Today in news that doesn’t surprise me, the UK’s new Sportswomen show sheds light on the fact that female athletes are still under large amounts of pressure to have a conventionally-attractive appearance, regardless of their athletic ability.
Baroness Tanni Grey-Thompson, a Paralympic athlete who won 11 gold medals during her careers, told the show:
“Body image is still a massive issue for women in sport. The way women’s sport is covered, you’re still likely to be described as to how you look, what you wear, whether your hair’s nice, whether you’re pretty. We don’t do that with footballers or rugby players, do we? There’s been a massive change in that portrayal but it’s hard because as a woman athlete you’re more likely to be sponsored on how you look rather than how you perform. I was told I’d do better with sponsorship if I had long hair. I remember thinking, ‘Really? That doesn’t suit my training or my competitive lifestyle.’
Former triathlete Chrissie Wellington agreed, sharing her experiences with an eating disorder when she was competing:
“It started quite simply as a desire to be thin…Whatever thin is is a matter of personal perception but, growing up, I’d read magazines and seen images on the television of what, in my own mind, was an idea of beauty, which was synonymous with being thin…To be a good athlete you have to control every part of your life. It’s really easy to go from being controlling to doing something that’s really unhealthy.”
She says that eating disorders among female athletes are common; I imagine that’s true beyond the stereotypical idea that ballerinas, figure skaters and gymnasts are the athletes that commonly suffer from eating disorders.
This mindset, that female athletes’ worth is tied to their looks rather than their ability or performance, is not limited to the UK; It’s rampant here in the US, as well. Remember Sarah Robles, the Olympic weightlifter who couldn’t find any sponsors? Or the sexist conversation that happened around Lolo Jones‘ looks? Just take a look at the ridiculous body-negative shirts that are supposed to motivate women to become fit, for christ’s sake! Even with the growing “Strong Is The New Skinny” rhetoric that’s becoming popular in fitness circles, it’s clear that the fitness world and the world of professional athletics has a long way to go before female athletes are taken seriously as athletes, not just as eye candy.