Earlier this week, an ad popped up in my Twitter feed. It was a sponsored tweet from a click-bait website called GoodMad. It wasn’t exactly a place where quality journalist flourishes – recent articles include “Celebrity photos you’ve never seen before”, “Child stars who blossomed into beautiful swans”, “The Truth behind Bill Clinton’s affair with the Vice President’s Daughter” and “25 Mind-Blowing Disney Pixar facts that change everything”.
The article they chose to promote was titled “27 Jaw-dropping Female Athletes at the Rio Olympics.”
And it was accompanied by this photo:
Every time I think we’re making progress on women in sport, something like this comes along to shock me back into reality.
When outlets choose to focus on female athletes’ physical appearance, it reinforces the idea their primary value is in their beauty, rather than their talent.
In doing so, it reduces that talent, and the hard work and dedication required to make the Olympics, to a secondary character feature.
It positions them as objects of beauty first, and athletes second. It essentially undervalues the athletic contributions of female athletes.
A few weeks ago, I interviewed two of Australia’s female beach volleyball players. They were both passionate, determined and committed athletes, who train full time and compete around the world. They had recently won some important tournaments, and were thrilled to have made the cut for the Olympics.
By focusing on the physical appearance of female beach volleyball players, all that work, talent and passion is overshadowed by their attractiveness.
This has a broader negative consequence: it feeds the narrative that women’s sport is something that is performed not for its inherent value, or for the benefit of the women viewing and playing, but rather for the aesthetic pleasure of the straight male gaze.
This problematically centres women’s sport on men: it demands their support in order to justify its existence.
As the reaction to women’s competitions around the country has recently demonstrated, many men aren’t comfortable with the notion that women’s sport is not created for them, and thus leads them to reject women’s sport outright.
But the objectification of female athletes doesn’t just belittle the achievements of women who meet conventional beauty standards - it also sidelines those who don’t.
In focusing on the aesthetic values of female athletes – and of women’s sport more broadly—we place a hierarchy on women’s sport. This hierarchy ranks sports based on the attractiveness of the athletes.
Sports where female athletes are more likely demonstrate more conventional beauty standards – such as in beach volleyball or in pole vaulting – are more likely to get television time, funding and sponsorship than sports where different body shapes thrive, such as discus and weightlifting.
There is an unofficial but pernicious divide between “pretty” sports and “ugly” sports, and female athletes who compete in “pretty” sports receive disproportionate attention.
And while it is destructive for the athletes themselves, it is also something that has broader implications. It sends a message to women and girls watching that no matter what you achieve, no matter how much you thrive in your field, ultimately the most important thing will be what you look like.
And in 2016, that is a message whose time has come and gone.