How well we all remember London 2012. When a male commentator was horrified at the 'soft bodies' of women being hit in the boxing, or weightlifter Zoe Smith being told to 'go back to the kitchen' on Twitter. Or perhaps that the Japanese women's football team had to fly economy, while their male counterparts flew first class. But it's four years later, surely we would have learned our lessons?
Apparently not. While this Buzzfeed roundup of the differences in reporting between male and female athletes is funny, it is a painful reminder that, when it comes to sports, the gap is all too clearly identifiable. The fact that idiotic comments from the likes of John Inverdale are referred to as 'slips' is notable. It implies that he has momentarily forgotten that he is on TV and has certain standards to uphold, and is instead letting his true thoughts about female athletes bubble to the surface. As if it's normal, and expected. With amazing feats being achieved by female athletes, never is the massive gap between the actual achievements of women and their assumed role more wide. So am I disappointed? Yes, of course. But not surprised.
I witnessed it on a personal level, too. One of the most enjoyable sports this year for me was rugby 7s. I'm already a fan of the sport, and the fast-paced and fluid game that the reduced time and team numbers result in is incredibly entertaining. However, while watching the women play, I noticed a strange noise was being made whenever one of the players drove forward, or was subject to a rough tackle. The male equivalent I can only summarise as 'oof,' that sort of falling tone that signifies sympathy with the person being hit, or being impressed at the person who still keeps moving with one person attached to each leg. For the women, the equivalent was something like 'fff,' a sort of nervous giggle, denoting a clear level of discomfort when watching women engaging in a display of power and resilience. Perhaps it isn't surprising, considering the representations of female sports and athletics that come to us through advertising and other media.
Exercise is primarily seen as a method of weight loss, or perhaps social bonding. While this is admirable, it fails to reflect the fact that it is just as much training and strength. The work of Race for Life is outstanding, but the adverts for it, with frilly skirts and deeliboppers, don't exactly encourage a view of women as athletic. Fundamentally, the pursuit of exercise is equated not with strength or skill, but with your bum looking nice in a dress, or your stomach looking flat in a bikini. While it's massively unflattering to female sports players, its also incredibly unhelpful. Visiting an exercise class or going for a swim with the sole outcome being that you will then 'deserve' a glass of wine later is a dreadful form of motivation, and one unlikely to lead to a healthy body image or diet. Personally, it was only when my running goals started to revolve around speed and distance, rather than calories consumed, did it start to have a real impact on my lifestyle. Now, even if I have a wobble in my legs, I'm massively proud of the distances I can run, and am pleased in the knowledge that my body is healthy and strong, irrespective of whether or not I can wear a bodycon dress.
At the other end of the scale, we have male advertising and representation that reinforces the idea that men need to be strong and capable (oh how lovely it is when one of them cries, how sensitive and unmanly) and also look good in small shorts. For those who call bullshit to the feminists for claiming that only women are held up to impossible standards of physical perfection and accepted ideas of 'beauty,' the difference is not that it happens to both women and men, but that, for women, it's often the only existing representation of them. Of course men are exposed to a similarly skewed idea of body image, but at least there is a plethora of other roles for them, whereas women are reduced to their bodies, or the men they associate with.
At least, this time, it feels like the reporters and commentators are being called out for their comments, and quickly ridiculed. These ideas should be considered absurd, and it is high time we insist on a media that offers us a equal representation of the world around us.
So what is to be done? Here are a few fun suggestions to try out with your friends.
1. Changing language. Yes, I will insist on this one. Language is power, and it is often used to reinforce subjugated groups. If 'gay' is objectionable when used in a disparaging way, why should 'girl' be any different? Insisting on positive and negative language that steers well clear of gender is a good start.
2. Complain more. Companies need the public in order to make money. Newspapers and magazines need advertising to make money. Tweet, share, write an email, do something to highlight that you are not happy about a brand associating with a message. Use your consumer power for good!
3. Stop buying stuff. I refuse to buy products that lean on lazy stereotypes to brand their products. If they're not creative enough to think of a less sexist way of promoting their products in the twenty-first century, they're not getting my money.
4. Be tough/support the tough. Women - don't accept the reduction of other people. About you, or others. Men - celebrate toughness. The size of the woman's thighs speeding round the velodrome is amazing.
Here's to 2020 being the first year we celebrate our athletes in a truly equal sense.
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