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American Women Athletes Part One: In which women athletes need to be sexy and heterosexual (preferably with child/ren and husband/boyfriend)

I have been watching the World track and Field Championships recently. Specifically the Jamaican team. Usain Bolt has been breaking world records left and right, and is thus getting the lion’s share of press. But the women’s side of the ledger has been way more consistent than the men’s, having racked up three gold medals, (100m Shellyann Fraser, 400m Melaine Walker, 100m hurdles Brigitte Foster-Hylton) 3 silver (200m Veronica Campbell-Brown, 100m Kerron Stewart, 400m Sherika Williams) and 1 bronze (Dellorean Ennis-London), as opposed to Bolt’s two gold and Powell’s bronze. Well, he’s breaking world records, and Flo-Jo has set the bar so high that today’s athletes cannot reach them. goes the argument.

So why are women so routinely consigned to the bottom of the page? When she was finally given the microphone, Campbell-Brown bravely broached the issue.

“It’s a touchy subject, but if I should be honest, I really believe men get more attention in this sport. It’s based on the fact that the world record in the 100m and 200m for men is reachable. For me, my PRs [personal records] are 10.85[sec] and 21.74[sec], which I just accomplished here and I only ran that once. It is hard for me to even think about the world record.”

Why so? Because since Florence Griffith-Joyner’s 1988 world records in the 100m and 200m, no female sprinter has come anywhere near breaking them – not even a drug-fuelled Marion Jones. Meanwhile, in the men’s sprints, the 100m world record has been broken 11 times in the past two decades.

But its not quite that simple. As the article goes on to state:

But perhaps unattainable records are not the only problem. Even in the days when women were breaking sprint records they still didn’t get the headlines of their male counterparts. Some may argue that personality is as much a part of the equation – and Bolt’s celebration dances certainly add weight to that theory – but Flo Jo ran in one-legged fuchsia tracksuits with six-inch nails, so why were her achievements so often overshadowed by the rivalry between Ben Johnson and Carl Lewis?

The media have a major part to play. Britain’s 17-year-old Shaunna Thompson, who won double gold in the sprints at the Commonwealth Youth Games last year, says she sometimes struggles to recall who won the women’s 100m at major championships.

“That’s one of my events and even I’m forgetting sometimes! People know all the men, but sometimes the women get forgotten about. If Usain Bolt is all you hear about on TV then that sticks in peoples’ heads. No one’s saying Shelly-Ann Fraser [Jamaican who has won Olympics and World Championship 100m gold medalist], so everyone’s like who’s Shelly-Ann Fraser?”

There are a multitude of problems that lead to the lack of esteem in which women athletes, compared with male athletes, are held. But first, a little history:

History of Women in Sports Timeline

  • 776 B.C. – The first Olympics are held in ancient Greece. Women are excluded, so they compete every four years in their own Games of Hera, to honor the Greek goddess who ruled over women and the earth.
  • 396 B.C. – Kyniska, a Spartian princess, wins an Olympic chariot race, but is barred from collecting her prize in person.
  • 1406 – Dame Juliana Berners of Great Britain writes the first known essay on sports fishing. She described how to make a rod and flies, when to fish, and the many kinds of fishing in her essay, “Treatise of Fishing with an Angle.”
  • 1552 – Mary, Queen of Scots (1542-87), an avid golfer, coins the term “caddy” by calling her assistants cadets. It is during her reign that the famous golf course at St. Andrews is built.
  • 1704 – Sarah Kemble Knight (1666-1727) sets out alone on horseback from Boston to New Haven and later New York, keeping a diary of her travels, which was published in 1825 as The Journal of Madame Knight.
  • 1722 – British fighter Elizabeth Wilkinson enters the boxing ring.

Wait, what? The Games of Hera? There were such a thing? Chapter 10:Women and Greek Athletics page 113

One of the great problems that women athletes face is the idea that women are heterosexual sex objects. And the beauty ideal for these sex objects is a thin shape, with a bit of a curvy shape, (but not too curvy, thats fat), and a distinct lack of muscles. So female athletes are by definition considered deviant. And the more strength and height that their sports require, the more un-feminine, and deviant they are considered.

And so it was, that when Mildred ‘Babe’ Didrickson 1911-1956, started her astonishing athletic career, well. Lets just say she was NOT received well. Take a good look at her accomplishments:

Sports: Golf, track and field, basketball, baseball, softball, diving, roller skating, and bowling


* X Olympiad, Los Angeles, California, USA, 1932, Athletics/USA

Babe Didrikson Zaharias Records:

* Gold, Javelin toss, X Olympiad, Los Angeles, California, USA, 1932.
* Gold, 80 metre hurdles, X Olympiad, Los Angeles, California, USA, 1932.
* Silver, High jump, X Olympiad, Los Angeles, California, USA, 1932.
* 10 Ladies’ Professional Golf Association (LPGA) major championships. Tied for third most wins through 2006.

Babe Didrikson Zaharias Honors:

* “Female Athlete of the Year”, the Associated Press, 1932, 1945, 1946, 1947, 1950, 1954.
* U.S. Olympic Hall of Fame, 1983 (charter member)

This woman was one of the best athletes of her time. But what were the press obsessed with?

Perhaps the most deep-seated is the fear that women’s athletics might erode traditional femininity. The global sports world registered this concern at least three decades before the institution of sex testing and long before the Renee Richards case. In the early 1930s, when Mildred “Babe” Didrikson, the greatest woman athlete of modern times, set world records in the woman’s 80-meter hurdles and javelin throw, reporters continually remarked on her masculine appearance, and the press focused on the Olympic medalist in a campaign to restore femininity to athletics. The controversy finally ended when Didrikson married, started wearing dresses, and turned from competing in track, basketball, baseball, football, and boxing, to setting records in the more acceptably feminine world of golf. MORE

And, well, take a look at this recent article by ESPN

not until her later years did she dress and act less manly.

While she excelled in competition, she often alienated teammates and competitors. She frequently acted like a self-centered prima donna, a boastful person who constantly sought attention. Although she became somewhat less arrogant over the years, she still remained flamboyant and cocky – and often overbearing.

He would become her manager and advisor, but in the later years of their marriage, problems arose as Zaharias lost influence with his wife. Babe spent more time with good friend Betty Dodd, a young golfer who was a natural athlete and had no interest in looking feminine. She often stayed at the Zaharis’ home in Tampa.

See anything interesting? Her dress is still being critiqued, her “boastful” manner is taken as fact…really, has this dumpling LISTENED AND WATCHED male athletes lately? Wanna bet that she was just a confident person, (which women should not be?). And this article was written in 2007!

In 2009, of course, women athletes are expected to be sexy.

The Women’s Sports Foundation concurs that(Dis)Empowering Images? Media Representations of Women in Sport

What We See: The Sexualization of Women Athletes

In written texts, visual images, and spoken commentaries, women athletes are often portrayed as sexual objects available for male consumption rather than as competitive athletes. For example, the June 5, 2000 Sports Illustrated cover and several inside photographs of tennis player, Anna Kournikova, show her posing seductively for the camera in her off-court wear. When notable female athletes are not pictured, pretty models are often used to portray “ideal” feminine athleticism or represent society’s traditional notions of women’s role in sport (passive, non-competitive, weak, and emotional). Such portrayals create an image of a “heterosexy” (Griffin, 1998) female athlete who can be athletic while maintaining heterosexual sex appeal. This ultra-sexy image underscores physical beauty and femininity more so than athletic skill, power, and strength.

One way media may sexualize women athletes is by focusing on their physical appearance. Characteristics favored in visual media are those commonly associated with feminine beauty, such as smiling, unblemished skin, slender and toned physique, and long blonde hair.MORE

Wanna be a basketball player? Don’t be to muscled and strong now…Who died and made ya’ll the femininity police? The case of Brittney Griner

Cosmo warns that sport loving women would be single for the rest of their lives (the author of that piece of drivel was a male. In a women’s magazine)

Wanna be a martial artist while being a woman? Better be pretty…Superheroines, sports and sexuality: or, why can’t we be both?

Gina Carano might have appeared on the show American Gladiator, where she wore a spandex costume and goes by a superhero nickname, “Crush,” but her real job is Muay Thai and mixed martial arts (MMA). There’s no padding or trick camera angles to what she does in the ring: that’s her putting her body on the line, and only her training and skills can protect her.

Carano just had her first MMA loss to another real-life superhero, Cris “Cyborg” Santos of Brazil. The matchup was the first time two women had headlined a major MMA card, and predictably, it drew obnoxiously sexist media coverage, including the typical division of the women into “pretty” and “not pretty.” Cyborg even faced an interviewer before the fight who asked her if she wanted to beat Carano up because she was famed for her looks.

Cyborg, all class, said that she wanted to fight Carano because she was the best, not because she was pretty—and then she choked the interviewer unconscious. Not really

One writer said,

“Now the question is, can Strikeforce and women’s fighting build the sport around someone who isn’t a beauty queen? Whether that statement offends you or not, reality is there was a reason Carano was part of American Gladiators and did so many appearances on shows like Craig Ferguson and Jimmy Kimmel. That said, Carano is also far from finished. She proved even in a loss that she’s a legitimate fighter.”

Carano proved a long time ago that she was a legitimate fighter, with a 12-1-1 record in Muay Thai and now a 7-1 record in MMA. Male fighters with far worse records are never questioned on their “legitimacy,” but the idea that a pretty girl can in fact be capable of knocking someone out seems to shock the (largely male) fight press again and again. Then, of course, we get the assumption that Cyborg isn’t pretty—by whose standards are we judging pretty women, anyway?

And as I linked before in Which Women Play on the Center Court at Wimbledon? the best athletes in the world aren’t judged solely on their ability. Oh no.

Anyway, Sarah N. sent in a link to a story at the Mail Online about how women’s perceived attractiveness plays a part in deciding which matches will be played on the main court at Wimbledon. The organizers of Wimbledon don’t try to hide the fact that the appearance of the competitors is taken into account when scheduling matches:

…the All England Club admitted that physical attractiveness is taken into consideration. Spokesman Johnny Perkins said: ‘Good looks are a factor.’

And as this article in the NationSexism on Centre Court [Wimbledon] points out:

Several players, including some of these “easy-on-the-eye unknowns,” were upset with the setup. But much of the media dismissed the story as unimportant. L.Z. Granderson, a normally sane voice in the ESPN archipelago, wrote a column in which he stated simply, “I don’t see the harm.” After conceding the obvious–that the policy is sexist–Granderson played devil’s advocate: “I actually find the Wimbledon officials’ honesty quite refreshing…. last I checked, gender equity in the workplace wasn’t a beer on tap at the Kit Kat Club. Sometimes people like what they like, and accepting that also requires a certain degree of tolerance.”MORE

Sociological Images then links to an article FEMALE ATHLETES: BE PRETTY, BUT NOT SEXY. OR PREGNANT. I actually disagree with this headline, because a quick google of “sexiest women’s athletes” brings up 10 pages of results. Sports Illustrated has come up with 100 Greatest Women Athletes, but women athletes very very rarely make it to their cover. What you are guaranteed to see once a year is the fucking swimsuit edition, shot with mostly models. although many women athletes do it as well. Funny how men mostly manage to keep their fucking clothes on.

Paradox on the Pitch Part One, Two, Three a documentary by youtuber ixdeb, takes on the issues that female rugby players at the University of Oklahoma have in “managing the expectations of masculinity on the pitch with society’s expectations of femininity off of the pitch.”

And you do NOT want to deal with the comments that get made about female body builders. Suffice it to say that there is a reason for the tons of articles on google that reassure women that they will not get bulked up like those ugly female bodybuilders if they pick up some weights. Honest!

The 2008 Olympics was when I first became really aware of the problem.

Womanist Musings irately pointed out:Olympic Gymnast Alica Sacramone: Only Your Sex Appeal Counts

Hoyden about town muses that If bare midriffs and short shorts really made athletes run faster

After Ellen noted that an astonishing amount of photographers decided that women’s bottoms were the best place to park their lens.

Grazing Sheeple wrote about even more of the same phenomenon in More Olympic Porn or the never-ending wedgie

Now, ABC ran an article claiming that Skimpy but Sporty: When Less Is More. In other words, gymnastic and beach volley ball athletes want to wear skimpy clothes, cause they are more comfortable. Its only those prude POC like Locals in Somoa who requested that they be changed to something more modest for the South Pacific Games and the Indian team, who flatly refused, and got to wear t-shirts and long shorts. who complain. By the way, the ABC article is wrong, the bikinis are the RULE. and, as a commenter on Feminist law profs pointed out:

The issue here is not whether female athletes prefer bikinis — and, having had sand in a one-piece, I can sympathize — but whether they are required to wear them.

I think that this is quite telling:

The men do not like to play in tight spandex shorts only because, well it is not generally considered very flattering and can be offensive… cling to every little bump, lump, and outline everything he has (or hasn’t).

In other words, the men’s uniform is based on best performance (tight material to prevent abrasion or sand), but also male modesty (shorts to hide the naughty bits)!

The thing is though, that all is not as well as ABC makes it out, though. Austrailia has found that Tight Uniforms are turning off girls from organized sport And I am going to bet that more studies like this wil; turn up some of the same type of things in other countries.

While Westerners sexualize their female athletes, they tend to get very intrigued, and in some cases, annoyed with Muslims; Westerners, South Asian or from the Middle East who want to compete in more modest clothing.

Bilqis Abdul-Qaadir, a record breaking basketballl player from Memphis has dealt with her share of issues. Bahrain’s sprinter Ruqaya Al Ghasara provoked widespread interest. More and more Muslim athletes are competing in full hijab though. In the 2008 Olympics there were half dozen veiled Egyptians, three Iranians, an Afghan and a Yemeni … competing in sprinting, rowing, taekwondo and archery. But in some cases, Muslim pay a high price for trying to follow their faith and compete at the same time. In 2007, Juashaunna Kelly, a Theodore Roosevelt High School senior who has the fastest mile and two-mile times of any girls’ runner in the District this winter, was disqualified from Saturday’s Montgomery Invitational indoor track and field meet after officials said her Muslim clothing violated national competition rules. (Note that if you want to be a casual Muslim swimmer and wear burkinis, be careful in Western countries such as France and Italy.)

Women and Sports Foundation tackles some of the problematic assumptions behind the BS:Unveiling Myths: Muslim Women and Sport

So, I’ll stop here for tonight. I’ve been working on this for four days, and the topic is much bigger than I thought. Next week, sex tests and women athletes, trans women athletes, lesbian athletes and possibly disabled women athletes. (or maybe I’ll make the disabled women athletes their own post. we’ll see)

Have a great week!

EDIT: The Brittany Grinner and Babe Didrickson links have been fixed!

26 thoughts on “American Women Athletes Part One: In which women athletes need to be sexy and heterosexual (preferably with child/ren and husband/boyfriend)”

  1. Ico says:

    Wow, thanks for this very informative post! It’s infuriating information, but important to be aware of, and it’s great to have all these examples compiled together in one comprehensive look at this stuff.

    1. unusualmusic says:

      I’m glad you enjoyed it:) And yeah, as I went through I kept having to pause for a rage moment. And the more I dig into the issue, the more I get angry.

  2. anna says:

    awesome post. troubling info, but great compiling. I’ve never seen so many photos of women’s behinds. so problematic.

  3. Jonquil says:

    Thank you for the catalog. This is awesome. I’ll be following links for awhile.

    I always hated those bikinis in beach volleyball, and the way that those fierce committed athletes had to tug at their bikini bottoms every time they got up from the sand. I had no idea that was a fricking rule. Consider me to have said every curse word I know.

  4. Delux says:

    “they will not get bulked up like those ugly female bodybuilders if they pick up some weights.”

    do *NOT* get me started on that hot mess. The utter terror so many women have of *any* weight lifting blows my mind.

    1. The Angry Black Woman says:

      I know, it makes me sad. I love weight lifting, even as my body aches, because I love seeing the changes in my body and how I feel stronger. Must get back to that today.

  5. shah8 says:

    Oh! Delux, let’s do get started! I hate that everytime any woman looks like she put in real effort in getting good at something, it’s always STEROIDS! STEROIDS! That MAGIC stuff gotta be the reason and dey MEN now!!1! The East German women’s sports teams always got accosted with that, but do we ever accuse the men? Well, they au naturele.

    Speaking of FloJo, it does seem like whoever breaks her sprinting records is going to have accomplished something of considerable sports merit.

  6. Chinaberry says:
    1. unusualmusic says:

      thank you!

  7. oldfeminist says:

    Tiny nitpick, you linked to an article about Babe Didrikson but wrote Erickson.

    I saw a made-for-TV movie about her in the seventies, I think, or I’d never even have known she existed. I note the description on ESPN of her time with Betty Dodd comes just short of saying they must have been Lezbos and crying about how Zaharias was no longer enough of an influence. I don’t really remember hearing about any male athletes that their wives are some kind of important influence on them, other than “believing in them” and probably praying.

    I didn’t know a lick about the Games of Hera, thanks for that, too!

    A possible additional topic you might already be thinking about is the way that sexual dimorphism in humans has contributed to the second-class position of women in society. If you can’t physically fight back, you’re at a disadvantage. Therefore, women with muscles (and women of size!) are a threat to that imbalance.

    1. unusualmusic says:

      Thanks for letting me know. And yeah, I did note the *ohmigod Lesbians* undertone, but I’m gonna address homophobia in a different post…sooo. And I think we need to revive her story, because I am so sick of seeing male sport movies! And when I think of how a normal sports broadcast digs into and mythologizes great male achievement, but women’s are left to rot in obscurity. It pisses me off so badly.

  8. Debbie Notkin says:

    We’re blogging this right now as part of our guest blogging gig on Feministe. Thanks for writing it!

    Just a note: You might want to correct “Mildred ‘Babe’ Erickson” to “Mildred ‘Babe’ Didriksen”

    1. unusualmusic says:

      Thank you! I really love these links!

  9. sunnyhello says:

    Thank you! I’ve been looking for a post exactly like this, and read it through saying Yes, Yes, Yes. After I read your post, my line of sight drifted to where I’ve posted the info sheet for my upcoming triathlon.

    It reads in part: “We are pleased to announce that one of the top professional female triathletes in the country, five time Ironman Champion, and full time mom of three – [name] will be the 2009 women’s triathlon professional triathlete.”

    Because we wouldn’t find her impressive enough without her maternal status?

  10. lowman says:

    Is it possible at all that the reason Bolt got so much more attention than his female counterparts is the same reason people prefer the NBA or NFL over the NCAA versions, prefer varsity over jv, prefer the Olympics over national championships? I.E., people watch sports in large part to see the absolute peak of human performance, which due to our physiological makeup generally comes from men, and unless you’ve got a rooting interest (that’s your kid on the jv team, you went to school there) the top performers are always going to be a bigger draw.

  11. somebody42 says:

    Great post! I’m very much looking forward to Part 2.

    @ Delux and ABW: Amen! I’m into weight lifting, too, but I’ve only heard negative comments from boyfriends who “wouldn’t find me as attractive” if I got much more muscular. My female friends are all into working out, including strength training. (I do live in the SF Bay Area.)

    …and I’d like to emphasize the “strength” part. Being stronger allows you to do more things more easily — yourself. Particularly when I lived in the South, I met men, especially those who were attracted to me, who didn’t want me to do things myself. They wanted me to ask men (i.e., them) to do things for me. I used to say I don’t understand why men find weakness and incompetence attractive in sexual partners, but I know why: They think my dependence would give them more control.

    1. littlem says:

      It never ceases to amaze me how much misinformation is not only disseminated, but sometimes it seems, actively encouraged, on the subject of women lifting weights.

      It also pisses me off when men hold “we won’t find you attractive anymore” over our heads as some sort of threat.

  12. cofax says:

    Oh, excellent post. It never ceases to amaze me that the only reason most people know about Babe Didrikson nowadays is because of the Katharine Hepburn movie, which didn’t begin to do her athleticism justice.

    (FYI, your Britner Griner link is borked.)

    lowman, your comment–that we naturally only want to watch the very best performers–would make sense only if we didn’t spend hours every spring watching college basketball, where few of the players are as good as professional players. Instead we’ve been trained to find female athletes less interesting for their athleticism than for their sexual attractiveness. This despite the fact that many objective viewers find women’s basketball (fr’instance) a better game than men’s, because it requires more technique and teamwork. Fewer dunks, more plays.

    1. unusualmusic says:

      thank you, for both dealing with lowman and telling me about the link (it never fails, at least one link will be borked, no matter how I check!) I’m glad you enjoyed the post! Re: Babe Didrickson..there was a movie?!?

      1. elsie says:

        i think she’s referring to the hepburn/tracy movie “pat and mike” where hepburn played a character modeled on didrickson.

  13. Melanie says:

    My husband was the parent who started taking our daughter to Cal women’s basketball games, not only because he thought the players would model strength and skill for her, but because he genuinely enjoys the game and finds the pro male players bombastic and overpaid. Ten years later, I have become a devout WBB fan who sees in these players, whatever their color, an echo of my own strong daughter, now an adult. The lingering anti-woman, anti-color bias in sports is stupid at best, toxic at worst, but websites like this one are a great antidote. Thanks and best wishes from Melanie in Berkeley.

  14. Ico says:

    Another link, which lowman’s comment got me thinking of. Here is a sport in which women outperform men (ski jumping), but guess what? It’s barred from the olympics! Men’s ski jumping, of course, is very much a part of the winter olympics:

    Well, I guess we wouldn’t want women to go trouncing the men now, would we…?

    1. unusualmusic says:


  15. faywray says:

    Great overview, thank you!
    This offers some more on women in MMA in a 3-part series called “Fighting for the Right to Fight”.

    1. unusualmusic says:

      In which I love you to death. Thank you!!!!!

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