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Vancouver 2010: Why do I see women Olympians in their swimsuits?

By March 1, 2010 15 Comments

I cringe every year when Sports Illustrated releases its swimsuit edition—it’s page after page of half-naked women in a sports magazine that rarely features females otherwise. So, in early February, when this perennial athletic publication decided to include women winter Olympians in this particular edition, there was no lack of sexism. The women athletes, like all the other models, are photographed in overly sexualized positions and in skimpy swimsuits (even though they’re not swimmers).

Four American women in the 2010 Winter Olympics—snowboarders Claire Bidez and Hannah Teter and skiers Lindsey Vonn and Lacy Schnoor—appear in the Sports Illustrated Swimsuit Edition. In doing so, the women seem to be showing off their hot bods for a male audience that already values women’s sports less than men’s. These talented women have dozens of reasons to be admired, and none of them should have to do with their physiques in bikinis.

Check out these photos of Vonn, Bidez, and Schnoor and really think about what these images are saying about women athletes to a readership that is dominantly male.

Notice how the women’s sports equipment is secondary. Vonn is in bed, wrapped around her ski jacket—in a swimsuit. Bidez walks in the snow with her boots, snowboard and even goggles—in a swimsuit. With her skis strategically crossing in between her legs and donned in a bikini, Schnoor seems to be saying, “Yes, this is my body, which you can ogle. Oh, these skis? I use them for winning medals. But really, check out these legs!” What are these images telling male readers? And what are they telling young girls who look up to these Olympians?

As a young woman who has been athletic her whole life, I hate that female athletes live in a world where the message is that you may make it to the Olympics, and you may be one of the best athletes on this planet, and you’ll get tons of press for your accomplishments, but you probably should still go ahead and pose in a bathing suit. Then you’ll be legitimate. Even one of my best male friends, someone who is perfectly conscious of media inequality between the genders, exclaimed, “Wow, Hannah Teter is hot!” as I was talking about writing this blog. “See?!” I exclaimed back. “You only comment on her looks! That’s the only thing you equate her with!”

Days before the special swimsuit issue was released, skier and medalist Lindsay Vonn was featured on a February SI cover. Awesome, right? Well, here’s the image:

Lindsay Vonn's SI cover

What position is she in? Even though this may be a common ski position, does it look like she’s actually moving? And what images of males are you used to seeing on SI covers, and how does this one differ? Dr. Nicole LaVoi, who studies the roles of women in sports, told the Vancouver Sun, “When females are featured on the cover of SI, they are more likely than not to be in sexualized poses and not in action.” Over the last 60 years, LaVoi pointed out, only four percent of SI covers have showcased women.

Tryce Czyczynska of the San Diego News Network recently wrote in an article,

In her shot, Vonn is displayed with more than a models’ full make-up, yet on the slopes in skis and gear. The angle of her stance and the mountainous skyline suggests motion, while her falling forward hair remains impeccably groomed and studio ready. Even her lipstick suggests soirees instead of snow, and her smoky eyes bait the cameraman for more than a high-five for her skill in sports.

After decades of these images, on the cover or on the inside pages, it’s clear that Sports Illustrated values women athletes not for their contributions to sports but for their physiques, and it continues to perpetuate the idea of women as inferior athletes.

Women have a hard enough time as it is getting the respect they deserve from men who prefer to watch men’s basketball, men’s hockey, men’s snowboarding. Why, when a woman is featured in a sports magazine, must she be in her bikini?

What are your thoughts? Have you seen other overly sexualized images of women Olympians during the winter games? What publications or programs have praised women athletes? Leave your thoughts in the comments.