Much has been made about the presence of female athletes at the London Olympics, with some commentators going so far as to call these the Women’s Games. And it’s true – audiences who have watched the Olympics have been treated to the sight of all kinds of women from all around the world doing things with their bodies most of us can only dream of.
Yet seeing all of these bad-ass female athletes doing amazing things doesn’t seem to be enough to change the way many people see women, which is that we are valued first and foremost for the way we look. The things we actually do…not so much.
Everything about the athletes – hair, clothes, faces, bodies – has come under scrutiny by everyone from anonymous “high-ranking officials” to the amateur asshats who make up an alarmingly large percentage of the people on Twitter. Even Conan O’Brien Tweeted a fat joke at U.S. weightlifter Holley Mangold. (Oh, Conan, how could you?) It’s enough to make me wish we could institute a basic human-decency test before giving people access to the internet; everyone who fails should be forced to go scribble their inane ramblings on cave walls with twigs and leave the rest of us alone.
Take the onslaught of criticism faced by female athletes over their faces and bodies. An article on Yahoo! Sports summarized the way many athletes are reacting to public criticism of their bodies:
[Holley] Mangold, 22, who competed in the women’s 75 kilogram-plus division, is one of growing number of women athletes speaking out at their frustration with the public scrutiny of their body size and image rather than their fitness and skills…At the 2012 Olympics, a list of top female athletes have hit back at critics who have called them fat including British heptathlon champion Jessica Ennis, Australian swimmer Liesel Jones, and the Brazilian women’s soccer team.
All of this presumes, of course, that “fat” is the worst thing a woman could be.
Some of them are hearing about how they are too muscular and hence unfuckable. A quick perusal of the #weightlifting tag on Twitter yesterday revealed more than a few dudes who felt perfectly comfortable describing the negative effect women weightlifters had on their dongs, as if a) anyone actually cares and b) it’s some kind of rare accomplishment to inspire a boner.
British weightlifter Zoe Smith heard her share of this nonsense and fired back with a great response that quickly went viral:
What makes them think that we even WANT them to find us attractive? If you do, thanks very much, we’re flattered. But if you don’t, why do you really need to voice this opinion in the first place, and what makes you think we actually give a toss that you, personally, do not find us attractive? What do you want us to do? Shall we stop weightlifting, amend our diet in order to completely get rid of our ‘manly’ muscles, and become housewives in the sheer hope that one day you will look more favourably upon us and we might actually have a shot with you?!
British swimmer Rebecca Adlington took a break from Twitter after she was harassed by a so-called comic who insulted her appearance, while elsewhere on Twitter, people were using the r-word to describe American swimmer Allison Schmitt.
Then there was the flap over American gymnast Gabby Douglas’s hair, which some women thought was not polished enough for her moment in the global spotlight. Less attention was paid to the fact that many of her fellow gymnasts were also criticized for their so-called “slop knots.”
And of course, we have the unending debates over the clothes the women wear when competing. Some uniforms are criticized for being too revealing (hey, beach volleyball!) while others have heard they are not feminine enough (hi there, boxing!) The inclusion of women from predominantly Muslim countries brought a whole new dimension to the debates after governing bodies banned hijab during competition, then eased those bans. Even so, wearing hijab wasn’t enough for some Saudi critics, who took to Twitter to call the female Muslim athletes “Olympic whores.”
This is just what has caught the media’s attention by virtue of it having happened online and on Twitter, where the world’s inanity is not only captured for posterity but then broadcast to the entire world. It doesn’t include all of the conversations that happen off-line about the way the female athletes look. (A particularly memorable one I overheard involved criticizing swimmers who wear their hair long and blonde. Because…? I still don’t know why.)
The message is obvious: what matters to much of the world is not what we can do but how we look, and how we look is never, ever good enough.
If everything I see and hear is any indication, women and girls have gotten the message. Sometimes I am overwhelmed by the sheer number of women and girls I know who hate their appearances, but the reality is that it’s a completely understandable reaction to living in a culture where nothing about a woman’s appearance is considered off-limits, where every part of the face she presents to the public is considered fair game for critique. When women who are practically superhuman are subjected to this kind of treatment, one can only wonder what chance there would be for any of the rest of us to escape unscathed.
But just because people are critical, it doesn’t mean what they say is true or valid. It doesn’t mean that they are right. And most importantly, it doesn’t mean we have to take their bullshit seriously. It’s so important that I think it bears repeating: Just because someone says something shitty about your appearance, it doesn’t mean they are right. It just means they are an asshole.
Take Douglas’s response when she heard that people on the Internet were giving her shit for her hair:
“I’m like, ‘I just made history and people are focused on my hair?’ It can be bald or short, it doesn’t matter about (my) hair.”
“I don’t even wear miniskirts on a night out, so I definitely won’t be wearing miniskirts in the ring.”
Swimmer Melanie Schlanger stuck up for her teammate, Leisel Jones:
“I’m embarrassed by the Aussie media having a go at Leisel, one of Australia’s greatest Olympians. Support athletes don’t drag them down.”
And of course, did you read Zoe Smith’s blog post? I’m going to link to it again, just because it is so damn good. It ought to be required reading for everyone.
The Olympics may have provided us with a global exhibition of some seriously retrograde ideas about athletes and femininity, but they have also provided us with something even more important, and that’s the sight of female athletes fighting back.