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Discuss: It's Too Early for an Olympic Victory Lap

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.

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    52 comments

  1. Sarah D says:

    Geez! I can't believe the comments people leave about your “attitude”. Does anyone 100% like anyone they meet/know? I have a hard time imagining any of these women saying this to your face if they met you. The internet provides such a buffer from reality.

    November 30, -0001/Reply
  2. Sarah says:

    Preach it.

    August 10, 2012/Reply
  3. CatG says:

    slow clap Well said, Belle. This was driving me insane while reading and listening to the coverage. Sometimes it feels like two steps forwards, one step back…but to add some positivity, I was so pleased to see how the Saudi racer (Sarah Attar) was so warmly greeted and treated by the crowds, even when she came in last.

    August 10, 2012/Reply
  4. CAM says:

    Belle, thank you so much.

    August 10, 2012/Reply
  5. BN says:

    Completely agree. One note: ALL of the Women US Gymnasts were criticized for their hair, not just Gabby. The team were all sporting half-pulled pony tail bun things. They were called “gym rat” styles. (see https://www.huffingtonpost.com/2012/08/01/us-gymnastics-hair_n_1730565.html). I was appalled. Personally, I get headaches when my hair is too tightly done (bun or otherwise) and I certainly wouldn't be able to perform complicated acrobatics in that state. The ladies had their hair pulled back, out of their faces; it didn't interfere with their routines, and it was appropriate for their age. When applying the wrong amount of powder to your hands could result in falling off the uneven bars and seriously injuring yourself, I can imagine the US team has better things to worry about than how their hair was received by fashion editors.

    August 10, 2012/Reply
  6. KC says:

    Well said. I just read this after sending off a nasty gram to FoxSports.com for their inclusion of pictures of various beach volleyball players' rear ends as they stood around waiting for the game to resume. What kind of professional “journalist” takes pictures of womens' rear ends without their knowledge? It was downright creepy and voyeristic. Also don't forget the “story” of the womens' 4×100 track relay team which referred to the four women as “divas” and commented on how amazing it was that the four women could get along long enough to train for and run the race. No mention of Usain Bolt's revolting attitude.

    August 10, 2012/Reply
  7. BN says:

    (To be clear, I was appalled at how nasty the criticism was, and, like Belle, how the focus was pulled from their success as athletes — I was not appalled at how they wore their hair.)

    August 10, 2012/Reply
  8. Helena says:

    Excuse my insinuated language, but : f**k yeah! Great post.

    August 10, 2012/Reply
  9. k says:

    Amen. However, I don't think there's anything wrong with admiring how good they can look (I'd be lying if I said I didn't), but that goes for males and females.

    August 10, 2012/Reply
  10. Maggie R says:

    Today while watching rhythmic gymnastics I had a male coworker come to my desk and be astounded that “hula-hooping” was an Olympic sport. After explaining the talent and skill that goes into it, he ended up walking away with his head held pretty low.

    August 10, 2012/Reply
  11. Belle says:

    k: I don't disagree that positive comments are welcome, but sadly, they're not all positive.

    August 10, 2012/Reply
  12. Heather says:

    AMEN. Thank you so much for posting this. Despite the many discussions I've had with my roommates about this and how we're reducing female athletes down to how they look, the instant the TV comes on to watch the Olympics, I hear, 'Oh, she's not so cute…no wonder they didn't do a montage on her.' 'Or, wow, she's hot! I like her outfit.' One of the most watched US female athletes was the conventionally attractive Lolo Jones, and she didn't even medal.

    What? Why are we doing this? We don't pick apart male athletes like this. I know some will say that we have objectified some of the men this year (pretty much every swimmer), but honestly, when it comes down to it, we are looking at their talent, and that is the EXCEPTION, not the rule. I don't know how we're putting up ads like the 'Keep Her In the Game' one (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=URVYgTbbryE), when even our female athletes and the media outlets that promote them are bombarding young girls with societal constructions of beauty.

    August 10, 2012/Reply
  13. SK says:

    Well said.

    August 10, 2012/Reply
  14. K says:

    This was perfect….and then you ended with a snark about bipolar disorder. smh.

    August 10, 2012/Reply
  15. Kelly says:

    I'm so glad you brought up the “Bridesmaids” thing. I found that particularly offensive and degrading. I understand the “metaphor,” but what most people who told me I was being too sensitive don't understand is that the METAPHOR is just another way of making a comment about women's social status, their goals, and where they “belong.” I'm sorry, I'm not a fucking bridesmaid. I'm an Olympic silver or bronze medalist who could probably kick your ass any day.

    August 10, 2012/Reply
  16. Amy says:

    Thank you Belle for posting this. I've read a few great articles on body image and the Olympics (particularly for sports like gymnastics and figure skating, where eating disorders have been prominent and encouraged), but this is one of the first comments to challenge our fixation on female athletes' physical traits. Even the most “attractive” female Olympians didn't escape it- there were far too many irrelevant discussions about Lolo Jones and how her virginity was a “distraction” from competition. The fact that audiences fixate so much on women's sexuality as a defining factor of their athletic worth is truly sad. I second @Kelly's words that a silver/brozen medalist is a top Olympian, not a f**ing bridesmaid.

    August 10, 2012/Reply
  17. Belle says:

    Kelly: I agree completely. And if there were an equal term for men, I wouldn't be offended. But no one calls men groomsmen, and there is no metaphor for them that even comes close to the that one.

    August 10, 2012/Reply
  18. Belle says:

    K: I wasn't snarking about bipolar disorder. Check out the actual definition of bipolar: 3. characterized by opposite extremes, as two conflicting political philosophies.

    As in saying that female athletes are so empowering and then saying, “She's too fat to play.”

    https://dictionary.reference.com/browse/bipolar

    August 10, 2012/Reply
  19. Lindy says:

    “I want to see more little girls with dreams grow into women with accomplishments, and you're bipolar reactions to women in sport aren't helping bridge that gap.”

    Is this directed toward the people who read your blog? Because I thought this was supposed to be a blog about fashion for professional women.

    I have never commented on this topic. And since again, it is off the topic of fashion for professional women, I won't waste my time following this blog any further.

    August 10, 2012/Reply
  20. EL says:

    Loved this post! I've been cringing at the 'bridesmaid' thing all week. Also, have you noticed that they refer to the male athletes by their last name but the female athletes by their first names? Michael Phelps is referred to as Phelps, while we get Missy and Gabby for Melissa Franklin and Gabrielle Douglas.

    August 10, 2012/Reply
  21. Sam says:

    This post made me simultaniously tear up and fist-pump, not gonna lie. Brava. sniffle

    August 10, 2012/Reply
  22. Leslie says:

    Belle,
    Thank you so much for writing on this topic. I've been attempting to figure out why I've been upset by the Olympic commentary and you just put it all together beautifully. Well done.

    August 10, 2012/Reply
  23. IRMcK says:

    So awesome. Thanks for this, Belle.

    August 10, 2012/Reply
  24. Terri says:

    Lindy – I think Belle is directing those remarks to the commentators of the Olympics. Thinking out loud perhaps. LOVED THIS POST Belle. So very current and observant. Thank you for sharing.

    August 10, 2012/Reply
  25. Belle says:

    Lindy: that was directed at sports commentators, press, critics, etc. in general, not my readers.

    August 10, 2012/Reply
  26. Rosanne says:

    I couldn't agree more, Belle! I was sitting and watching in awe of these women and completely baffled and offended by the commentator's use of “bridesmaid” to describe Allyson Felix's silver medals! I believe it was actually NBC's lead-in for the event in which she won gold that night. In general, sports journalists seem to lean on the bad cliche as a crutch for their own lack of creativity. Thanks for the post!

    August 10, 2012/Reply
  27. Brooklyn, Esq. says:

    This is a very powerful post. Thank you.

    August 10, 2012/Reply
  28. katy says:

    Great post, Belle! In the car the other day my boyfriend and I got to listen to a fun thirty minutes of Linda Cohn on ESPN Radio absolutely REAMING OUT Lolo Jones for crying on the Today Show after the New York Times had ALSO reamed her out for daring to “sell” herself more than the NYT felt was appropriate for her skill level. (With regards to the NYT article, while I can't speak to whether or not Lolo had to rely on her sex appeal more than is or is not “appropriate,” the article doesn't just say, wow it's too bad she had to sell herself this way, but instead makes a clear argument that it's REALLY not acceptable because she's not “that great” as an Olympian). Anyways, as a result of being made to feel like a whore, and a cheap one at that, by the NYT, Lolo Jones cried on the Today Show and Linda Cohn basically felt that it was a) not acceptable because it makes women look weak and b) not acceptable because Lolo has “sold” herself to us already, and so she has no right to be upset if some of that press doesn't go her way.

    WHY? Why would we tear each other down like this? I totally get the “go outside if you have to cry” mentality but quite frankly, why should she have to cover up what her true response was to this article? We tolerate such BRATTY behavior from male athletes all the time, under the guise of “well who cares, they win gold.” I think Lolo showed courage by demonstrating that hey, being called a slut for endorsements was extremely painful for her and maybe the NYT should shut up unless they're going to call people like Ryan Lochte and Michael Phelps whores too (you can't tell me they don't use their own sex appeal to get endorsements and Lochte has had similar performance “letdowns”).

    August 10, 2012/Reply
  29. JMK0316 says:

    Thank you! Just last night I was discussing the fact that, despite standard operating procedure in most major marathons and distance running competitions worldwide, the women's marathon was run last Sunday, and aired live (ie, first thing on a Sunday morning), and the men's marathon will be completed as part of the closing ceremonies this weekend, and then broadcast via tape delay for the whole world to see.

    August 10, 2012/Reply
  30. DCGal says:

    Hey Belle – Awesome post. But how come you're biting your tongue? Let 'em have it! Let your friends and colleagues know that their snarking is sexist and wrong. They might never have heard someone with your point of view before.

    August 10, 2012/Reply
  31. Anna says:

    Though I for one have totally objectified some of the male athletes (my roommate and I can't get through a single race without commenting on Ryan Lochte's hunkiness), I can understand your frustration.

    I'm still steaming from a piece I read this morning by Sally Jenkins in the Washington Post about how the US Women's Soccer Team was a bunch of drama queens who only cared about the spotlight and criticized the way they celebrated their goals and victory (she even criticized how they were singing the national anthem). Really?!?! They did nothing that men who play soccer or any other professional sport don't do ALL THE TIME.

    These women only get any attention during the World Cup and the Olympics. They don't get to go home to million dollar paychecks or popular national leagues. A lot of them even have to get a few side jobs to make ends meet. Are we really complaining that their not being sufficiently tasteful and demure in celebrating an Olympic gold medal, especially against a team to whom they lost the World Cup just a year before. So sick of the double standard, especially when it's being perpetuated by other women.

    August 10, 2012/Reply
  32. SV says:

    Your post is absolutely spot on, but it feels weird to read it from a woman who cringes when other women don't put their hair in a proper bun and use a hair tie instead. Or when you critique women for only wearing basic black flats. I appreciate that professional women can look beautiful and feminine, but it's obviously okay if they dont. Perhaps it's just sarcasm lost in written word, but some of your previous entries make you sound insanely judgmental of women who aren't as put together as you.

    I read your blog because I like your style recommendations, but I can't help but wonder if we were friends how judgmental you'd be if i didn't always have the perfect outfit on. And I'm pretty well dressed and styled. Posts like this make me hopeful that you aren't a ridiculously judgmental person,

    August 10, 2012/Reply
  33. Mary says:

    Thank you so much for this post! I completely agree! I also gagged the first time I heard them referred to as bridesmaids. Insensitive and ignorant jerks!

    August 10, 2012/Reply
  34. Belle says:

    SV: This blog is meant to help women look the best they can look and succeed in their careers by doing good work and making a good impression. I have off days, every woman I know has off days, and I don't walk around telling women that they look terrible. If someone asks me how I feel about her clothes, I'll tell her as constructively as possible. But people visit this blog to read my opinions and see what I think is appropriate and stylish workplace fashion, because they're looking to maintain or improve their look.

    Just because I don't think a woman should show up to work with wet hair, wear Uggs to office or show off her assets in a minidress, doesn't mean that she can't also be a good employee and a good person. This blog is about taking women who are striving for professional success and showing them how what they might be wearing can help of hurt that.

    August 10, 2012/Reply
  35. SV says:

    I've always assumed you meant well and I appreciate you taking the time to clarify that you do understand that style doesn't always positively or negatively relate to an individuals character.

    And for the record… You're right. Uggs and Vera Bradley are hideous and wet hair isnt appropriate for the office. Hopefully this comment doesnt detract from the spirit of your original message in support of female Olympians

    August 10, 2012/Reply
  36. Christina says:

    Such great points! Thanks for vocalizing them!

    August 10, 2012/Reply
  37. Belle says:

    SV: I get that not everyone gets my humor or relates to my snark. But there is a chasm of difference between being “ridiculously judgmental” and believing that grown professional women are better off with tough love than constructive criticism than coddling and outfit posts filled with gifted fashions. I wrote the fashion blog that I wanted to read/needed when I started out and was making mistakes and no one said anything to me. Then, years later, people would say, “Well, those suits were too big and you were to mousy.”

    I put it out there, if you like it, awesome. If you're upset by it, that's unfortunate.

    Don't worry, this is what the comments are for.

    August 10, 2012/Reply
  38. Belle says:

    DCGAl: Believe me, if it were a friend, a family member or someone I could say that too, I would let them have it. But often times these are people who I can't talk to like that because of my work.

    August 10, 2012/Reply
  39. B says:

    Belle,

    HR is a good place to report female objectification. Workplace sexual harassment does not need to be a comment directly about you, but could be something that makes you uncomfortable in general because it was a comment on your race, gender, religion, etc. These reports MUST remain as confidential as necessary and there are retaliation laws if someone gives you undue grief for them.

    Just a thought but maybe saying something to your HR deptartment would prompt them to send out an all staff email requesting that people be a bit more conscious of their comments or simply stop making them. Stopping a bad behavior requires taking an action. You are an incredibly strong woman, Belle, with the moxy for standing up for what is right.

    August 10, 2012/Reply
  40. SV says:

    There's totally a difference and I agree that you should be upfront about it. I was turned onto your blog by a friend of mine when I moved to the area for a dc based fellowship recently. I'm an active duty army officer and I've always appreciated people who are up front with me. And yours truly need some up front advice and non military professional attire. A lot of time down range kind of warps your perception about what is work appropriate. But (as I'm sure you realize) sometimes its difficult to tell tone from an article or blog. There have been times I've read your blog and agreed with your style advice, but have wondered about your tone. Is it joking girl talk or just bitchy?

    Anyhow, I think you get the point and have more than clarified that your comments are coming from a good place.

    Ps. Loved three ways from your closet 😉

    August 10, 2012/Reply
  41. ms says:

    Best post you've ever written. Thanks.

    August 10, 2012/Reply
  42. Belle says:

    B: I never said that these were co-workers making the comments. I work in a lobbying position so I see a lot of people during the day, most of them are wonderful, some of them are not.

    August 10, 2012/Reply
  43. Katy says:

    @ Anna. Agreed The Sally Jenkins piece was disgusting.

    August 10, 2012/Reply
  44. Kay says:

    NBC needs to stop the tight camera shots on the teenage gymnasts' butts. So creepy and unnecessary!

    And I agree wth so much in this post; grown women publically criticizing a 16 year old's appearance made me especially sad and angry.

    August 10, 2012/Reply
  45. B says:

    Awesome post, Belle. I loved every line of it! As others have said before me, you shouldn't be biting your tongue though – I've stopped doing that and say what I think when I hear denigrating comments. If that makes some people think I'm a stuck-up feminist, I'm happy to wear that label with pride 😉

    August 11, 2012/Reply
  46. Belle says:

    B: I think anyone who reads this blog knows, that I have no trouble speaking my mind. So if I'm not sharing my opinion, there's a good reason. And that good reason is that chastising another lobbyist, a congressional staffer or other person that I work with on a regular basis could very easily cost me my job or cause me problems at work. So in that cost benefit analysis, biting my tongue is the best thing. Had this happened in my office, I would have responded differently, but since it happened outside my office, I changed the subject and moved on.

    August 11, 2012/Reply
  47. Kathleen says:

    Why was it necessary to throw in a jab about Victoria Secret models? I understand the contrast that you were aiming for, but it seems out place in an article that was calling for equal treatment for women.

    August 11, 2012/Reply
  48. zora.d says:

    wow… Belle… i dont even know what to say except: Slow… Clap…

    August 12, 2012/Reply
  49. K says:

    Slightly off the topic, but I'd like to thrown in how much I've enjoyed looking at athletic fit women in bikinis/swim suits/tight clothing while not being in an air brushed photograph. I haven't really watched the Olympics in ages and am more likely to watch the winter Olympics. It might sound like a back handed compliment – but it's kind of cool for my own body image to see that someone can be physically fit and still kind of lumpy looking in their suit. Or when you sit and you're not sitting up perfectly straight even they have belly roles (maybe not bit ones like mine, but indents anyway). It's a nice reminder that no one looks perfect like the air brushed images we see all the time.

    August 12, 2012/Reply
  50. Kelly says:

    I'm late to the convo, but I agreed with SV when I first read it. I agree with the post itself, and I see that her comment was addressed, but as a long-time reader, I admit that I did a double take too. The tone sounded different than what I've gotten used to over the years. It's true that we don't ever really know our Internet acquaintances, but this post sounded more “Everygirl” than I was used to here.

    August 13, 2012/Reply
  51. Krysta says:

    My sentiments exactly! I'm shocked at how people are degrading these athletes who, I'm SURE, work MUCH harder and are more determined than the majority of the population could ever imagine being. We should be PROUD that they're representing us so well instead of critiquing them for such petty things as hair styles and outfits. Thanks for posting Belle.

    August 14, 2012/Reply
  52. ColleenMarie says:

    Bella, Loved the post!

    I must say though, I am so surprised by how sensitive some people are to your posts. It's so obvious that you mean well and do an amazing job at making your discussion posts interesting with your witty humor.

    Keep up the awesome blog!!

    August 15, 2012/Reply