More Than "Just a Game": On a Woman's Right to Sport
An APA style letter to my mother
I have researched and written on the stigma toward women in sports and the attitudes regarding it. The purpose of this paper is to seek to understand where the prejudice toward female athletes comes from, presents a general tactic toward eliminating said prejudice, and defends the relevance and importance of correcting the misogynistic tendencies of the athletics field. The paper begins with a relevant history of where some of today’s sports conservativism originates, leading to an increased objectification of women, causing a decrease in inclusivity and respect toward women today. The paper dives into visibility and how an increasing majority of positive messages regarding women’s athletics will cause greater acceptance and normalization of women as a whole. The work was done using the research, studies, and published work of academic journals, historic magazines like the Smithsonian, the International Olympic Committee’s website, and a pop culture magazine to prove certain points. It is my recommendation that the most visible parts of women’s sports—comment sections, TV broadcasts, TV ads, and other social media mediums—become increasingly more frequent in their positive regarding women’s athletics, causing negativity toward the field to become less normalized.
Keywords: misogyny, prejudice toward female athletes, WNBA, equality, gender pay gap, #FreetheNipple, objectification, Tuberculosis, visibility, conformity
More Than “Just a Game”: On a Woman’s Right to Sport
Big conversations. Growing up right now, it’s pretty impossible to avoid them. Because of a rise in accessibility to news and opinions, many of the people my age are generally aware of current events and the controversies surrounding them. Politics, social and climate justice, wars and economic disparities, national debt and national disagreement. Every opinion has a counter opinion; every argument has a study of some kind to back it; and with the heavy influence and accessibility of the media, it is easier now more than ever to be persuaded of potentially very harmful ideas. The worst part? It can be hard to have a good conversation about these ideas with anyone anymore. They have become personal, central parts of people’s lives and identities. Differences and variety in opinion is all good and fun and beneficial for society until they become dangerous to the safety of other people. We’re very familiar with many of the consequences of these dangers—massacres, acts of terrorism, lynchings, witch trials—you name it.
The opinions attached to these horrible tragedies are ones worth changing. We can agree on this. But how do we change the minds of people who aren’t willing to even discuss what they think? They may not be willing to have a conversation about it for fear of judgement or backlash. But what if they don’t think these issues are even issues at all? Especially for the more subtly bigoted ideas, the problematicness of such is very well disguised.
There’s a boy I know. He’s nineteen and a student at a local university. He told me once that women don’t belong in sports— an incredibly archaic idea. But where could it have come from?
Our Binding Chain of Events
It Wasn’t Always Like This
For context, you may be surprised to hear that women were once welcomed by male arms into the world of sports. In an article published by Concordia Saint-Paul, the author tells us that “in Ancient Greece, women were able to participate in foot races at some festivals and could win Olympic victories through equestrian events” (2021). Homer’s Odyssey tells of women playing on a riverbank with a ball. There are records of women’s wrestling competitions in Africa and Senegal to other physical competitions in the south-central Sahara. Not exactly as diverse in athletic options in comparison to men as we’d prefer, but there are many, my 19-year-old friend included, that would limit us to much less. It is also believed that many women participated in the same sports as men in Native American and other indigenous cultures that were frequently “ceremonial, religious, or ritual events, and many foot races, and participated in ball sports”.
The Victorian Era: A Turn for the Worse
At the beginning of the 1820s, Europe hit a major turning point that is referred to as the Victorian Era. The mental images that come to mind when we talk of this period are ones of long dresses, Robin Hood-resembling figures of monarchy and poverty, fires, corsets, plagues and other diseases, rats, questionable sanitary methods, and considerably tyrannical Christianity. An immense amount of conservativism was ushered in during this time.
We also know that the early 19th century wasn’t exactly a time of accurate medical competence. How could it have been? There was too much that was yet to be brought to light (as there still is today). No x-rays or other forms of imaging, no vaccines, no antibiotics, etc. Many diseases were yet to be really understood or even discovered. Our (women’s) bodies were considered to be frail and weak, and not much was understood regarding our health and anatomy. Many theories floated around that in our modern day would be thought ridiculous. Two authors—M. Wei-Haas and J. Mansky—write in a published article that if a woman spent too much energy, it was said at the time that she was infertile or her children “would be inferior because they couldn’t get the energy they needed” (The Rise of the Modern Sportswoman, Smithsonian Magazine). One’s uterus and ovaries were thought to control their mental health, and the female anatomy and reproductive system left scientists baffled. As concerning as it is that they didn’t research or study it as much as they should have, there are certain medical principles we understand now that we didn’t then—many of which would have long-lasting consequences.
If Looks Could Kill
Take tuberculosis, for example. It is a respiratory disease that, when left untreated, will lead to what was then referred to as consumption. Consumption occurs after Tuberculosis has been contracted, infecting the lungs, and then moving on to damage other organs, eventually leaving the body to waste away. Those affected by consumption were very pale and fragile. They had very narrow midsections; fine, silky hair; and an otherwise very delicate appearance. Symptoms of low-grade fever were also frequently present, giving the victim sparkling eyes, dilated pupils, as well as pink cheeks and red lips. These symptoms of the deadly disease slowly became the beauty standard for many women, and became very common, as beauty was a reflection of economic and social status at the time. This is “because tuberculosis enhances those things that are already established as beautiful in women” (How Tuberculosis Shaped Victorian Fashion, Smithsonian Magazine). British fashion even began to mold and change as infected women began to develop the desired “low, waifish waists and voluminous skirts [that] further emphasized women’s narrow middles”. Many misconceptions about weakness in women came from this condition, a direct consequence of the Tuberculosis that was so easily spreadable. A disease that we didn’t totally understand, a disease that left so many dead, is only one of the absurd reasons behind the stigma towards today’s female athletes.
“Beauty is on the Inside.” Is It?
These Victorian beauty standards sound familiar, don’t they? How many women do you know that begin to work out and form other healthy habits simply for the purpose of losing weight? Looking slimmer? Being skinnier? Why are the only praised, “beautiful” women the ones that appear small?
Sports were so frequently discouraged, more often than not, because exercise led to skin that tanned and muscles that grew. Bigger muscles and darker complexions worked in opposition against what was and, sometimes, still is considered beautiful. What is the issue with size? Appearance? Looks?
Just a Body
The answer lies within an understanding of the male gaze. The male gaze is defined by Oxford Reference as “a manner of treating women’s bodies as objects to be surveyed”. We are emotionless, thoughtless, worthless sacks of meat and bone to be looked, touched, and frowned upon. We say anything: we talk too much. We speak up: we are bossy. We wear clothes: we are either attention-seeking or a prude. We carry mace in dark parking lots: we are paranoid. We were assaulted in a truck in a parking lot: we should have stood up for ourselves. We stand up for ourselves: we are asking for attention. We are murdered at disproportionate rates compared to other races and particularly the opposing sex: our cultural wear is revealing, and revealing says, “asking for it”.
You get the idea. You live it every day. Because we still live in a dominantly patriarchal society, these misogynistic phrases are commonplace and continuously circulated.
Think about it this way. If Dad decided to go for a jog in Midway without a shirt on, no one would bat an eye. Actually, they’d probably praise him for undergoing his knee surgeries while being a working, successful father who is still physically active. Good for him for making the time to take care of himself. He must be such a great example to his kids of what a healthy lifestyle is. All men should follow his lead and be an exemplar for their kids of taking care of yourself. Whether or not he was wearing a shirt wouldn’t matter. Why would it?
What would happen, in contrast, if you or I were to go for a topless jog in Midway? Could you even imagine the kind of words we’d have thrown at us? The text messages and calls and the videos that would be taken and posted? The harassment we’d face? And what kind of mother would they call you? What kind of wife? What kind of husband or father would they call Dad?
Nothing goes hand in hand quite like double standards and the male gaze when it comes to the cause-and-effect chain of misogyny. The #FreetheNipple movement began with a public nudity law that allocated the public toplessness of men, but not women. Recently in many areas, the discrimination between men’s and women’s nipples has been ruled unconstitutional, and women have been given the same choice as men to go nude from the waist up. However, in many other more conservative locations, the movement has received a lot of pushback. This has led to the question, “what is the difference between a woman’s and a man’s nipple?”
Anatomically, there are no structural differences between the male and female nipple. The main differences lie in the different male and female hormones, amounts of breast tissue, etc. But the nipple is the biggest talking point. In an article written and published by R. McKay on a pop culture news website, a stock photo of an exposed male chest precedes a simplified explanation of what the use of a male nipple is. Any pictures of an exposed female chest? No. Any side-by-side comparison diagrams? No. Any diagrams at all? Of course not. On an article published with the intention of appealing to the public outlining the differences between the two sex’s nipples, only the man’s is shown.
What is the most interesting to me about this idea of body equality and the #FreetheNipple movement is the functional difference between men’s and women’s nipples. A woman’s breast organ has purpose. It does things that sustain human life. A man’s? If it is doing things (especially that resembling what a woman’s breast does), the man would probably be advised to see a doctor. Why is it, then, that an organ without use is accepted, and a nearly identical one with actual function is hidden from the American public eye?
You guessed it: objectification. Women’s nipples are treated with sensitivity in regard to conversation and the American public eye because they aren’t seen as functional, necessary organs to sustain life—they are not to be taken so seriously like that. Because our culture is controlled by a patriarchal bias, women’s bodies are only seen in a sexual context where our value is derived for the pleasure and use of men. Nothing more.
Women are not people: we are bodies. Items. Objects. We don’t have thoughts or feelings, and heaven forbid we have ideas. We don’t think reasonably or drive safely, and we certainly aren’t funny or good at sports. I don’t need to tell you that these things obviously aren’t true—we both know that already. Why do men (and some women) say these things?
Because all that we are comes down to the fact that we are only bodies: only to be looked at and used. And if our bodies don’t fit the ideal mold of the male gaze, a mold that frequently resembles fragility and lack of muscle or strength, our worth is drastically reduced. “It’s always been this criticism and this fear in women’s sports [that] if you get too muscular, you’re going to look like a man.” I. Cepeda, author of a study on wage inequality between genders in tennis, explains that an athlete’s wages, particularly in tennis, usually comes largely from the revenue of ticket sales as well as broadcasting revenue, which fluctuates depending on how many sets of eyes are tuning in to a given match. Cepeda states that female tennis players make less money in comparison to male players because consumer preferences reflect “the fact that female tennis is less attractive to the public”. It’s not because our speed or skill or talent or general athletic ability is less—it’s because many feel that we appear less attractive than men do while we play. According to Cepeda, the public’s view of our worthiness for their attention comes from what we look like while we compete and has little to nothing to do with how skilled we are in competition.
A Positive Change of Direction
Say SportsCenter creates a post about the WNBA playoffs. You ever read the comments under one of those? They get nasty. Men and women alike will defend the players, but the most popular phrases are sexist remarks thinly veiled with the tone of sarcasm, mocking, or even pity. A swarm of hatred and prejudice quickly overtakes all that you can see on the page. There are many that very quickly succumb to the pressure to fit in and contribute to the discouraging messages. These social media comments are only one example of the toxic culture that reinforces the common lifeblood of athletic misogyny: that shaming female athletes is funny, cool, and not a big deal.
Visibility is Power
The International Olympic Committee published an article on its website during the 2022 Beijing Olympics, stating that “In total, the final Saturday of Beijing 2022, on 19th February, will feature nine hours of women’s events, compared to five hours on the same day four years ago.” They go on to announce that they moved many of the women’s events to be held “on a primetime weekend slot for viewers worldwide”, giving women a better shot at having their events watched. The International Olympic Committee—the board responsible for hosting the greatest display of athletics on the planet—recognizes and is actively participating in creating greater visibility for female athletes.
The power of visibility lies in common acceptance. For many, the sexist remarks they may produce are a result of a desire to fit in to a certain culture reinforced by a few loud individuals. The more our ESPN comment sections become more accepting, or the more our sportscasting networks show more women’s games; the sooner the world reacts more positively in general, the sooner our equality will be normalized. It will spread around the globe like wildfire, the same way sports have. It begins with advocating and standing up for ourselves in our comment sections, and it continues with men doing the same. It begins with flooding visible public spaces with WNBA positivity and messages of equal pay. It begins with showing them that we dunk too. That we are more than just nice things to look at.
“Just a Game”
I don’t have to preach to you that bias exists. I know you see and understand our injustice: we both want to see it change. I also know you believe that sports has little to do with our fight against injustice. They are just games, after all. It’s just a bunch of dudes (much of the time) getting sweaty and competitive for no reason other than to appease their egos in front of their circles of friends. Misogyny is no game, and our place in society is so much more than a simple competition.
You’re right in that our rights as people aren’t to be played with. But sports are so much more than just a little game.
For many, sports are everything. They are to me. They are the whole world. They are fun and fiery and fast-moving. They bring people together in ways that few other things can. They keep us healthy and elevate our heart rates and your dopamine levels. Sports bring new friends and new insights and new connections. They are connection. We have a right to physical recreation; it is a human right. Sports promote positive mental health, teamwork, leadership skills, and bonding between people from all walks of life. Those who are the hardest to convince, those with the most immoveable opinions, are found in this community: sports belong to everyone. All eyes are on the athletes because athletics rule the world. And if we can make change through anything, sports is the way to go, one comment at a time.
A Brief History of Women In Sports. (2021, March 22). Concordia Saint Paul. https://kinesiology.csp.edu/a-brief-history-of-women-in-sports/
Cepeda, I. (2021). Wage inequality of women in professional tennis of the leading international tournaments: Gender equality vs market discrimination? Journal of International Women's Studies, 22(5), 407+.
International Olympic Committee. (2022, February 7). Women at the Olympic Winter Games Beijing 2022 - all you need to know. Olympics.com/ioc/. Retrieved February 9, 2022, from https://olympics.com/ioc/news/women-at-the-olympic-winter-games-beijing-2022-all-you-need-to-know
McKay, R. (2019, August 21). What is the purpose of male nipples? Who Magazine. https://www.who.com.au/why-do-men-have-nipples-why-are-men-women-different
Mullin, E. (n.d.). How Tuberculosis shaped Victorian fashion. Smithsonian Magazine. https://www.smithsonianmag.com/science-nature/how-tuberculosis-shaped-victorian-fashion-180959029/
Munn, E. (2016, May 10). How tuberculosis shaped Victorian fashion. Smithsonian Magazine. Retrieved April 7, 2022, from https://www.smithsonianmag.com/science-nature/how-tuberculosis-shaped-victorian-fashion-180959029/
Good! Well written!