During the London Olympics, I watched a lot of track and field events. And while the physical prowess and muscle definition were certainly impressive, I kept finding myself distracted and intrigued by something that wasn’t linked at all to performance (I thought): The hair, makeup, and overall styling of the female runners and field athletes. They were tanned, their hair was colored, they wore elaborate makeup. And apparently, that’s actually a pretty common thing for competitive and professional runners–even outside of the Olympics.
One athlete who’s pretty candid about her pre-race ritual is Brooks Running athlete Fawn Dorr. In one of the company’s Brooks Beasts videos, which highlight female athletes, she described a day in the life before she went to a competition. Dorr is one of the nation’s top 400-meter hurdlers, and has competed in major events across the country. But, as she points out in the video, prepping for a big competition is about more than just cross-training and running laps; Dorr also gets ready by getting her hair cut, getting a spray tan, having a manicure, and generally making sure she’s camera-ready. And she’s not the only one.
Gold medalist Sanya Richards-Ross always runs with her armbands on–and, often, eyeliner and earrings, which has made her as much a fashion icon as an inspirational sprinter. And who can forget Nigerian sprinter Blessing Okagbare‘s shock of reddish hair and sparkly eye makeup? Some female runners and other athletes have even turned to permanent makeup to ensure that they’re always ready for a close-up before the starting gun.
Body builders are familiar with all kinds of tricks to make sure their already-ripped bodies look superhuman in front of the judges. But track and field athletes aren’t being judged on their appearance. So why the emphasis on looks for female professional runners and other athletes?
It appears that, just like in the real world, women in sports are expected to look their best, and that there are both pragmatic and psychological reasons for getting done up before race day.
As was highlighted during the games in London, appearance matters. Hurdler Lolo Jones became the center of a media firestorm of sexism and objectification after one piece in the New York Times criticized her for making the coverage all about looks. Of course, that story was later deemed “too harsh,” and was roundly panned for essentially blaming the victim for playing a game that seems to be a necessary evil.
For financial reasons, it does seem somewhat necessary–for better or, most often, for worse. We’ve already written about the fact that athletes who look good and perform well are the ones that get usually picked by sponsors, which can mean big money, and the ability to make being a professional runner or field athlete a full-time job. Consider the case of weightlifter Sarah Robles, who, despite being one of the strongest women alive, was essentially living in poverty. Professional surfer Bo Stanley ran into a similar problem. As a plus-sized woman, she often found herself being squeezed out of lucrative deals. So yes, in today’s athletic climate, appearance does matter from a practical standpoint.
There are also psychological aspects to personal grooming and appearance before a big race. Attractive outfits, makeup, and other self-care elements have been shown to improve performance in some athletes. Superstition and rituals also play a role. Ask anyone who competes in anything is “psyching themselves up” with various customs or activities works for them, and they’re sure to agree.
But you can’t talk about appearance in sports without talking about the objectification of female athletes. Even if female professionals do enjoy the ritual and find that they make them perform better, there’s still the problem of why it’s expected. This pressure isn’t necessarily specific to female athletes–David Beckham probably whitens his teeth or gets facials to make sure he keeps getting sponsorship deals–but there is more value placed on the appearance and sexuality of females, which is pretty unfair and regressive.
It also points to the fact, though looking good for the camera may be the preference of some professional runners and other athlete’s, there’s still the expectation that women in sports must be pretty in addition to being strong. With sponsorship deals and necessary news coverage hanging on it, it seems like the spray tans and plucked brows are less a choice that athletes can take or leave, and more a requirement.