August 11, 2008

Olympics and body politics

Posted in body politics, double standards, sports at 12:08 pm by LB

So the Olympics have begun, and the games are a great way to observe various gender issues and sport. For one, we see very clearly the hard-to-explain gender difference in beach volleyball attire, men in basketball-like uniforms and women in bathing suits. But in the majority of sports, event attire is similar for women and men, and according to what’s suitable for the athletic activity.

It’s also so nice to be able to watch women’s games reported in a more professional manner (although later this week I’ll try to discuss the gender difference in editorializing the athletes), focusing on their athletic and academic achievements.

But Friday’s “Creep Show” article in the NY Times, while making some valid points, was author Buzz Bissinger’s paternalistic take on young women’s athletics and seemed to reflect more his own discomfort with developing young women in the spotlight. As such, I think it speaks to some of the unease with female sexuality in-progress as well as normative ideas about what makes female bodies female.

1. Bissinger displays an inability to comprehend a body as feminine if it is not hourglass-shaped. He says,

In fact I can’t think of any competition in the Olympics, or all of SportsWorld, more creepy and disturbing: these largely shapeless girls in their leotards and flaxen-waxen hair and bouncy-wouncy ponytails. “They look like girls from the neck up,” I was told by Joan Ryan, whose 1995 book, “Little Girls in Pretty Boxes,” blew a sky-high lid off the sadomasochistic training regimens that young female gymnasts were being subjected to. She continued: “From the neck down they look like prepubescent boys.”

Shapeless? Are muscles not a kind of “shape”? Oh that’s right, he means “feminine” shape-ever-so-slightly fleshy curves: hips, breasts, tiny waists, soft and supple (not strong) thighs, and the like. This is a modern expectation of the female body, which we know very few women, athletic or not, to actually possess. And he denies femininity to their bodies based on this modern conception. Ideal bodies and bodies in fact have always been in part a function of wealth. Very quickly, “Rubenesque” women (named after the Renaissance painter of such women, Peter Paul Rubens) were ideal in the past because food was scarce and a woman being fleshy meant she could actually afford to eat. Same with the fair skin “ideal”: not only is it racist, but also meant that the family was wealthy enough that she did not have to work outside or leave her house and therefore be tanned by the sun. In the same light, muscles would not be ideally feminine because which women were muscular? The peasants working outside doing physical labor.

So to call these young women/girls’ bodies like “prepubescent boys” takes a very narrow and privileged view of what a female body looks like, and insults women who don’t have sufficient curves as “creepy” and “disturbing.” Curiously, the body shape most like a lot of these athletes-“rectangular”- is what 46% of American women have (see above link). At its core, it gives into binary thought: that a female body in absence of shapely breasts and hourglass body shape is by default boyish. It also assumes that the female body takes 2 forms: prepubescent boy (a.k.a. girl), and curvy, sexualized adult woman. Can’t these 16 year-olds just be the in-between, developing 16 year-olds that they are? Why do we insist that teenagers are either formless not-girls or fully developed and physically and emotionally matured sexually available women? And this is a cultural question: as The Lolita Effect author suggests, why do we not recognize the developing female body and person? And why is the “lack” of femininity in the gymnasts‘ bodies so problematic, whereas the lack of curves in, say the volleyballers, basketball players, or swimmers are not? Just guessing, but is that because the 1st are scantily scad, the 2nd are “mannish lesbians,” and the 3rd in their one-piece uniforms, swim caps, and goggles are gender-ambiguous anyway, while gymnasts are supposed to be the pinnacle of athletic femininity? In this way, doesn’t the author succumb to the same assumptions he’s trying to write against?

Perhaps these questions also suggest something more radical: that male and female (athletic) bodies are potentially more the same than we give them credit for, that bodies’ differentiation into muscular men and curvy women are more cultural than natural. I mean seriously, do male athletes look anything like everyday guys walking around? And considering how few women (despite what Hollywood leads us to believe) actually have the “feminine” hourglass figure, I would argue that perhaps athletic bodies, male and female, and non-athletic bodies, male and female, actually have more in common with each other than each sex does within itself “in general.”

The recent questioning of the female Chinese gymnasts’ age buys into a similar idea. The NY Times reports,

The smallest of the six competitors is Deng Linlin, 4 feet 6 inches and 68 pounds. The team’s average size is 4-9 and 77 pounds. That is 3 ½ shorter and nearly 30 pounds lighter than the average for the United States team. Shawn Johnson, a favorite in the all-around, is the only American gymnast both shorter than 5 feet (4-9) and lighter than 100 pounds (90).

“This is a joke,” [Bela] Karolyi said last week. “We are people who have had children of our own, so we know what a 16-year-old should look like.”

Really? What a 16-year old should look like? Geez, American representations of 16-year olds look like 22 year-old club chicks these days, so I’m not sure judging an athletic and ethnic body by what a “generic” (read: white, American) 16 year-old “ought to” is particularly wise. Enrico Casella, the coach of the Italian women’s team, argued the point well:

“By looks, you could say that the United States is using doping,” Casella said. “They are so muscular. My gymnasts in Italy aren’t that big. You begin to wonder how they got that way.”

2. Bissington is absolutely right about the eating disorders and excessive dieting involved in gymnastics, that training begins at a young age, that training is rigorous, that Olympic gymnasts are young, and that gymnastic training takes a toll on the body. This is all true. But Bissinger seems to only take issue with these manifestations as they occur in gymnastics, and women’s gymnastics at that. I would venture that most Olympic athletes began training of some sort at a young age, and considering how much more we encourage athleticism in young boys than in young girls, it is likely that boys could in fact start later and still be successful.

About age he says,

[…] in order to qualify, girls must have been born in 1992 or earlier. In other words, basically 16. Not that 16 is particularly old of course. It is still young, too young perhaps to compete in the Olympics where female bodies are still being formed not just physically but psychologically. But that’s the way it is in women’s gymnastics — in your prime in your teens until such nettlesome realities as puberty and weight gain often render you washed-up and useless.

Bissington neglects the following:

  • All athletes, not just female ones, have to be at least 16 and that there are 16 year-old-male and female-competing in other sports. He seems to imply that 16 is too young for female athletes, but says nothing about young male athletes or about young female athletes in other sports. Are women too physically and psychologically immature but men aren’t? (this year, there are, for example, only 1 male swimmer under 20, but in 2000, there were 7). It is true, however, that the members of the men’s team are all significantly older-between 23 and 29, however, an article suggest this is more a matter of physiology:

Male gymnasts are often older than their female counterparts, however, since the men’s events require strength that is sometimes difficult to develop until after puberty.

If anything, this suggests that it would be men who are physically “immature” at age 16.

  • He states that the reason why gymnasts “must” be young is because of the pesky onset of puberty. Puberty has nothing to do with it. The average age of menarche in the U.S. is between age 12 and 13, and strenuous athletic activity in general actually postpones the onset of menarche since a certain amount of body fat is needed to menstruate. Many ultra-thin models suspend menstruation for the same reason. Female gymnasts’ bodies tend to “catch up” to themselves later on and typically when their training alleviates. But this is not unique to gymnasts by any means.

3. Bissington also critiques the early age that female gymnasts being their training. Interestingly, if you take a look at the men’s gymnastic team, they all began gymnastics by age 7 and 2 out of the 7 members began by age 3. Gymnastics is just as rigorous and physically demanding for men. Further, as the article suggests, gymnastics seems to be the quintessential female Olympic sport, and gymnastics, like ballet, is often something parents sign young girls up for as an “acceptably female” hobby. Such gendered stereotyping is by no means good, but it in part explains why women begin training at an early age and are able to reach Olympic-level athletic activity.  Most gymnasts seem to compete in 2 Olympics: one at age 16-18, and the next at 20-22. This year seems to have mostly 16-20 year-olds. Athletes in many other sports, such as swimming, seem to be able to compete for several Olympics, making the age range in other games more broad.

But should we not have female gymnasts compete at their prime by virtue of their age and the sport’s difficulty?  Bissinger sure seems to have no problem with teens competing in “less demanding” more age-friendly sports. I have no doubt that there are body issues in women’s gymnastics, like there are in dance–especially ballet–and sexual inappropriateness by gymnastic coaches, just like in society as a whole, but does this really make gymnastics problematic?

4. I find Bissinger’s “gymnastics is so demanding, gruelling and injury-ridden that we must protect ‘our’ delicate young women!” additionally disgusting. If anything, this is where the “creepiness” lies–in his own paternalistic attitude.  Never mind that male gymnast Justin Spring “blew his knee out” in the Nationals as the Olympic commentators stated, only to have reconstructive surgery and come back to be on the Olympic team.  His injury and recovery was praised by the commentators as courageous! persevering!  an athletic feat!  Yet for Bissinger, it’s our precious little feminine-girl athletes that need to be protected from the big, bad world of athletic activity and yes, pain.

And his critique that all we see is their success and not the hardships is utter crap.  I mean, do we ever readily admit to what it takes to achieve superior levels of achievement in anything? Do models and actresses talk about their strict diet, cosmetic, and exercise regiments? Do businesspeople focus on their years of 70-hour work weeks? I mean, isn’t part of success in America maintaining the fiscade of ease?

Ultimately, I find Bissinger’s whole approach to be problematic and sexist, both in his approach to feminine appearance and in his paternalism, not to mention his overall double-standards for “feminine” gymnasts vs. female athletes doing other, “masculine” sports.


  1. professor what if said,

    Excellent post! Wish this was in the NY Times instead of the Biss’s piece… Just tonight was talking with my kids who were ‘grossed out’ by men’s speedos in tonight’s diving, but didn’t bat an eyelash at women’s suits — I asked them why of course and they sheepishly conceded they need to sharpen their feminist lenses! Unfortunately, at 9 and 11 they are accustomed to seeing near naked women all the time due to our popular culture’s ubiquitous objectification of females, but rarely does pop culture show near naked men…

  2. Quentin said,

    Thank you for this insightful analysis.

    I especially like the part about how age of initial training is influenced by gender stereotyping.

    As for uniforms, I know it’s old news, but the Australian basketball uniform is an interesting topic in this discussion of femininity. Slightly off topic, but over the last year or so, it seems like they’ve further tried to present their basketball players as femininely as possible to garner more attention…,8659,21037640-23769,00.html,23739,23558539-421,00.html

    “While basketball has traditionally struggled to create a profile on Australia’s sporting landscape, Phillips’ lingerie shoot is set to help put the Opals on the map.

    “Any publicity for basketball is good publicity,” Basketball Australia spokesman Ben Hawes said last night.

    “We don’t think they’re too raunchy. There are a lot of other girls in other sports doing similar things.””

    The “everyone else is doing it” defense doesn’t quite work for me…

  3. lindabeth said,

    Thanks for the links Quentin.

    The “everybody’s doing it” doesn’t work for me either. Neither does “sex sells” or “any publicity is good publicity.” Especially regarding the latter, such publicity doesn’t help female athletes get taken seriously as athletes in an world that already doesn’t take them seriously.

    This is why it’s kind of different than men doing “the same” thing (which really isn’t the “same” anyway): male athletes already have the respect, the viewership, their name known as first and foremost an athlete. When they’re good, they don’t need to fight for press coverage, interviews, or endorsements. They get paid a lot more. They are not continually denigrated as “feminine” and “unattractive” (that even sounds so odd). Thus any provocative photo spreads of male athletes (which are few in the U.S., thank you homophobia) are really a secondary representation of them, are not done out of a struggle to get attention, and are not because their value as a gendered individual is continually under fire.

  4. Noticed said,

    I’ve been disappointed with the softball page on NBC (I watch the games online). There are interviews with the players on the topic of “Motherhood” (are there any of these for men on fatherhood?), and way too many non-softball-related photos for my taste.

    If I wanted to see the athletes in ball gowns I would turn on an award show. I didn’t expect to see so much fluff on the Olympics page. I know they try to personalize the athletes’ stories, but I wish they would do this footage of the women on the field and topics related to the game.

  5. lindabeth said,

    Yes, Noticed, the overemphasis on female athletes’ families has bothered me too. I’m planning on writing about that later in the week, and I’ll be sure to check out the NBC softball coverage to include as well.

  6. Noticed said,

    Great, I look forward to your take. The softball page for the Olympics has an interesting article about the attention Jennie Finch (pitcher) receives for her looks. It talks about how she has received offers to do shoots for the men’s mag circuit. She turns them all down but doesn’t judge the women athletes who do them.

    Interesting that money isn’t mentioned in this article, nor others I’ve seen on the topic of glamorizing women’s sports. I think money is a huge part of the issue that people aren’t talking about enough. For example, the women’s water polo team is dominant, but they make peanuts because they have no endorsements.

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