a party lifestyle” (qtd. in Jay, 201). Perhaps it is not then surprising that the uniforms for the women’s athletic competition were very nearly the same as what the female dancers wore while entertaining the crowd and the media during breaks in play. According to the rules of the Fédération Internationale de Volleyball [up until 2012] women players [were] required to wear proportionately less fabric than the men: “The top must fit closely to the body and the design must be with deep cutaway armholes on the back, upper chest and stomach (2-piece)…The briefs should…be a close fit and be cut on an upward angle towards the top of the leg. The side width should be maximum 7 cm [2 ½ inches]. The one piece uniform must closely fit and the design must be with open back and upper chest” (“Beach Volleyball” 3). Although the rules allow for one-piece bathing suits for women, the de facto uniform [was] a bikini.

There is certainly no reason for the women to wear bikinis for this event. It is true that a game played on the hot sand, at a beach, does not lend itself to heavy clothes, but the bikini was obviously not the most functional choice: after every play the women had to adjust their briefs because they were riding up—not a terribly sexy move, and a sign of some discomfort. Surely if the women had been wearing the same functional, and probably more comfortable, apparel as the men are allowed, a tank top and shorts, they would have played just as well; or, if the bikini is the more optimal choice of attire for performance, then the men would probably wear some version of it too. While the Women’s Sports Federation supports the choice of athletes to wear revealing uniforms, they make a distinction between reasonable choice, and regulations that require “minimalist uniforms to increase [female athletes’] attractiveness to male spectators, a standard which is even more suspect if such requirements are not identically applied to male athlete uniforms” (“Uniforms” 2). I would argue that the beach volleyball bikini is indeed “suspect.” 

Update: as of 2012, the Federation has changed its rules, and women are allowed more leeway than before–now, in the current Games, we have athletes making choices about their competitive apparel based on their personal values as well as functionality. (Call me cynical, but I’m guessing the bikini-clad athletes are still going to be the ones featured in the tequila ads. )

[And then there’s gymnastics…] Men and women athletes perform in several different events—men do the rings, but women do the balance beam. One event they both do is the floor routine, but even here the criteria are very different. Both perform impressive feats of tumbling and flipping, both have to demonstrate strength and flexibility, but the men go through their moves almost as though they are trying not to be graceful; whereas, in addition to demonstrating athleticism, female gymnasts also have to demonstrate sexuality and femininity, to music, by performing dance moves that are coy, flirtatious, even seductive. All of this despite the fact that many “women” gymnasts are actually still adolescent[s]. Until recently girls as young as thirteen competed in the Olympics, and often did very well by virtue of the lightness and mobility of their undeveloped bodies. Although girls cannot now compete in the Olympics until they are sixteen, their bodies are still trapped in a state of early-adolescent appearance because of the rigors of years of training… And yet, in their routines, in addition to displaying impressive athletic prowess, they must also demonstrate sexualized, feminine behavior, a disturbingly inappropriate, and arguably irrelevant, requirement.

In all their events, male gymnasts wear pants and tank tops; women are required to wear body suits with bare legs. The sport’s regulations make some stipulations for modesty: “the cut of the leg of the leotards must not go above the iliac crest (hipbone)…and the line of the leg must not start or drift between the glutei (buttocks).” The leotards must not be too low cut on the chest, and the “design or transparency of attire must not allow exposure of undergarments, trunk, navel, or other private body parts”. At the same time, the clothing must be “skin tight to enable the judges to evaluate the correct position of the body” (“Competition Attire” 40). And, while there are no specific regulations for or against it, female gymnasts often wear make-up and hair glitter; even in discrete amounts, this is an additional element of theatricality that, again, we do not see matched by anything comparable in the men’s performances.

It is not clearly stated in the regulations why judges are able to evaluate the correct position of men’s bodies in their uniforms, which, though slim-fitting, are not skin tight and cover substantially more surface area, but cannot make the same assessment of women’s bodies unless they are more exposed. Nor do we ever hear discussion, during coverage of gymnastics events at the Olympics, of why the women are required to display themselves more in every aspect of competition, through the choreography of their routines, or through the wearing of blush and glitter. The explanation that I would offer is that the judges, and everyone else involved in the production and consumption of gymnastics, are all seeing the athletes’ bodies in very different ways according to sex, and seem to be looking for something extra—aesthetic, sexual—in the women’s performance that they do not require from the men. What this means for the athletes is that while the men may concentrate solely on demonstrating strength and skill, women must do the same, while also concentrating on disguising or minimizing any implication of real physical power. Men go out on the competition floor and do gymnastics; women do gymnastics, plus theatrics, plus seduction; these female athletes are always burdened with the obligation to expend extra mental and physical energy on self-consciously performing the version of femininity expected of them in a sport, and by extension, a culture that is still firmly divided along gender lines.

It has been difficult, in the course of this research, to discover any stated rationale for these separate expectations in gymnastics; there may not in fact be any official policy on hair glitter.  Ask gymnasts to explain and they will say that it is just the way it has always been done—and that may be as good an explanation as any. That is the way it has always been done, since the beginning of the sport for women: in other words, women of the so-called post-feminist era are competing or performing according to the values of a pre-feminist era. When sports of the modern Olympics were chosen for men, the emphasis was on celebrating the masculine body, its ability to be powerful, fast, aggressive, warrior-like. When women were allowed to compete at the Olympics in the early twentieth century, at first it was on a very limited basis, in sports considered appropriate for celebration of feminine ability—which was not masculine; the emphasis was on skill, to be sure, but also on qualities such as grace, flexibility, and artistic expression. Arguably, the idea of mostly-male Olympic organizers was that if women had to be present at the games, it was to be as artists, and not athletes at all. Their presence was tolerated as entertainment, and was not originally conceived of as sport. Even when competition in events like track and swimming became matters of national honor in the Cold War, while female athletes who could beat women of the Eastern Block were welcomed with relief, it was still very necessary for them to exhibit femininity on and off the track—to prove it in fact, through a regimen of sex testing that persisted in the Olympics until 1999 (Cahn 264, Fields 160, Carlson 4). The scandals of the cold-war era Games, when several Eastern European and Chinese athletes were found to have genetic abnormalities, or took massive amounts of drugs to change their sexual characteristics, only confirmed the suspicions of many that women could never be that good in athletic competition if they were “real” women.

Doubts about a woman’s ability to combine athletic prowess and “true” femininity persist. There is still a strong sense that if a woman is good, if she exhibits features of athleticism usually coded as masculine, like strength and speed, she either holds onto her femininity, and so never approaches the standards of masculine athletic success—or, if she is really good as an athlete, there must be something wrong with her as a woman. Men are not free from sexual stereotyping either in events like figure skating or synchronized diving; but it is nevertheless the case that it is socially much easier for a man to pursue many different sports without anyone questioning his fitness as a man to do so. 

In the modern Olympics, women have achieved near parity in terms of numbers, and yet true equality eludes them in many events—and where there is inequality in some events, there is really inequality for all. Women athletes in some of the most popular and heavily-covered events of the Games are trained and rewarded on a whole other level than men are, for how they look and dress as much as how they perform. At the most benign end of the scale, both women and men are rewarded for their sexual as well as athletic appeal, and are able to make use of this appeal to intimidate rivals and earn extra endorsements and media coverage: a form of power some would argue. At the most pernicious extreme, these women, often really still girls, are required to display sexuality and femininity in order to compete. They cannot simply be athletes: they are always required to think of themselves from the outside, as spectacles, as symbols of “normal” sexuality and gender which reassure viewers (and participants) that the combination of “female” and “athlete” does not pose any threat to social order. 

As long as women athletes are required to have this split focus and split experience of their identities and abilities, they cannot pursue their sports with the same concentration and potential for development that men can. Their sex holds them back—not because they are weaker or less skilled, but because they are always both overburdened, and incomplete. “Complete” would be represented by the word “athlete,” rather than the words “female athlete.”

That women are competing at the elite level of the Olympics, in multiple sports, and, increasingly, on their own terms when it comes to apparel and looks, is a sign of great progress. That the physical power and skill these athletes display is still not enough to overcome societal expectations about gender is a sign that we’ve still got a lot of work to do.

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