At this moment in time, there are no teen girl heroes greater than the members of the US women's gymnastics team. They are absolutely DOMINATING the Olympics but yet somehow commentators are saying that they look like they “might as well be standing in the middle of a mall.” Seriously?
These Olympics have seen ample coverage that looks critically at the language used to talk about women athletes. People are outraged that Katie Ledecky is the “female Michael Phelps,” Corey Codgell is the “wife of a Bears' lineman,” Katinka Hozzsu's husband is “the man responsible” for her success. In “She's old, for a woman” (LA Times, August 11, 2016), Julie Makinen takes a very sharp look at these comments including when a “presenter asked Angolan handball star Teresa "Ba" Almeida ...whether she preferred to get thinner or have a medal.” I mean, really.
Makinen cites a study by Cambridge University Press, “released as the Olympics opened, noting that 'language around women in sport focuses disproportionately on the appearance, clothes and personal lives of women, highlighting a greater emphasis on aesthetics over athletics.”
On That's What She Said, Sarah Spain examines the causes of these discrepancies in her conversation with Jess Weiner, noted authority on girls' confidence (and, among other things, one of the driving forces behind Barbie's new look, released earlier this year). Weiner says, “there is an incredible amount of embedded sexism in people's psyches and consciousness so when you hear a reporter get excited about something, what is going to come out first is going to be their implicit bias, their deeply held points of view that haven't been culturally challenged yet.” Spain continues, “the wider world is so predisposed to not being able to separate a woman from her sexuality.”
When commentators tie women to “their men,” or measure women's success in comparison to men, or – most painful of all – blatantly sexualize female athletes' bodies, they perpetuate a culture that devalues women's accomplishments, and reduces their bodies to objects.
So yes, there opportunities open to women today that my grandmothers didn't even dream about. I am grateful. And I am afraid our girls are paying a very high price for what seems like equality. First, we are still measuring women's success in men's terms – even in sports, when clearly women's bodies and men's bodies have different capabilities. Second, today, perhaps more than ever, women – young women and girls in particular – are being completely sexualized. We are taught that our self-worth is measured in our appearance; we are only important if we are hot. Not beautiful, but hot. The number of likes on girls' social media profiles – the quantifiable measure of their popularity – increases when they flaunt their sexuality. “Hot is a very narrow, commodified idea that tells girls over and over that how their bodies look to someone else matters more than how it feels to them,” says best selling author Peggy Orenstein.
And then we confuse girls by teaching them that self-objectification is a form of empowerment. You can dress skimpily and flaunt your body – if you want. It's your choice, and do it if it makes you feel good. But is it really their choice? Or are they falling prey to the one-two punch of desperately wanting to be accepted in culture that sexualizes them?
Remember Serena Williams' Sports Illustrated Sportsperson of the Year cover? Compare it to all the rest – no one else is posing as a sexual object, even though all have worship-worthy bodies. And when the cover was released in 2015, the press that immediately followed explained that the cover was her idea, to “express her own ideal of femininity, strength and power.” It's not just girls who are susceptible to this confusion. I admire Serena Williams beyond compare, and I ask openly – was it really her idea to pose that way? And if so, WHY?
And so these comments – even the ones that are not directly objectifying – not only degrade women in general and devalue the epic accomplishments of these women in particular, but do so in the context of and simultaneously perpetuate a culture of sexualization and disrespect. These comments stem from the same source that leads to behavior like that of Brock Turner, which we read about earlier this year in the horrific Stanford rape case. I wonder if we remember how to relate to a woman's body in a way that does not treat her as an object – to value her capacity to grow, birth and nourish life for starters – the source from which we all began. And furthermore, in the case of these athletes – to admire bodies that are so finely developed to achieve at world-class levels. So yes, when I look at Simone Biles, I do look at her body. I admire her athletic prowess. And I think she really sets a standard for girls today – what it means to LOVE our bodies and what they can do. And from there to grow the kind of confidence we all need, particularly in the face of a culture that teaches us that hot is valuable. Thank you to all of the women of these Olympics, for inspiring us all to be the best that we can be in whatever we choose to do – no matter what others may value about us.
photo courtesy of leanIn.org