A Look at the Importance of Physical Attractiveness for Women Athletes

I recently have noticed that media and socialization often pressure women into looking a particular way, to be feminine and sexual. I know you see it to, the advertisements of half naked skinny and attractive women are plastered almost everywhere. We come to view these women as the norm and often strive to become them; these pressures placed on women are particularly noticeable in sports.

Of course to be a successful athlete, one has to be good at the sport. But the line stops here for men, and often women are the ones that are subject to being pressured to not only be good at the sport, but to look attractive while doing it.

Take for example an incident at Wimbledon 2013. A headline in The Telegraph read, “BBC apologise for John Inverdale’s ‘Bartoli not a looker’ comment”. Marion Bartoli won her first grand slam title with a straight set victory, but instead of being admired for her victory, she was mocked for her appearance. Inverdale continued to criticize her looks, and branded her as ‘manly’. For the full article, click here. And for Inverdale’s BBC Radio comments, watch below.

In society, there is enormous pressure on female athletes to be attractive. Comments made to Bartoli based on how she was not considered hot enough proves that these same views carry over into sport with the pressure on women’s appearance to meet a certain standard. We can understand this as a double standard, which is pressure to be good at the sport, and pressure to be good looking.

Why is this a concern? Well, do we see a lot of media where men are made fun of for their appearances? The answer is there are very little, if not any media that cover these topics. Instead men are admired for their skill at the sport. Men do not face the same pressures that society places on women athletes; this ultimately creates disadvantages in sports based on access, equality, and fairness. Roger Federer, a successful tennis player, can play the sport and be admired for his victory, while Bartoli can do the same but instead mocked for her appearance. This creates insecurities for women wanting to participate but may stray from doing so because they know they can be subject to the same kind of ridicule.

This issue in sports not only is within the sport itself, but with matters around sport. Many philosophers deal with issues of equality and fairness in sport. For example, sex testing is one of these subtopics that are discussed by Katrina Karkazis and her colleagues in this paper here, where verification of gender to participate in a sport is typically bestowed upon women, and where those that are questioned are done so first and foremost on their looks.

Karkazis and her colleagues discuss how for the longest time cultural tensions between athleticism and femininity have been managed by strong encouragement “for individuals to have markers to emphasize their femininity (Karkazis et al. 7). These tensions reveal the anxieties people face for the need for women to look a certain way. Sport is one way where women are pressured to appear feminine and sexy, often using clothing reinforce this. Question: are men forced to wear overly masculine outfits to enhance their masculinity?

We see male swimmers in speedos, football players in tight pants, or men with long hair, and never question if they are female. We admire male athletes for their victory rather then their looks. However, we put women in tight shorts and sport bras in beach volleyball, or want women boxers to wear skirts to emphasize that they are female. When women athletes deviate from feminine standards, they are subject to scrutiny and mockery because of societies anxieties around femininity. To read more on tensions with athleticism, feminism, and athletic clothing, go to page 94 here for Amanda Schweinbez’s article “’Float Like a Butterfly, Sting Like a Bee’- But Only If You Dress like One”.

Caster Semenya, a female Olympic athlete, can further illustrate the issue of the double standard in sport. Caster Semenya’s victory along with her outward signs of gender “that many read as ‘masculine’ raised suspicion about her sex” (Karkazis et al. 6). She was subject to brutal sex testing to confirm her sex, not only because of her successful win, but because she did not wear makeup, was muscular, and had other masculine traits. She was discriminated and tested solely because of her physical appearance. Her win quickly made her subject to months of scrutinizing her body. We see here both victory in the sport and pressure to conform to the socially acceptable standards of femininity would have meant Semenya not being up for questioning.

In the same ways that Semenya’s victory brought her sex up for questioning because of her appearance, Bartoli’s was too through the comments of her looks. Do we see men being made fun of for similar things? Do they have the same sort of pressure that society puts on them? Hardly do we see men being tested thinking they are females. This too puts immense pressure on female athletes to perform their gender when they know they may have to submit to sex testin, which creates barriers for participation in the sport for women. For example, women athletes that know they may be subject to sex testing might choose not to participate in the sport, whereas male athletes more often then not do not have to deal with this kind of question when choosing to participate. Sex testing primarily on women only reinforces the gender policing of women athlete’s appearance, and reinforces the pressure society places on women’s looks.

The point is that we need to praise men and women in sport for their victories and accomplishments rather then their appearance. Women are facing different challenges in sport then men by being pressured to conform to feminine standards and being ridiculed for deviate appearances. This is applicable in all of society, where women everyday are expected to adhere to certain female norms. The need for equality in sports can be gained by looking past appearance to ensure both men and women can participate in sports equally.


Duffin, Claire and Sawer Patrick. “Wimbledon 2013: BBC apologise for John Inverdale’s ‘Bartoli not a looker’ comment”. Telegraph. Telegraph Media Group Limited. 6 July 2013. Web. http://www.telegraph.co.uk/sport/tennis/wimbledon/10164511/Wimbledon-2013-BBC-apologise-for-John-Inverdales-Bartoli-not-a-looker-comment.html

Karkazis, Katrina, Rebecca Jordan-Young, Georgiann Davis, and Silvia Camporesi. “Out of Bounds? A Critique of the New Policies on Hyperandrogenism in Elite Female Athletes” The American Journal of Bioethics. 12:7, 3-16. 2012. Print

Schweinbez, Amanda. “’Float Like a Butterfly, Sting Like a Bee’—But Only if You Dress Like a Girl: An Analysis of the Feminization of Female Olympic Athletes through Athletic Attire” in Problems, Possibilities, Promising Practices: Critical Dialogues on the Olympic and Paralympic Games. International Centre for Olympic Studies: London, Ontario. 2012. 94-98. Web. http://regnet.anu.edu.au/sites/default/files/2012_International_Symposium_For_Olympic_Studies._Proceedings.pdf

newstimeworld. “John Inverdale Says Wimbledon Champ Marion Bartoli Will Never Be A Looker”. Online video clip. Youtube. Youtube. 8 July 2013. Web. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=_c_oxL0kTzI