Our Bodies, Ourselves

The Mainstream Embraces the Athletic Amazon

But, then, Chastain had already posed buck naked for the men's magazine Gear, her bronzed body sideways to the camera, her face turned toward it, offering the viewer a comely glance. "I ran my ass off for this body," she said with insouciance, justifying her decision to show it off in both instances. Did she really see no difference in context or form? One shot freezes an exultant moment of physical prowess in which her formidable abs are tensed, her biceps popping, and her face turned upward, mouth agape in incredulous glee; the other captures her in a still, crouched stance that leaves her curvy and compliant, her blank expression inviting the objectifying male gaze to project what it will.

That this photo (and another seminude pic Chastain did after the tournament) was extensively debated at least demonstrates that the contradictions between hard-fighting champion and softcore cheesecake are widely felt. After all, there was little hue and cry when Katarina Witt bared all for Playboy because, as a figure skater, Witt had always played the seductress. (Remember that cut-to-the-navel flamenco dress for her gold-winning "Carmen" routine in the '88 Olympics, which brought her a spontaneous marriage proposal from a sports reporter and drools from Alberto Tomba?) Witt was simply transferring a sexpot image from the glinting ice to the glossy page.

Women's figure skating, after all, like gymnastics, is a sport in which, as Kane notes, "women literally get points for being pretty and feminine. How well you smile and how spectacular your sequins may be what separates you and makes you a world champion." Indeed, the ever-shrinking figure skaters, like the pixies of gymnastics, have never challenged the cultural imperatives of wispy femininity. So the more athletic the competition becomes, the more the skaters seem to mitigate their mastery with frilliness. You've got to wonder whether Tara Lipinski would have to wear all that eye shadow, grin so desperately, and remain so relentlessly perky if she didn't consistently land a triple-triple—and have a rather androgynous look when not gussied up for performance.

That figure skating, with rare exceptions, remains virtually closed to African Americans offers only the starkest illustration of how women's athletics sustain and demand limited ideals of femininity. African American women just aren't recognized within that narrow frame. Rather, they are characterized according to a long, racist tradition that figures the black woman's body as nonfeminine and laboring (or, if in sexualized terms, as the lustily incontinent welfare queen). Thus, like black male athletes, they're more often praised for their "natural" abilities than for their intense training and strategizing. The Williams sisters are constantly being described as having raw, roaring physicality—when, that is, the commentators aren't obsessing about their hair.

That explains, too, the more ecstatic media embrace of the soccer team than of the WNBA, despite the basketball league's calculated decision to highlight the marketing department's preferred starting lineup, the players with modeling contracts and newborn babes. But our culture's abiding racialized definitions of femininity make it that much harder to tame African American athletes as sex kittens and girls-next-door (as if certain neighborhoods don't have girls-next-door.) The conundrum leads to some rather bizarre conclusions. The ultraconservative columnist Marianne Moody Jennings, for instance, took the occasion of the U.S. World Cup victory to trash Title IX (it "does not apply to World Cup soccer") and to bash the WNBA. While the world happily rejoiced in the soccer team's unabashed babehood, she writes, "The WNBA, with its Janet Reno look, is crestfallen. The women of soccer garnered sellouts while the WNBA struggles. It was the babes, stupid. . . . They were themselves, complete with allure and lip gloss."

Well, Reno is tall, but otherwise doesn't much seem to resemble Teresa Weatherspoon, Cynthia Cooper, Sheryl Swoopes, or, for that matter, Rebecca Lobo. And lots of hoopsters glop on the lip gloss. What's really at work in Jennings's snide remark—apart from her swipe at Reno as the wicked witch of a Democratic administration—is the old lesbo trope. What a relief, Jennings and most of the world were saying: Off the field, the soccer team reads as thoroughly hetero! And giddily sidles up to the image.

The WNBA seems to know that a bunch of (perceived) dykes doesn't sell sex—the commodity on offer in practically any marketing campaign. Therefore, like in so many other sports institutions, its lesbian players keep the closet door slammed shut, lest they ruin everything for everyone else. So out come the boyfriends and body-masking flouncy skirts in a desperate effort to assure a male-dominated culture that just because a woman is strong doesn't mean that her body doesn't still belong to guys.

But this is an old story. Hyper-hetero femininity has been saturating our media culture for ages. What's different now is that it's not the only body ideal out there. "The likes of Tara Lipinski used to be the only image of athletes," says Heywood, "and for the first time in history we have an alternative to that, even if it often tries to contradict itself. You can't pretend that we're ever going to live in some utopian universe where we're not being sold things all the time. At least now, there's an alternative to images of weakness. And little girls are embracing it."

The Voice's Fourth Annual Women in Sports Series

« Previous Page
New York Concert Tickets