What we learned from the Olympics’ coverage of female athletes

This year’s Olympics in London provided some notable victories for women. It was the first Olympics where there were female athletes from all participating countries. And as always, the Olympics put strong, capable women in the spotlight. In a media landscape where female celebrities are often reported on for their fashion, hair style, or fluctuating weight, during the Olympics journalists flock to write about women’s capabilities and successes, which is a welcome change.

Unfortunately, Olympics reporting doesn’t always focus on athletic skill. Instead, the women who get the most focus tend to be the most conventionally attractive. Before the Olympics, weightlifter Sarah Robles was living on $400 a week because she couldn’t get a sponsorship. Sarah is the strongest woman in the world, but presumably because she doesn’t conform to a thin body ideal, no one wanted to sponsor her trip to the Olympics.

Gabby Douglas became the first African-American woman to ever win a gold medal in the all-around in gymnastics, but a lot of people seemed to care more about her appearance, from her hair style down to her pink leotard.

And the dialogue about women’s appearances didn’t end there. NBC had to pull their “Bodies in Motion” video from their web site after intense criticism that the bodies tended to be female, and the women portrayed as sex objects. While the video was theoretically intended to celebrate the athletic feats the human body is capable of, as Yahoo!Sports put it: “It celebrated the fact that women contort their bodies into provocative positions in field hockey and the high jump. It celebrated the fact that tennis players’ skirts blow up in the wind and hurdlers have to take their track pants off before a race.”

Women’s bodies are often seen as a distraction—or a lure—for sports where women are scantily clad. One of my favorite pieces of reporting to come out of the Olympics is this article imagining a world where every sport is photographed like beach volleyball. Male bums in baggy basketball shorts and swimmers’ crotches in Speedos follow.

In a similar vein, Deadspin ran an article discussing the way the gymnastics world uses the word “artistic” as code for a certain desirable body type. That is, although artistry and grace are a legitimate part of gymnastics (as well as my personal favorite Olympic sport, figure skating, which uses a lot of the same vocabulary), these labels are usually only applied to gymnasts with lithe, willowy shapes. Thinner girls are more frequently called “artistic” even when their movements show no special grace, simply because they’re considered more aesthetically appealing.

All this to say that in the Olympics, where all that should matter is what a woman’s body can do, the focus is too frequently still on appearance. I enjoyed the 2012 Olympics as much as any other year, but it’s discouraging to see the same old double standards, objectification, and body scrutiny dragged out time and time again. If women’s bodies are conventionally sexy, they’re fetishized; if they’re not, they’re criticized or ignored. If someone can win an Olympic medal, who cares? Progress was made this Olympics with the participation of so many female athletes. I can only hope that progress continues to be made, and that we can look forward to less-biased reporting in 2014.

Magdalena Newhouse is a senior at Oberlin College, where she teaches a class on body positivity and fat acceptance.

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