Wimbledon ended last week on a thoroughly sexist note.
Not only did many major newspapers forget that it has not been 77 years since the tennis tournament had a British champion — it has been that long since a male British tennis player won but Virginia Wade won the singles title in 1977 — also BBC Radio 5 Live presenter John Inverdale had this to say as French player Marion Bartoli climbed into the stands to embrace her father:
“Do you think Bartoli’s dad told her when she was little, ‘You’re never going to be a looker, you’ll never be a [Maria] Sharapova, so you have to be scrappy and fight’?”
To be a female athlete in an age of instantly seeing photos of yourself (sweaty, hair mussed) plastered all across the internet is to find that, whatever your athletic ability (Olympic gold, MVP trophies from the WNBA) you will be reminded that yours is a female body and that people are looking at you and judging.
Like pregnant women, female athletes’ bodies are pretty much public property.
As the example of Russian tennis player Anna Kournikova has shown, big sponsorships, product endorsements, magazine covers and media attention tend to go to female athletes based not so much on their athletic ability as on their bodies.
Take track and field (and bobsled) athlete Lolo Jones and her performance at last summer’s Olympics as an example. While she twice won gold at the World Indoor Championships in 2008 and 2010, she did not win any Olympic medals (and was not considered a favorite) but still attracted plenty of attention because she appeared unclothed on magazine covers.
For woman athletes, certain kinds of “good looks” plus athletic ability can get you product endorsements. But if you’re a great athlete and “that’s all,” forget it.
To illustrate this, here’s a list of ten women who’ve had to endure such antiquated thinking:
1. American Gymnast Gabby Douglas
Douglas won two Olympic goal medals only to be criticized about her hair.
2. British Heptathlon Champion Jessica Ennis
Despite her record breaking Ennis has been criticized about her weight. Her response: “Everyone has their hang-ups, but I see my body as a training tool and I feel good about it.”
3. Australian Swimmer Leisel Jones
An eight-time Olympic medalist and one of the best swimmers in Australian history, Jones has also been criticized for her weight.
4. The Entire Brazilian Women’s Soccer Team
The team was told they were “heavy” looking by Enow Ngachu, the Cameroon coach (after the Brazilians had defeated his team 5-0).
5. South African Runner Caster Semenya
Despite her talent Semenya has been accused of having “ugly muscles” that make her “look like a man.”
6. Tennis Champion Serena Williams
Williams is currently ranked the number 1 women’s tennis player in the world. Still, “ Williams’ size, her muscles, and her derriere seem never to escape mention” and (what century is this?) some sports journalists have described her as “savage.”
7. Basketball Player Brittney Griner
Griner, the first openly gay athlete to sign with Nike, has faced some exceedingly cruel remarks about her appearance.
8. U.S. Olympic Weightlifter Sarah Robles
9. British Swimmer Rebecca Adlington
Adlington was forced to respond to some vile comments about her appearance by Scottish comedian Frankie Boyle by pointing out that, after a race, “My hair is wet, I’m bright red from racing and working hard.”
10. British weightlifter Zoe Smith
Finally, I’m left to wonder what are the people who make these kinds of comments thinking?
Photo of Marion Bartoli via Wikimedia Commons