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Wednesday
Jan222014

Being female and successful, the double fault for an athlete

By Jo Harrison, AnyBody/Endangered Bodies UK activist Edited by Sharon Haywood

How are girls going to achieve or enjoy sport, movement or most importantly their bodies, if their potential role models are being savaged on social media, mocked in the press and disrespected or treated idiotically by commentators?

There is some kind of twisted logic at play here, and forgive me if I play devil’s advocate for a bit. Apparently there’s an obesity crisis in town, accompanying it there’s a hefty enough portion of steaming bile to be shared equally amongst everyone who ‘appears’ to be creeping above an ‘acceptable’ BMI, because obviously just looking at someone is a reliable way to assess their place on the discredited assessment scale (but that’s a whole other blog).

Women especially are judged harshly about their appearance, their weight in particular. This cultural attitude accounts for shouts in the street of ‘fat cow’ and ‘try a f*cking salad luv’ to unsolicited and earnest concern from colleagues ‘my sister’s just done this new weight loss plan, she looks great, do you want the details?’ to hateful bullying (online and off) of teens by their peers, which sometimes has fatal consequences. So one could be forgiven for thinking that our culture really values health and fitness*, despite having a really, really funny way of showing it.

So, when women excel and achieve in sport, we can again be forgiven for thinking that a culture which has misguided, unpleasant or hate-filled things to say about what is considered to be excess flesh, would be ecstatic that women are upping their metabolisms by running, jumping, kicking and hitting balls with rackets and bats and things…but no. While for the most part (straight, white) male athletes get accolades, female athletes get abuse about their appearance hurled at them on social media, as World Champion gymnast and Olympic medallist Beth Tweddle was subjected to on Tuesday morning, they receive disrespectful comments from established commentators and irrelevant questions about who’d they’d like to date.

But let’s face it, the problem isn’t whether women are fat or thin, still or moving, ‘beautiful’ or ‘ugly’—the problem is a toxic mixture of the following:

A sense of entitlement over women’s bodies, that women’s bodies exist for everyone but the women who them. Never mind that she should act as she sees fit within it; the truth is, thanks to our culture of sexual objectification and aggressive/insidious marketing techniques, many people feel they can pass judgment over a body that is not theirs, forgetting there is a person within it.

The stifling beauty ideals stuffed down the throats of us all about what a woman must look like, which incidentally is also making us sick. If a woman diverges from the ideal of the slim, white (but preferably tanned), blonde, large-breasted western aesthetic and dares to achieve things, this clearly makes a lot of people very uncomfortable—uncomfortable enough to hurl abuse. If she does conform and achieve, there's still every chance she'll receive abuse; this is not a win-win situation for anyone.

The very real backlash against the idea that women can be equal in our society, particularly within a male-dominated arena such as sport. Considering that Tweddle is British it’s interesting: in the UK we’re very proud of our sporting history and our (largely underfunded compared to men’s teams) women’s sport teams do really well, so if we celebrated them more readily, we’d have lots more reason to party!

And lastly, but certainly not least, the bizarre way that many, many people think it is acceptable to behave aggressively on social media, as if it were not part of the real world and so are not accountable for their words or actions. We’ve seen in horrifying detail the ways in which ‘trolls’ will attack women online who are promoting equality.

We’re basically sickened by the disrespect and abuse that women, who are doing nothing more controversial than excelling at what they are paid to do, have had to put up with. I have lots of friends with young children, and I want all of them, regardless of their gender, to see a wealth of opportunity in their futures, and feel they can explore their potential for achievement and enjoyment by trying all manner of things. We shouldn’t have to explain to them that they will have to learn to deal with abuse just to engage in something they love because they don’t fit a narrow stereotype. This is not something we should tolerate.

If you are on Twitter or Facebook, please join us in sharing the hashtag #respectsportswomen to show solidarity and support for female athletes everywhere. We need to change this conversation, we need to band together, support each other and enjoy doing it. We can all be role models by just refusing to accept this treatment of women, speaking out about it and telling those we admire how fantastic we think they are.

#respectsportswomen

Since launching our Twitter campaign yesterday morning, GirlGuiding UK, the YWCA Scotland, Miss Representation, The Clare Balding Show and the No More Page Three campaign among others have publicly shown their support by sharing our hashtag. Will you join us?

*Health and weight are separate issues, maintaining healthy behaviours is more important that maintaining a certain number on a scale – please see this TED talk for more info. 

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