For female athletes being talented, determined, and hardworking isn’t always enough.
Whether we choose to admit it or not, ‘the unfortunate importance of beauty’ is alive and well.
At all levels of the game, female athlete’s outward appearances are observed and cast judgement upon in some way or another.
In the case of the world’s top athletes, a price to pay for their success is regular surveillance and feedback from those watching.
Male and female athletes will both experience sexual objectification in their lifetimes. But the sexualization of female athletes uniquely undermines the legitimacy of female athleticism and female sports, unlike their male counterparts.
The sexual objectification of women involves them being viewed primarily as an object of male sexual desire, rather than as a whole person.
The sexualization of female athletes specifically concerns the matter of valuing their attractiveness above all other characteristics, particularly their athleticism.
The sexualization of female athletes has far-reaching impacts.
The socialization of young girls is critical to how they’ll view themselves as an athlete and what they’ll strive for. It ultimately impacts their success and futures in ways many won’t immediately recognize.
Young female athletes are socialized to believe that they must maintain beauty while also pursuing their athletic dream, this shapes their development as an athlete and can alter their level of training.
The sexualization of top athletes can result in greater coverage and admiration for female athletes of higher levels of ‘attractiveness’. As a result of their eye-catching good looks, society often places these female athletes in higher regard and deems them athletically superior to others of the same level.
Most concerning is that this objectification uses a female’s athleticism against them to further enforce unfair beauty standards.
As a female athlete, the physical pressure is two-fold.
One must be in peak physical condition for their sport while also maintaining society’s perceived conditions for beauty.
This paradox has resulted in some of the top female athletes of our time still being torn down for looking ‘too muscular’. As if a Golden Slam win was not enough.
Consequently, many female athletes, of all levels, compromise their game to avoid gaining muscle and “looking too manly”.
Women just can’t win, and when they do, they are shamed for not looking right while doing it.
Female Olympians have previously been called fat and too out of shape to compete without even acknowledging her accomplished medal-winning record.
Questioning an athlete’s fitness or preparedness has never been out of bounds, but for female athletes their “preparedness” is often judged through the lens of the sexuality and beauty requirement placed on them by society.
Meanwhile, male athletes are given adoring nicknames and catchphrases (“dad bod”) for their less than toned figures, and not once questioned on their ability to compete.
The double standard is all too evident here as male athlete’s figures change and no one speculates if they’ve “lost it”.
As Kavitha A. Davidson notes, for male athlete’s their attractiveness does not impede our perception of their athleticism, as it does for women.
Additionally, a male athlete’s attractiveness has an incredibly lesser impact on their financial gains as an athlete, than a female’s does.
Since typical ways of earning through athleticism and talent do not exist for women as they do for men, top female athletes must often wager their beauty and sex appeal in hopes of becoming more marketable.
Competing in sports should not revolve around someone’s appearance, it should focus on their unique talent and determination. But this will not change until our socialization does.
One way of instilling these ideals into our society is through the visual representation of our top athletes. Another is how we tangibly and intangibly reward certain behaviours. We need to address and change the language we use when discussing or admiring female athletes.
It all ends when people are informed of how social norms can be harmful; it ends when people begin to instigate change for the better.
It’s a slow process, one that requires a steady pace and the motivation to do what must be done to reach that end goal of equality.