In the last decade we’ve seen several athletes’ womanhood brought into question in the spotlight of the media. Due to the gender segregation of athletics, sport governing bodies have a vested interest to ensure that women are in fact women. But men aren’t tested to see if they’re male? Their hormones aren’t analyzed to see if they are too feminine to compete as males. The testing of females androgen levels in women’s sports is simply the expression of societal fears of athleticism challenging traditional femininity and gender roles.
Currently trending in modern media is the representation of female athletes in a sexual manner to a greater extent than male athletes. This draws attention away from their determination or athleticism to remind readers or viewers that the athlete is still a woman. #CoverTheAthlete is a recent cause that is highlighting the discrepancy between male and female athlete media portrayals, highlighting the ridiculousness of some of the questions that female athletes are asked. The contrast is provided by asking the same questions that female athletes were asked to male athletes. The movement is hoping to shift the focus away from gender role loaded questioning to coverage that is more representative and respectful of the work that female athletes have put into their sports. The #CovertheAthlete campaign is encouraging people to reach out to their media outlets and demand that they focus on more relevant topics than the gender of the athletes covered.
The realization of the sexualization of female athletes should also be invoked against athletic photoshoots or covers as well as well. In photoshoots female athletes are more often shown in sexually provocative poses or minimal sporting equipment than their male counterparts. If a women strays from the media emphasized values, she may have less chances at sponsorship or coverage. Men are portrayed as powerful and dominant, flexing or competing in their sport. Women are rarely shown in their competitive attire, more often in bathing suits, dresses or minimal covering.
Worse still are the instances where an athlete’s success combined with their appearance can bring about an investigation into that woman’s eligibility to compete with other women, as was seen in Caster Semenya’s case. A competitor, Elisa Cusma was quoted as saying, “these kind of people should not run with us. For me, she is not a woman. She’s a man”(Kimmel). It’s thought that Caster’s large margin of victory combined with her impressive musculature brought about an IAAF investigation into her sex. This focus on feminine traits and appearances creates an institutionalized pressure for competitive female athletes to conform to certain modes of dress, appearances or attitudes.
Semenya in her contested win at the 2009 Berlin World Athletics championships.
This interest in athletes femininity is irrelevant to their sport and creates societal pressures on athletes that distract them from their sport. Hopefully campaigns like #covertheathlete raise public awareness and lead to popular media shifting their representations of female athletes.
Kimmel M. The bigotry of the binary: the case of Caster Semenya, 2009. http://www.huffingtonpost.com/michael-kimmel/the-bigotry-of-thebinary_b_267572.html (accessed 22 Nov 2015).