Women Athletes: Choose Between Strong and Sexy

Laurie and Debbie say:

(Cross-posted to Feministe.)

Unusualmusic, blogging at The Angry Black Woman, has an excellent initial post on what we expect American women athletes to look like, and live like.

One of the great problems that women athletes face is the idea that women are heterosexual sex objects. And the beauty ideal for these sex objects is a thin shape, with a bit of a curvy shape, (but not too curvy, thats fat), and a distinct lack of muscles. So female athletes are by definition considered deviant. And the more strength and height that their sports require, the more un-feminine, and deviant they are considered.


Meanwhile, the blogosphere has been buzzing with the story of Caster Semenya, South African middle-distance runner who has been forced to take a gender test because her status as a female has been questions. (The International Olympic Committee doesn’t do gender tests any more. But the International Association of Athletics Federations (IAAF) still does.

Unusualmusic’s excellent post sheds a lot of light on the Semenya story.

Basically, there are two points being made “against” Semenya: first, doesn’t look female enough, and second, “her astoundingly quick performance” must be evidence of a lurking Y chromosome somewhere.

What they really mean is what unusualmusic is writing about: we like our women at least a little fragile, at least a little vulnerable. Being blue-eyed and blonde makes a big difference too. We encourage women to be fit and strong, but not too fit, or too strong. Go to the gym, preferably at least three times a week, but pick those workouts so they don’t give you “ugly muscles.” Take up that sport, but don’t get too good at it (we don’t like our women really competitive, either).

unusualmusic quotes from gltbq:

Perhaps the most deep-seated is the fear that women’s athletics might erode traditional femininity. The global sports world registered this concern at least three decades before the institution of sex testing and long before the Renee Richards case.

In the early 1930s, when Mildred “Babe” Didrikson, the greatest woman athlete of modern times, set world records in the woman’s 80-meter hurdles and javelin throw, reporters continually remarked on her masculine appearance, and the press focused on the Olympic medalist in a campaign to restore femininity to athletics.

LOS ANGELES, CA - 1932:  Mildred Babe Didrikson of the USA throws the javelin to win the gold medal during the Women's Track and Field javelin event at the 1932 Summer Olympic Games in Los Angeles, California.  Didrikson was one of the most versatile sportswomen in the world, winning fame at the 1932 Games where she took both the 80 meter hurdles and javelin titles, and finished second in the high jump.  Over a two year period, she continued to set world records in each event.  She was an All-American basketball player but her more lasting fame came when she took up golf and won the Women's Amateur title once and the US Open on three occasions, the third time in 1953 after fighting cancer from which she died in 1956.  (Photo by Getty Images)
(Photo by Getty Images)

The controversy finally ended when Didrikson married, started wearing dresses, and turned from competing in track, basketball, baseball, football, and boxing, to setting records in the more acceptably feminine world of golf.

Semenya’s situation is being treated like an isolated case, and a lot of attention is focused on how her fellow athletes react to her: “These kind of people should not run with us,” said Elisa Cusma, the Italian runner who finished 6th.

It’s easy to focus on the extreme cases and miss the trends. If you’re a successful woman in sports, and the press and the audience can accuse you of not being a woman, they will. But if they can’t find ground for that accusation, they’ll accuse you of not being womanly enough.

Women in day-to-day life face a lot of pressure to be the “right kind of women” (i.e., the ones men want). For celebrity women, the heat is turned up a lot … because, of course, celebrity women are the yardstick with which people measure the women they know, the yardstick by which the rules of sexiness, attractiveness, and appropriateness are determined.

unusualmusic’s article is loaded with links that underscore the point. A few women athletes fit into the “sexiness” box, but most of them don’t. Just as most of the rest of us don’t.

7 thoughts on “Women Athletes: Choose Between Strong and Sexy

  1. Related to this, I powerlift and a couple of months ago I sent off to Maximuscle for a catalogue of their sports nutrition products. I specifically put on my application that I lift and that I’m looking to increase muscle & strength.

    Guess what arrived in the post? A “Maxiwomen” catalogue, which was all about how to exercise without “bulking up”, how to tone & slim, and how to lose fat. There was even a section on getting “wedding fit” for your wedding dress!

    Apparently, even for sports nutrition companies, women aren’t allowed to want to be strong & muscly.

  2. We live in a world that has defined and limited itself – mostly, the exceptions do exist – into the following scenarios. First of all, there is an over arcing narrative that is a Heteronormative Binary Model…that is, that “normal” has become defined as Heterosexual exclusively, and that people only come in two forms…male or female.

    Having created these definitions, we then come to what I call the “gender boxes.” The word gender, although it is used interchangebly in popular usage for sex, as in “what sex are you?” on forms attempting to be politically correct, does not mean sex. It means traits. So we have two gender boxes…one is labeled “male”…the other is labeled “female”.

    In the male box, we have attributes like “strong” , “un-emotional”, “competant”, “Mathmatical”,
    “muscular” “non-verbal”, “sexually driven” “dominant” and on and on.
    In the female box, we have “weak”, “submissive”, “emotional” good verbal skills”
    “calculated incompetance”, “no math or scientific skills”, “homemaker”, “romance and relationship driven” and on and on.

    Ad infinitum, ad nauseum!

    A subset of the box is paradigms for dress and appearance. Women today have more leeway than women. In the past. During the First Wave Feminism and the Suffragettes Movement, there were laws that forbid women to wear mens clothing! Today, clothing is far more user freindly to women then in the late 1800’s – early 1900’s! And yet STILL, a woman in her childhood who exhibits masculine gender triats, and dresses masculine is refered to as a “tomboy” and expected to grow out of it. Most of them do. The older a girl becomes, the less socially acceptable a masculine presentation becomes. Peer pressure can become hell on earth for the teenage girl who is perceived as deviating from the unspoken rule. (been there, done that, have the scars, now well healed. And nope, I didn’t grow out of it either!)

    Men, on the other hand have NO leeway. None. We women may shop in the mens department and wear what we buy, without too much comment. Men who find wearing womens clothing pleasurable (and the transvestite/transgender ramifications are too long to go into here – I’m already running long!) do so at risk of life, limb, dignity and employment. Men who are gentle, sensitive, not mechanically inclined, etc face the stigma of being less then “real men” – which can be shattering to the male ego. If women are struggling to live up to photoshopped lies about weight and beauty, then men are equally damned by the image of lean 2% body fat muscularity that only a very few males genetically possess naturally. It is a secret shame and stigma that opresses men as profoundly as the opposite paradigm affect women. And since there is no allowence for variance for men, women who deviate signifigantly from the “box” become more and more scorned, the further they deviate.

    Now, never mind that all of this is insanely riduculous. That human beings come in all sizes, shapes, sexes (and no, that is not a clear cut thing.) and orientations with an equally vast diversity of traits. Never mind the Kinnsey scale – human gender, sex and orientation is so remarkabley complex that it is my belief that it is as unique to each person on earth – our special identity fingerprint, never duplicated exactly from soul to soul.

    But because of this Paradigm. this Schema, this fantasy if you will of devided Masculinity and Femenity that we have somehow inflicted on ourselves, great misyogyny, hate and injustice flows.

    From this implausable sociatal construct then comes the rejection of the strong woman. The athelete. The contending competitor. Because she does not fit the box. Because she abrogates to herself traits that should belong to the male. Because in being more than “female”, she now challenges masculinity…and there are indeed many men who could not meet her in the match, the ring, the track, the field.

    She is their worst nightmare – because if she is “more than”, then they become automatically “less then” and because of sociatal conditioning, our culture can see it no other way. And not just men towards women. Women can be worse oppresors than men, when we should support each other. To out run Caster Semenya, the other women on the field must equal her, must pass her, must lose their femeninity, and risk the scorn of men, the humiliation of testing, the brand of gender deviance. She appears “more then” – hence their cry of “No fair, foul!” as their own subconcious fears and self images are challenged.

    Divided against ourselves, how shall any of us stand?

    Someday, maybe, the achievements of any individual human may become the achievement of humanity as a whole…rather than a challenge to the paradigms that rule us all. May that day come soon…

  3. I hear you. I love to lift weights. Frequently when I was lifting and smaller than I am now, other women would frequently ask me, “Aren’t you afraid to get big? What if guys don’t like that?”

    Fortunately for me I’m with someone who thinks me being able to kick his ass is sexy. (Not that it happens, mind.)

  4. I was listening to a radio show the other day, and the amount of ignorance about gender is astounding. I hope that some people learn about the variety of humans from this controversy; but I heard a lot more unease with women as strong, and a lot of comments that women who look like her are ugly. That is such a shame. I wonder how many little girls are dissuaded from athletics due to being afraid to be too strong.

  5. Strong women like this really bring mysogeny and transphobia out.

    One of the things this has me thinking about is that “normalcy” is a hugh continuum and we live in a society that still wants to say “on one hand and the other hand”
    I wish we could recover from thinking in twos.

  6. I am honored that you thought my post worthy of inclusion on your blog. Thank you!

    I think I stumbled on this blog while I was researching, and I thoroughly enjoyed the postings and the idea behind them. I will be visiting a lot!

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