A funny thing happened on the way to Sydney. While a record number of female athletes prepare to compete in a record number of sporting events, a disproportionate number of them are taking their clothes off along the way.
They’re everywhere, these proud offspring of Title IX—strong, competitive, and practically naked. Not content with risqué poses for a slew of national magazines, Olympic high jumper Amy Acuff organized her fellow track athletes for a seminude calendar. Star swimmer Jenny Thompson stood topless for a glowing Sports Illustrated profile. Hell, a whole bunch of Australian women’s teams have posed for their own naughty calendars (take that, Brandi Chastain!).
Like rock-star nymphets lining up for a Rolling Stone cover shoot, today’s women athletes seem awfully willing to disrobe for the public—and today’s media seem only too eager to urge them on.
“It’s utterly predictable,” says Mary Jo Kane, director of the Tucker Center for Research on Girls & Women in Sport at the University of Minnesota. “We are at a crossroads in terms of women’s sports. It’s the best of times and it’s the worst of times.”
Kane says what few others seem willing to consider: Far from empowering and liberating a whole new generation of young jocks, as their supporters allege, the cheesecake photos are part of an active backlash against women’s successes on and off the playing field.
As women push forward, Kane argues, societal institutions push back. “If you want to resist that movement,” she says, “you have to up the ante in terms of how you’re going to trivialize and marginalize them.” And what better way to trivialize than to remind us that no matter what their accomplishments, women are first and foremost sexual objects? Their abs may be rippled, their quadriceps nicely defined, but the photos remind us that these are good ol’ American girls before anything else—in the male gaze, in the men’s magazines. Nothing threatening, nothing, ahem, abnormal, about them.
“There are just a lot of men there, including, I’m sure, in the newsroom, who just kind of resent women’s success,” says Linda Steiner, associate professor and chair of the department of journalism and media studies at Rutgers University. “And so to sexualize her and sort of treat her as a pinup is a way of cutting women down to size.”
The women who’ve posed, and their supporters, argue that the pictures are part of a revolution in women’s sports. They say that the photos aren’t mostly about sex, they’re mostly about strength and confidence. They parry with the non sequitur, emphasizing the intelligence and independent thought of the bare-naked ladies. And, surprise surprise, some say that critics are a bunch of moralistic, uptight, you guessed it, feminists. “This is not a calendar of bimbos,” Acuff has repeatedly said. “These are intelligent, world-class athletes. One of them is a Rhodes scholar.” Acuff hasn’t since explained the correlation—hasn’t she ever heard of smart women, foolish choices?—but others have echoed her contention. In a Washington Post column defending Thompson’s pose, sportswriter Sally Jenkins argued that Thompson is “a 27-year-old of serious intellect, a Stanford graduate on her way to medical school.” She also took critics to task as “sports prudes and creaking, old-school feminists.”
“I’m proud of my body and the work I’ve done to get it like this,” Thompson has said, doing her best Chastain impersonation. Certainly, Thompson’s body —with sinew instead of silicone—is different from that of the typical SI swimsuit model. Her supporters have argued persuasively that there’s something refreshing about the idea of young girls seeing a healthy female form in nearly all its glory. Fair enough. Of course, Thompson wasn’t posing in a girls’ magazine. She took her shirt off for a publication that still claims to be about sports. When the sports media run sexualized photos, they remind readers once again that no matter how good her game, a woman athlete is, thank God, a woman after all—there for the objectifying.
And when athletes willingly pose? They remind readers, and reassure advertisers, that they’re as straight and mainstream as they come. For if Thompson didn’t take it off for a teen magazine, she wasn’t exactly posing in The Advocate, either. Societal homophobia, Kane says, plays a huge role. “If you’re a female athlete or you’re somebody who’s trying to promote a female athlete and you’re concerned that they might have the ‘wrong’ image, the easiest way to establish their so-called heterosexuality or their normalcy is to take their clothes off.”
A decade ago it was enough to just feminize female athletes. Sports Illustrated gave us Steffi Graf in a glamorous dress; a buzz was generated around Flo-Jo’s fingernails. But times have changed. “You’ve got to increase the stakes in terms of the backlash,” Kane says. “You move from putting her in an evening gown to taking her evening gown off.”
“Let’s not kid ourselves,” adds Kane. “These poses have nothing to do with women as athletes and everything to do with women as sexual objects. Who benefits from that kind of portrayal?”
And that’s just it. In the end, the argument over girlie photos isn’t just an academic exercise about self-esteem or sex. Despite the heady proclamations regarding this bold new era in women’s sports, these are tenuous times. A year after the frenzy of the Women’s World Cup, misinformed resistance to Title IX rages on, and the WNBA can’t spring for private planes, or respectable salaries, or a decent playoff structure, for its players. Women tennis pros make less than the guys do, and girls’ sports teams have to struggle for equal playing time and facility access. And, of course, the very same media organizations that can’t get enough of naked athletes can’t seem to cover them—so to speak—when they’re clothed.
“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.
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.”