Female Olympians fight back against shamers and haters

Zoe Smith, British weightlifter and hero to feminists everywhere

Much has been made about the presence of female athletes at the London Olympics, with some commentators going so far as to call these the Women’s Games.  And it’s true – audiences who have watched the Olympics have been treated to the sight of all kinds of women from all around the world doing things with their bodies most of us can only dream of.

Yet seeing all of these bad-ass female athletes doing amazing things doesn’t seem to be enough to change the way many people see women, which is that we are valued first and foremost for the way we look. The things we actually do…not so much.

Everything about the athletes – hair, clothes, faces, bodies – has come under scrutiny by everyone from anonymous “high-ranking officials” to the amateur asshats who make up an alarmingly large percentage of the people on Twitter.  Even Conan O’Brien Tweeted a fat joke at U.S. weightlifter Holley Mangold. (Oh, Conan, how could you?) It’s enough to make me wish we could institute a basic human-decency test before giving people access to the internet; everyone who fails should be forced to go scribble their inane ramblings on cave walls with twigs and leave the rest of us alone.

Take the onslaught of criticism faced by female athletes over their faces and bodies. An article on Yahoo! Sports summarized the way many athletes are reacting to public criticism of their bodies:

[Holley] Mangold, 22, who competed in the women’s 75 kilogram-plus division, is one of growing number of women athletes speaking out at their frustration with the public scrutiny of their body size and image rather than their fitness and skills…At the 2012 Olympics, a list of top female athletes have hit back at critics who have called them fat including British heptathlon champion Jessica Ennis, Australian swimmer Liesel Jones, and the Brazilian women’s soccer team.

All of this presumes, of course, that “fat” is the worst thing a woman could be.

Some of them are hearing about how they are too muscular and hence unfuckable.  A quick perusal of the #weightlifting tag on Twitter yesterday revealed more than a few dudes who felt perfectly comfortable describing the negative effect women weightlifters had on their dongs, as if a) anyone actually cares and b) it’s some kind of rare accomplishment to inspire a boner.

British weightlifter Zoe Smith heard her share of this nonsense and fired back with a great response that quickly went viral:

What makes them think that we even WANT them to find us attractive? If you do, thanks very much, we’re flattered. But if you don’t, why do you really need to voice this opinion in the first place, and what makes you think we actually give a toss that you, personally, do not find us attractive? What do you want us to do? Shall we stop weightlifting, amend our diet in order to completely get rid of our ‘manly’ muscles, and become housewives in the sheer hope that one day you will look more favourably upon us and we might actually have a shot with you?!

British swimmer Rebecca Adlington took a break from Twitter after she was harassed by a so-called comic who insulted her appearance, while elsewhere on Twitter, people were using the r-word to describe American swimmer Allison Schmitt.

Then there was the flap over American gymnast Gabby Douglas’s hair, which some women thought was not polished enough for her moment in the global spotlight.  Less attention was paid to the fact that many of her fellow gymnasts were also criticized for their so-called “slop knots.”

And of course, we have the unending debates over the clothes the women wear when competing.  Some uniforms are criticized for being too revealing (hey, beach volleyball!) while others have heard they are not feminine enough (hi there, boxing!)  The inclusion of women from predominantly Muslim countries brought a whole new dimension to the debates after governing bodies banned hijab during competition, then eased those bans.  Even so, wearing hijab wasn’t enough for some Saudi critics, who took to Twitter to call the female Muslim athletes “Olympic whores.”

This is just what has caught the media’s attention by virtue of it having happened online and on Twitter, where the world’s inanity is not only captured for posterity but then broadcast to the entire world.  It doesn’t include all of the conversations that happen off-line about the way the female athletes look.  (A particularly memorable one I overheard involved criticizing swimmers who wear their hair long and blonde.  Because…?  I still don’t know why.)

The message is obvious: what matters to much of the world is not what we can do but how we look, and how we look is never, ever good enough.

If everything I see and hear is any indication, women and girls have gotten the message.  Sometimes I am overwhelmed by the sheer number of women and girls I know who hate their appearances, but the reality is that it’s a completely understandable reaction to living in a culture where nothing about a woman’s appearance is considered off-limits, where every part of the face she presents to the public is considered fair game for critique.  When women who are practically superhuman are subjected to this kind of treatment, one can only wonder what chance there would be for any of the rest of us to escape unscathed.

But just because people are critical, it doesn’t mean what they say is true or valid.  It doesn’t mean that they are right. And most importantly, it doesn’t mean we have to take their bullshit seriously.  It’s so important that I think it bears repeating:  Just because someone says something shitty about your appearance, it doesn’t mean they are right.  It just  means they are an asshole.

Take Douglas’s response when she heard that people on the Internet were giving her shit for her hair:

 “I’m like, ‘I just made history and people are focused on my hair?’ It can be bald or short, it doesn’t matter about (my) hair.”

Or Irish boxer Katie Taylor’s statement about the boxing skirt nonsense:

“I don’t even wear miniskirts on a night out, so I definitely won’t be wearing miniskirts in the ring.”

Swimmer Melanie Schlanger stuck up for her teammate, Leisel Jones:

“I’m embarrassed by the Aussie media having a go at Leisel, one of Australia’s greatest Olympians. Support athletes don’t drag them down.”

And of course, did you read Zoe Smith’s blog post?  I’m going to link to it again, just because it is so damn good.  It ought to be required reading for everyone.

The Olympics may have provided us with a global exhibition of some seriously retrograde ideas about athletes and femininity, but they have also provided us with something even more important, and that’s the sight of female athletes fighting back.

25 responses to “Female Olympians fight back against shamers and haters

  1. Another great article! It was fantastic watching the female competitors over the weekend, I spent most of it marvelling at their achievements.

    Also, looking forward to seeing Katie Taylor absolutely hammer her way through the semis into the finals. Just cos women’s boxing is amazing!

  2. It really is ridiculous. I’ve heard comments about how much makeup the gymnastic women wear, how little the beach volleyball women wear, and how anorexic some of the sprinters look. How sad to work so hard and have your appearance become more important than your achievements.

  3. Impressive research there. Wow. Lots of haters out there but fortunately there’s more lovers. I may do a rebuttal later as I heard a podcast related to this.

    • I’d love to read it! I agree there’s a lot of lovers out there too, which makes all the hating seem even smaller and pettier in comparison.

  4. Zoe Smith’s response was perfect. She gets it so clearly. I hope she reached some people with that post and the response it’s gotten.

  5. Reblogged this on Health +50 and commented:
    Go female olympians! I’m going to make another post with my thoughts regarding female weight lifters and my own experience with being a lifter and how attractive I am perceived. This one however, is beautiful and brings attention to all of the stupid body shame that female athletes face.

  6. i don’t pay attention to the olympics for so many reasons so i’m glad i read your article, you make some great points. i vote for the feminist olympics…

  7. But let’s not think about the rampant objectification of men in these Games, eh? Because then that would leave your argument in tatters. Not because sexism doesn’t exist, but it exists everywhere and is directed at everyone.

    Personally, I had to leave the office twice last week while other women went gooey over Tom Daley and cyclists thighs.

    • While I think you have a point about the objectification of male Olympians, I don’t see how you’ve reduced my argument to tatters. My point is that female Olympians have been facing an onslaught of criticism about their bodies – and I’m not just talking about the “OMG HOT” that the male Olympians have been getting – and that they are fighting back. I didn’t mention the objectification of male athletes because, hey, that’s not what this post is about!

      Also, I am not sure I consider people commenting on the sexual attractiveness of other people – no matter their gender – to be automatically sexist. There are ways to say “hey that person is hot” without reducing that person to an object.

  8. Sometimes I think there’s so much to be cross about that I don’t know where to start.

    I’ve made my feelings clear on the issue of sexist attitudes toward female athletes on the excellent “It was against her better judgement” blog – http://itwasagainstherbetterjudgment.blogspot.co.uk/2012/08/in-which-andrew-brown-writes-sexist.html

    This was the year we saw a Saudi female athlete compete in the judo, when every participating country had female athletes competing, we saw the introduction of women’s boxing, and Team GB women’s rowers and cyclists showing they can win gold too.

    And so on, and so on.

    I get annoyed by the objectification of male and female athletes – the phwaor thing misses the point of all the hard work (mental and physical) they have to endure to get where they are.

    But I get angered and offended by the attempts to belittle the achievements of women athletes (individually and collectively) by drawing comparisons with out-dated, irrelevant and unhealthy sexist ideals.

    I’ve got two sons. Their experience of seeing the Olympics on TV has been one of lots of GB successes, lots of women athletes to look up to, oh… and a guy with no legs competing alongside able-bodied athletes.

    That’s the world I want them to inherit.

    Maybe I see the world differently though. My wife is the one with the full-time job and I’m the one that works from home and does the whole children/domestic responsibility thing. I think I’m lucky, frankly. I get to spend time with my kids, and I don’t feel the need to make myself feel more macho by slagging off high-achieving women.

    Like I said… so much to be cross about. 🙂

    • Thank you so much for sharing that post! I saw that “article” and was appalled. The man had no actual argument, just that it made him feel weird. I was surprised that it was given actual space on the website of a legit news outlet. I mean, I have lots of thoughts and feelings, too, but I don’t share them unless I think they might be relevant and of interest to other people.

      Anyway, I completely agree with your entire comment. Thanks again for sharing it.

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  16. Love this article! It’s true that athletes do come in different sizes. It is just ridiculous that women and especially world class athletes aren’t valued on what they can do but what they look like and can do sexually for men.

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