Landing a Punch on Sexualized Conventions in Sports

By Vidya Rajagopalan

It is not uncommon for women to be objectified, it is done in every sphere of life. When it is concerned with sports, the sexualisation of women athletes dehumanizes them and downplays their talent. The male-dominated sports institutions want women’s bodies to cater to the male gaze. They are viewed as attractive players rather than deserving and hard working athletes. However, women athletes are voicing out their concerns with regards to this aspect and are taking matters into their hands to be heard and seen.

Recently, during the Tokyo 2020 Olympics, some female athletes turned quite a few heads by challenging the rigidly mandated dress code. The Norwegian Women’s beach handball team wore shorts instead of bikinis and was fined for the same. The German women gymnasts wore body-covering unitards rather than a leotard. The women athletes wanted to prioritise their comfort over objectification.

The sexualisation of women in sports has become normalised. They are either meant to be ogled at by being voyeuristically portrayed or ridiculed for having a “masculine” body. Sporting institutions still follow the gender binary norm. They consider sex and the hormone levels of the athletes to decide who can or cannot participate. Sporting events are divided by sex-based participation. When it is concerned with women’s participation in sports, they are not expected to participate in ‘serious’ sporting events like football, basketball. They are coerced to take part in events like floor exercises and gymnastics; which are deemed feminine and ‘suitable’ for women. Sports have always been male-centric and seem to glorify masculinity.  

Women are still viewed to be the “weaker sex.” The International Association of Athletics Federation (IAAF) once stated that women with high testosterone levels must “regulate” their bodies. Predominantly, sporting institutions tend to be oblivious to the fact the gender has more connotations than determining it with sex and hormone levels.

There is a double standard when women athletes are playing sports. When men play sports, they are judged upon their feat of endurance, agility, strength etc; whereas when women play sports they are judged upon how “feminine” they look, their sex appeal, etc. Vidya Subramanian, a research affiliate at Harvard University wrote an opinion in Money Control where she stated: women who play sport are obviously still considered interlopers in a male space; and must fight misogyny, patriarchy, and appalling beauty standards while going faster, higher and stronger.

Women not only face the sexualisation of their bodies but also body policing and unequal access to sports. It is due to the patriarchal notion of society. These issues arise when women athletes are viewed as being feminine first rather than treating them as athletes first. Subjecting women to adorn dresses that they don’t deem as comfortable is objectifying them to increase viewership and portray them in a voyeuristic fashion.

In 2012 the Badminton World Federation shelved the rule that mandated female badminton players to wear skirts as it was deemed sexist. According to the NBC, Paisan Rangsikitpho, an American deputy president of the Badminton World Federation, was interviewed by The New York Times before the rule was shelved. He had defended the rule, saying BWF was not using sex to promote the sport. “We just want them to look feminine and have a nice presentation so women will be more popular.”

Media portrayal of female athletes also impedes women from showcasing their talent and growth because of the overpowering focus on their sex appeal. The media’s portrayal of women reveals the domineering male supremacy. Arjun Lal in his research paper Sexualization of Women in Sports wrote, “The idea is to sell women’s sport as sexually appealing to the general public. … A female athlete we can largely say is presented on two scales by media – performance-focused and sexualised. The athletes portrayed in a highly sexualised manner were more likely to be considered more attractive, desirable and highly feminine but less capable, less intelligent, less determined and low on self-respect as compared to those who were portrayed with focus performance.” By sexualizing female athletes and encouraging them to prioritize sex appeal over strength, the media not only degrade the athletes’ accomplishments and self-esteem but also alienate viewers.

Women athletes are speaking up and subverting these forms, they have initiated a change by choosing comfort and by having a say in what they want to wear. They are sowing the seeds of a world’s perception which will see them for their athleticism and not for their sexualisation. Female athletes are a testament to creating a change by being the change.

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