Commentators, journalists and athletes alike are all talking about what a great year 2012 was for women in sports. More female U.S. Olympians went to London than men. For the first time, every nation in attendance allowed women to compete. And a record 80,000+ people turned out to watch the gold-medal women’s soccer match at Wembley Stadium.
Yes, it’s been a banner year for women at the Olympics, but that doesn’t mean it was a perfect year.
Misty May and Kerri Walsh answered more questions about their attire than their strategy. Some felt that the women’s bikinis were too sexy, while others were outraged by the possibility that the chilly London weather might force them to cover up. Because three gold medals and hundreds of career wins aside, why these ladies wore bikinis to play beach volleyball should be at the top of the discussion list.
Gabby Douglas won all-around gold in women’s gymnastics and faced a lot of commentary about whether she was properly caring for her hair. Not being a black woman, I’ll step aside and let an expert explain all of the reasons why this faux-controversy was totally stupid.
Leisel Jones, an Australian swimmer attending her fourth Olympic games, was openly criticized by media who said her fitness wasn’t up to par before she’d even swum a race because she looked “chunky” in her swimsuit. A Sydney newspaper even launched a poll asking if she should be allowed to compete due to her belly fat, nevermind her eight Olympic medals.
Of course, Jones wasn’t the only female athlete subjected to body snark. Female weightlifter Sarah Robles took quite a beating despite the fact that she can lift more than twice her weight, and has a personal story that proves she has more inner strength and tenacity than any Victoria’s Secret model could muster.
Aside from the public discussions, I was unimpressed with how some of my colleagues and acquaintances talked about female Olympians. From comments about the bodies of the girls on the U.S. Women’s Water Polo team, to discussions about which Olympian they’d rather sleep with, and open speculation about the sexuality of any female athlete with short hair, I’ve been biting my tongue A LOT over the past two weeks. And while most of us can agree that this kind of commentary is unsportsmanlike conduct, not all of the disempowering quips about our female athletes are so overt.
During synchronized diving, the 200m sprint and the floor exercise final, female athletes who came in second, third or missed the podium completely were often referred to as “bridesmaids.” I know that it’s an expression, but it upsets me because it subtly reinforces the antiquated notion that getting married is the preeminent accomplishment of a woman’s life.
We say that we want America’s young women to look at our female Olympians and feel pride. We tell them that these women are proof that they can accomplish their goals and pursue their dreams both on and off the field. And then, we turn around and reduce our athlete’s personal disappointments to a cliche: “always a bridesmaid, never a bride.” Because hard work, luck and talent aside, lingering gender stereotypes allow female second place finishers to be dismissed as bridesmaids while their male counterparts are validated as disappointed silver medalists.
I’m proud of every one of the 269 female athletes who represented the U.S. this year, and I’m hopeful that 2016 will be an even better year for our American women. But please, commentators, don’t take a victory lap for gender equality and then turn around and belittle our female athletes with your body snark and your clichés.
Yes, we’ve made progress, but too many young women are still giving up on their dreams because they’re worried about how they look or what others will think of them. I want to see more little girls with dreams grow into women with accomplishments, and your bipolar reactions to women in sport aren’t helping bridge that gap.