This story was originally published in the November 2021 Sexual Health and Safety issue of The DN.
Female athletes continue to be objectified in sports in 2021, and this behavior is harmful, institutionalized and needs to stop.
National and international athletic competitions are supposed to be a time for celebration of athleticism, but are still plagued by sexism. This behavior, particularly the critiquing of women’s bodies, is long overdue to be removed from the sphere of athletic contests. Instead, it is unfortunately more prevalent than ever.
Two recent events drive this point home.
At the European Handball Federation Beach Handball Euro 2021 tournament, Norway’s women’s beach handball team wore bikini bottoms for a majority of the tournament. However, the team switched into shorts for its final match, which was received positively by the crowd. The team was subsequently fined by the EHF for “wearing athletic shorts instead of bikini bottoms in a bronze-medal match against Spain after officials deemed the shorts to be ‘improper clothing,’” according to Global News.
I am a cross country and track athlete at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln, so reading about this event made me deeply sympathetic with these athletes. For one, I found it extremely offensive and sexist that these women were punished for not wearing something revealing and that the EHF then called normal athletic shorts “improper clothing.” What's more, the top two individuals in power of the EHF who were in charge of the fines are older white men. There is clearly something that needs to be changed within the scope of women’s athletics.
Fortunately, thanks to mounting public outrage and pressure from female athletes and coaches, the EHF updated its rules so that women will no longer be required to play in bikini bottoms.
Another instance where female athletes pushed against the sexist status quo at the international level was at the 2020 Tokyo Olympics. Similar to Norway’s handball team, Germany’s women's gymnastics team protested their uniforms.
Instead of wearing the usual bikini-cut leotards, the German athletes wore unitards that went to their ankles to “push back against sexualization of women in gymnastics,” according to the Associated Press. Unlike with the handball federation, this decision was met with praise by gymnastics officials, indicating a hopeful change in gymnastics.
In competition, the focus should be on female athletes' athleticism, not their femininity.
However, the objectification and sexualization of women doesn't stop with their appearance during competition. Media portrayal of female athletes has contributed to female objectification as well. An article by Inquiries Journal puts this well, saying that, “unlike male athletes, female athletes do not have the luxury of being primarily portrayed as performance athletes.”
Female athletes’ looks and sex appeal are often prioritized, putting the “female” part first and the “athlete” part second. Some women embrace these photos of their bodies as a symbol of empowerment, such as United States Women’s National Soccer Team forward Megan Rapinoe did for an issue of Sports Illustrated.
Nonetheless, even in the instance that female athletes are comfortable in their bodies, as Rapinoe is, the effects of sexualization and objectification for female athletes is still far more harmful than helpful.
An article published by New York University explains this as “objectification theory,” which suggests that “constant exposure to sexually objectifying experiences and images socializes women to internalize society’s perspective of the female body as their own primary view of their physical selves.”
Furthermore, the article explains that this self-objectification caused by sexual objectification has proven to produce negative mental health outcomes such as depression, anxiety, disordered eating and reduced productivity in female athletes. In addition, the media's portrayal of feminine beauty contributes significantly to psychological consequences such as body shame.
When I read about this concept it made sense, because I have experienced it myself. As can be expected, I follow a lot of female athletes’ careers, mostly professional runners but other sports too, which means that I do sometimes see these over-sexualized bodies. Consequently, I often find myself comparing my own body to theirs, despite being fully aware that I am at a very different level than them, and that photos are sometimes edited to accentuate certain features.
So while I can’t speak for my fellow teammates, I have experienced this idea of “self objectification” and can almost guarantee that I am not the only one on this campus who experiences it. In fact, people need to realize that it's an issue that people of all levels deal with, not just college or professional athletes.
Fortunately, more and more women are speaking out about the objectification of female athletes, such as the Norwegian handball and German women’s gymnastic teams, but these are just two examples and ones at the highest level of their respective sports. While it’s great that international organizations are changing their policies for uniforms, there must be a similar change at all levels of sport.
There is no one right answer for how to enact this change, but the first step is acknowledging that it exists, even if it doesn't directly affect you. I, thankfully, do not have any personal experiences with being objectified and therefore can’t speak for those who have experienced it firsthand. Still, female athletes similar to myself haven’t had the luxury I’ve had, and spreading awareness can put this issue directly in the public’s eye. I hope to reach as many people as possible so that more people become aware of it, too.
Furthermore, I also don’t think that this topic is talked about at UNL enough either. While the athletic department is very supportive of its athletes and I would feel comfortable approaching someone after a negative situation concerning objectification, it is still vital to talk about. As frequently as it occurs, I believe it can be beneficial to not only make female student-athletes aware of the issue but also to provide a space for student-athletes who have experienced objectification to speak about their experience.
Times are changing for the better with regards to how female athletes are perceived, but the sexist nature of sports will not go away easily. To get there, athletes along with the public must continue to call out leaders who do not have athletes' best and genuine interest at heart.
At the end of the day, sports are about athleticism, performance, competition and community — not a person’s body. Female athletes are just as much athletes as their male counterparts, and should be treated as such.