This topic is slightly unusual for me, as I don’t usually follow sports nor am I a die-hard fan of any particular sport. However, 2015 has been a great year for women in sport – so far! At the weekend, we saw Serena Williams win Wimbledon while Sania Mirza become the first Indian woman to win Wimbledon in doubles and FIFA Women’s World Cup received considerable media attention while it took place in Canada.
It was truly inspiring to listen to the news and read articles online about women’s achievements in sporting events, their journeys, successes, failures and dreams. I was particularly drawn to their ideas of how they hoped that their actions would inspire more girls and young women to take up some kind of sport in the future.
According to Sport England, it is estimated only 5% of sports media coverage is for women’s sport and that women’s sport receives 0.5% of all commercial sponsorship. With these damning figures in mind, it is incredibly important that we keep female athletes in the public eye because they provide perspective. The kind of perspective that they provide is crucial, because they question and shake up traditional ideas of how we define concepts such as ‘femininity’ ‘beauty’ and who/what is considered to be ‘beautiful.’
“The human body is the best work of art.” ~ Jess C. Scott
But then it all went downhill, as it unfortunately tends to these days, when numerous body shamers came out of the woodwork and began making snide comments about Serena Williams’ skin colour, biceps and ‘mould-breaking muscular’ physique. It was so disheartening because it undermined every single positive thing that I had heard about female athletes and it felt as though we had not made any progress.
These comments, as callous and cruel as they were, made me think about the current representations that we have of the female form and why physically strong, muscular women are consistently undermined and devalued. The earliest image and memory that I have of muscular women, dates back to the kind of films I used to watch as a child. These ranged from conventional Disney films to extremely old, black and white cinema – it was in one of these old films that I first saw a muscular woman on screen. She had been cast as a member of the circus playing the ‘Strong Woman’ and was depicted as a menacing, angry background character that the young, handsome male protagonist would never fall in love with. I believe that some of the stigma, surrounding muscular woman today, stems from this idea that no one in their right mind would love a woman with muscles. This is obviously not true, but it somehow became a widely agreed concept, as women were then encouraged to pursue sports that were ‘designed for women’ such as ring toss and cheer leading. As a result of this, most women only ever strived to have a body/physique that was sexually desirable, elegant and had poise. Any body shape or attitude which went against this mould was either stamped out, reprimanded or isolated until the said individual had ‘come to her senses.’
“WHEN did creating a flawless facade become a more vital goal than learning to love a person…” ~ Ellen Hopkins
With this in mind, it’s no wonder that many girls (including myself) who grew up as ‘tom-boys’ and participated in sports at school were looked upon with disdain and made to feel ashamed of ourselves. If we are subconsciously telling young girls that it is more important to look sexually desirable and ‘feminine’ than be physically strong and healthy, why are we then surprised to see so few young girls and women take up competitive sports? And in addition, why are we gobsmacked to see and hear nasty comments made about female athletes who do not conform to our collective idea of ‘beauty and ‘femininity?’
Having said that, there are a number of body positive social media campaigns popping up to challenge our ideas of ‘beauty’ and being ‘feminine.’ They include This Girl Can, Strong is Sexy, Less is More and others such as ESPN’s latest body positive campaign which shows the human body in all of its glory while highlighting how strong it can become. These campaigns are already starting to inspire women; whenever I go to the gym to train it fills me with delight when I see another woman or a young girl join me in the weights area or attend a barbell class.
It gives me a lot of hope to see that we are, slowly but surely, beginning to question the images of ‘beauty’ ‘femininity’ and ‘masculinity’ that we see on a daily basis. There are thousands who are trying to find role models, images and lifestyles of women that are attainable, positive and realistic in our modern world. If we can Photoshop a human being’s body into one that doesn’t even belong to them, surely we can use those same tools to highlight and celebrate the variety of bodies that we see on a daily basis. And I’d like to finish with the eternal words of Margaret Atwood: ‘Nolite te bastardes carborundorum.’