Objects of the Game

Olympic Female Athletes Are Disrobing for the Cameras at a Record Pace

"The way that this country felt last year about those women, when they played that game and won that game, is a far cry from where we are now," Kane says. "You be an athletic director and have a parent walk into your office the day after the Women's World Cup final last year. How hard would it have been for that athletic director at that moment to say to Mom and Dad, 'We just don't have the resources for a girl's soccer team.' Can you imagine? Now, ask them to spend a year of looking at images of Brandi Chastain with her soccer-ball breasts and have those same parents walk in and say, 'We want you to take soccer seriously for our daughter.' What's the reaction?"

Of course it's always been easy to blame women for the choices they make, and tempting to simply condemn the media. But in this instance, they make a powerful team. In one corner, a media backlash, by an institution only too happy to put women in their place. In the other, a group of young sports stars eager to show off, to make a name, to somehow set a new standard of beauty by agreeing to submit to the most binding straitjacket of all. "We always need to keep our eyes on the ball in terms of who is ultimately responsible for this," Kane says. "And those are the producers and the promoters of these images."

It was the brainstorm of the folks at Gear magazine, not of Chastain, to have her bare all for last year's controversial shoot. And it was SI that brought readers near kiddie-porn shots of Anna Kournikova in June before August's glimpse of a topless Thompson. Even as they're hurt by it, women can contribute to the backlash—they always have—but the holders of the purse strings remain the same, and there's a nifty profit to be had in maintaining the status quo.

Smart woman, foolish choice: Brandi Chastain and her soccer-ball breasts in Gear
Detail from October 1999 issue of Gear magazine
Smart woman, foolish choice: Brandi Chastain and her soccer-ball breasts in Gear

There's nothing revolutionary in objectifying women whether they're athletes or couch potatoes, muscular or waifish. If magazine editors and advertising executives get to decide, the sexualization of women athletes will continue, unabated, until somebody else puts a stop to it. "I just can't imagine that this will go on forever," Steiner says. As women athletes become more financially successful, she hopes, they will become more comfortable with themselves, less panicked about establishing their identity as women and as athletes. If they feel less dependent on that heterosexual reputation, less boxed-in by prefabricated societal demands, then maybe, just maybe, they'll be more able to resist. And start a chain reaction of athletes just saying no.

"I don't want to come across as blaming women for not doing that now, for not protesting," Steiner adds. "I think there are some times when individuals have made really selfish choices, but I'm not blaming them for failing to be more stubbornly resistant. I think there will be a time when they won't think that the costs are too great. In fact they'll think that the payoff is greater than the cost, and then they'll be willing, and able, to do it."

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