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David Letterman may refer to them as "babe city," and they are increasingly put in a sexual context (Ed: see Jockbeat for our comments on a flat-out sexist portrayal), but the women of the United States National Team are usually seen in a much more innocent light. Labeled "role models" for girls everywhere, the team exudes a clean-cut, easy-to-swallow image that puts parents and sponsors at ease. But is this image an accurate one? Moreover, do we really want it to be?
This image is really an extension of that of the team's star, Mia Hamm an image that has been latched onto with vise grips by a media scrambling to cover a team and a sport that most of them are unfamiliar with. In need of an icon, Hamm is the most accessible and safest. A living legend, "the Hammer" is as fierce as they come, yet presents a persona so squeaky clean even Jerry Falwell would be proud. But Mia and the rest of this team are as long on brains, edge, and sex appeal as they are on athletic finesse and respectability. They're a complete package, the kind of "role models" that nearly every type of girl, from tomboy to tease, can relate to. It's almost as though the pigeonhole of purity limits the more widespread positive impact the team could have.
Enter Brandi Chastain, "Hollywood," to her teammates, including comic-relief midfielder Julie "Loudy" Foudy who cites Chastain in the media guide as her favorite actress (for her dramatic displays upon being tripped on the field). It was Chastain's appearance on Letterman that turned him into honorary mascot/self-appointed team manager/most-obsessed fan. Versatile and tenacious on the field (not many pros can come back and score after notching an own-goal in a World Cup quarterfinal), she is beauty and brass off it. In interviews she's quotable, in photos, notable she recently went gearless (except for cleats and a strategically placed soccer ball) in an issue of Gearmagazine. The response to her baring it all, said Chastain, has been "very positive."
"I work hard. I feel good about myself," she explains. "The message is powerful, strong, athletic, confident. That's what it's all about."
As the positive role that sports plays in the lives of females becomes more visible, statistics relate female athletic participation to everything from increased self-esteem to a reduced likelihood of being in an abusive relationship. But concern about the portrayal of women as objects is a reality, as is the critique about women athletes needing to constantly assert their heterosexuality. When Katarina Witt posed for Playboylast year, the photos were stunning, but the issue did not come and go without comment. If a woman is going to make a statement about her confidence, is nudity and all its cultural baggage the way to do it? Of course, no one raised any eyebrows when Ronaldo shed his kit for Nike. He was viewed simply as an athlete.
Chastain, for her part, doesn't agree with the criticisms. "I'm a womanathlete," she says, and is proud to be seen as such. "It's hypocritical when some feminist views say it's negative to be seen as a woman in your sport."
Perhaps there is nothing more attractive than a powerful athletic woman. And there's something to be said for the argument that young girls with body issues are better off admiring the buff if bare physique of Brandi Chastain than the fragile frames of vapidity that normally stare back at them. A revealing portrait of a lean-yet-muscular athlete at the top of her game or a weekly bombardment of images of a fully clothed scatterbrained waif? You make the call.
Despite the positive reception so far, that is for the chaste Chastain, she's not completely off the hook. Says Foudy with a wink: "You can't do naked pictures on this team and not get abused for it."