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The Carletonian

The Femininity Olympics

The Olympics have reinvigorated both our national spirit and our discussions about mental health in elite athletics. Athletes such as Simone Biles and Naomi Osaka have recently stepped down from significant competitions for reasons related to mental health, initiating important conversations about the pressure athletes face both personally and professionally. Significant contributors to these pressures are those of body image and related eating disorders. 

Sports, particularly at such a high level, depend on optimal body performance. This increasingly includes not only one’s ability, but also one’s physical size, with leanness often touted as offering key competitive advantages. Sports such as figure skating, gymnastics and swimming, which also have a certain aesthetic component to them, place even greater pressure on their athletes. These examples are also individual sports, in which all of the attention is concentrated on one person, increasing the athlete’s feelings of exposure. Other sports that have weight limits—wrestling, boxing—also place significant importance on the details of an athlete’s body; being a certain weight has been inextricably linked with better performance. 

Gracie Gold, an elite level figure skater on the Olympic path, stopped competing in 2017 in order to focus on seeking treatment for her eating disorder. Once referred to as an “athletic Grace Kelly, [a famous American actress who starred in the 1950s and later became the Princess of Monaco]” she had double-sided popularity, resting on both her athletic ability and her appearance. 

In order to further understand the deep-rooted relationship between a woman’s appearance and her athletic performance, we have to revisit women’s history in the Olympics. From the beginning, women’s appearance played a large role, dictating even the sports in which they were allowed to compete. In their first Olympics in 1900, women were only allowed to participate in sports that corresponded with their so-called “femininity,” such as sailing and golf. Public campaigns emerged in the 1950s against women’s presences in the Olympics—the New York Times, for example, wrote that “there’s just nothing feminine or enchanting about a girl with beads of perspiration on her alabaster brow, the result of grotesque contortions in events totally unsuited to female architecture.”

Even today, as exemplified by Gracie Gold’s public comparison to Grace Kelly, femininity is still appealing to audiences, and this is even more  evident in the media attention female athletes receive. In 2004, when he was the President of FIFA, Sepp Blatter declared that women’s soccer could be made more popular if the women’s team wore tighter shorts and “promot[ed] a more female aesthetic.” In 2015, tennis player Eugenie Bouchard was asked to show off her outfit by Australian reporters. In 2014, the president of the Russian Tennis Federation labeled the Williams sisters as the “Williams brothers.” Emphasis on traditional femininity is also harmful to the body-image of trans and non-binary athletes competing on women’s teams. 

As long as both the media and the sports industry focus on the femininity of women’s bodies, eating disorders will continue to be a serious threat to female athletes. If the reception of one’s performance rests not only on one’s ability, but also on one’s image—an image that is also tightly attached to antiquated perceptions of women’s role in society—a mindset prevails that pressures female athletes to conform to an unrealistic body image. Ultimately, this poses a significant risk to the health of current and future generations of female athletes. 

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