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10 Awesome Female Athletes and the Sexism they’ve Endured

10 Awesome Female Athletes and the Sexism they’ve Endured

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

Robles has written about the discrimination she’s faced about her body in the media on Pretty Strong, her blog.


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

Smith was once told she was the “fat cow” of weightlifting, among other choice remarks.


Finally, I’m left to wonder what are the people who make these kinds of comments thinking?


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Photo of Marion Bartoli via Wikimedia Commons

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11:50PM PST on Dec 18, 2013

In my humble opinion, perhaps female tennis players should wear longer, less revealing, dresses. Did female players of previous generations not wear more modest skirts?

11:14AM PDT on Jul 16, 2013

Just have to say I've enjoyed reading the fantastic comments from the women here. Makes me proud to be a woman.

11:32AM PDT on Jul 14, 2013


11:44AM PDT on Jul 13, 2013

If you're a beauty queen you're likely to be put down for being pretty, but not very bright. If you're a female athlete who isn't a super model, then you're not beautiful enough.
There's a certain kind of man who will hold both of these opinions at the same time.
I think Steve I might be one of these men.
I wonder if there's a reason he doesn't have a photo. Maybe he's just not a good looking boy.

10:22AM PDT on Jul 13, 2013


4:24AM PDT on Jul 13, 2013

When can all lives be treated as they should be?

11:32PM PDT on Jul 12, 2013

I have never been an athlete, but it's hard to get through life without these lopsided judgments affecting you. I was lucky enough to be cute when I was younger and while tending bar I had to endure endless comments about my appearance. Even though they were mostly positive, they still made me uncomfortable. I finally told one objectionable guy that he bought the liquor in the glass, but not the right to comment on my body type and, indeed, had not even the right to drink that liquor if I saw fit to tell him to leave. Voila, one quiet drinker...
I think we have the right to tell these goobers to go jump in the lake, after which we should grade them!

6:00PM PDT on Jul 12, 2013

screw this sexist society

5:07PM PDT on Jul 12, 2013

I'm amazed that any female athletes exist- or any females in any fields typically dominated by men. After 6000 years of men selecting and legislating for female weakness it's just incredible that human females can do anything other than cook, do house work or breed. Of course women use their looks to get ahead if they can! What else are we allowed to use? Certainly not our brains or other natural abilities. Imagine if human females were treated equally in all aspects of their lives. I have a feeling we'd find out in just a few generations that women are the stronger of the two sexes and fully capable of trouncing any male in their height-weight category.

1:00PM PDT on Jul 12, 2013

Steve I. -- while there is a hint of 'truth' to your comment, even that faint breeze of reality fails to hide your toubled, mysogonistic brain.

Yes, men and women BOTH spend time maximizing their appearance to their chosen tastes. That in no way means that they (MEN or WOMEN) expect to be judged in that manner as workers in the workplace, as members of a family, as citizens in public, or as athletes in the sports world.

So, what you attempt to make excuses for is called a "meritless" society -- not one based on business acumen, or other smarts and hard work, but one instead based on physical appearance. And if you are saying that you fall for this socio-cultuaral malignancy just because women wish to appear attractive, then you have no more brains than the squirrels that populate my backyard.

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