The complex, troubled relationship between sport and femininity

Sport is about how the body is used, not how it looks. But as sports journalist, writer and broadcaster Angela Pippos writes in her new book, female athletes’ bodies are constantly sexualised – and that’s damaging in so many ways.

Sport allows girls and women to use their bodies in an active rather than a passive way – to be subjects rather than objects. Sport is about how the body is used, not how it looks. It’s about physical exertion, grunt and sweat; it’s about testing the body to its limits.

Unfortunately, this isn’t often the way that women in sport are portrayed. Just like television shows, movies, advertisements, magazines and the internet, sport continues to push the beauty ‘ideal’. Too often we see images of sportswomen as inactive, beautiful objects, and the clear message this sends is that you can only succeed in sport if you look beautiful. Equally damaging is the related message that the real reason women exercise is to make themselves look better to somebody else, rather than because it makes them feel better.

…The common defence by the media and sponsors is that they’re just giving the audience what they want: beautiful women athletes. But they’re assuming that only heterosexual men are interested in sport, followed by an assumption that the only way these men are going to be remotely interested in women’s sport is if the athlete is dressed up and doing something un-athlete-like. My gut feeling is that the media and sponsors are selling men short.

…At the heart of this problem is the complex and troubled relationship between sport and femininity. Since we still think of sport as a masculine domain, with the ‘manly’ traits of strength and aggression essential for success, to be a sportswoman is to fall short of femininity – to be (shock, horror!) a woman with masculine traits. This presents a conflict for women athletes known as the ‘female/athlete paradox’. Long before I knew about this term, I watched the 1992 film A League of Their Own, which tells the story of the inaugural season of the All-American Girls Professional Baseball League in 1940s USA. One line stood out to me back then: ‘Every girl in this league is going to be a lady.’

I now understand the significance of that line. It points to the thorny problem of the woman athlete. No matter how strong, talented and powerful she is, above all else she must be a lady. The sporting and broader cultures collide and create an internal conflict. Women feel pressure to oversexualise themselves in order to prove that they’re still feminine, so that they can be more popular and attract more media interest and sponsorship. Sometimes they do this by choice, on social media or otherwise, and sometimes their sport does it for them.

…If we were all equal, it wouldn’t matter if a female athlete picked a sexy pose or got her kit off to show her fabulous body. It wouldn’t be perpetuating a stereotype, and it wouldn’t send the message to aspiring female athletes that it’s more important to be beautiful than to be talented.

The argument often thrown at me when I criticise the sexualisation of women athletes is that male AFL players in tight shorts are sexualised too. Yes, both men and women face sexploitation, but male athletes aren’t defined by their beauty in same the way as women athletes. Similarly, a calendar of buff footy players with a few strategically placed balls isn’t reinforcing centuries of subordination – it’s not pushing a tired old stereotype and tainting all sportsmen. Expressions of macho sexuality don’t have a long history of being linked to the view that men are inferior. On top of that, the image of a manly footballer is amusing, not despite its strangeness but because of it. To see a footballer – that ultimate symbol of powerful manhood – exposed and vulnerable is so jarring that it’s silly and can be taken as harmless fun. But when a woman poses naked, we don’t find this amusing or strange because it’s not ‘silly’: it’s just something that women do.

Not everyone chooses to acknowledge the difference here. During the fallout from cricketer Chris Gayle’s on-air propositioning of reporter Mel McLaughlin, perplexed sports fans drew my attention to a segment on Sunrise where weather presenter Nuala Hafner openly hit on a semi-naked beachgoer during a live TV segment in December 2014. Cries of ‘Where was the outrage back then?’ and ‘Double standards!’ yelled the Twittersphere. Well, the thing is, you can’t just pull out one example of role-reversed sexism and expect it to balance the books – that episode on the beach was a drop in the ocean (pardon the pun) compared to the endless depictions of women as passive, available flesh. And the semi-naked beachgoer wasn’t just trying to do his job without being harassed. All these arguments need context.

A sportsman’s societal worth has little to do with his attractiveness or sex appeal. Jason Day’s worth is attached to his golf game, Tim Cahill’s worth is attached to finding the back of the net, Jamie Whincup’s worth is attached to his speed, and David Warner’s worth is attached to his powerful batting. On the occasions when a male athlete is sexualised, he’s still an athlete first, a hot dude second. We don’t ask that male athletes be more or less masculine; we don’t sit around and scrutinise what they’re wearing; we don’t demand that they smile more (as we do of Karrie Webb); and we rarely ask them to pose semi- nude to promote their sport or appease sponsors.

…Just by virtue of being male, sportsmen in our major codes turn up, compete, get media coverage, get sponsorship, are hero- worshipped, become role models – and the pattern repeats itself. In some cases, it continues well into retirement, with a media gig and a comfortable cushion in a commentary box. Meanwhile, Australian sport is littered with examples of sportswomen and teams that have, either by choice or desperation, posed nude. Hockeyroo Shelley Andrews told the Canberra Times in 2000: ‘When we take our clothes off we get more exposure than for actually playing the game.’

…. The way forward for women in sport is to put athletes first. Before sex and beauty. When this happens, even nudity doesn’t have to be sexploitation. Instead of cutting it out completely, it might be best to support more publications like ESPN Magazine’s ‘Body Issue’, which features nude female and male athletes, and depicts women athletes of all body types (including Paralympians) in generally active poses. This treatment of sportswomen, which praises their athleticism and the hard work that it takes to shape their bodies, is a huge breath of fresh air compared to the content of magazines likeSports Illustrated.

Girls and women shouldn’t have to choose between sport and femininity. They should be able to express who they are through their sport. For this to occur, women must continue to challenge the status quo by participating more frequently in more varieties of sport. Only then can we successfully redefine what it means to be a sportswoman in Western culture – and only then will the kneejerk response to promote beauty before athleticism disappear.

This is an edited extract from Angela Pippos’ Breaking the Mould: Taking a Hammer to Sexism in Sport (Affirm Press, 2017).

Photo: Drew Graham. Digital design: Grace Jennings-Edquist