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Gini Dietrich

London Olympics Show Female Athletes Fighting Stereotypes

By: Gini Dietrich | August 8, 2012 | 
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Growing up, I was taught girls don’t do certain things. They don’t burp, they don’t toot, they don’t snore, they don’t swear, and, by all means, they don’t sweat.

I vividly remember doing something unladylike to make my brothers laugh (probably burping) and my dad pulling me aside to lecture me. I remember him saying, “Have you ever heard your mom do that? Girls don’t act like boys.” And, in fact, I never have heard or seen my mom do anything unladylike.

Because of the way I was raised, it’s taken me a very long time to be confident enough in my athleticism to get out and ride with the boys, even if it means I’m dripping sweat with them. And if the roads are wet? Forget about it! I’ll be gross and dirty with everyone else who rides through puddles of rain and mud.

But it wasn’t just the way I grew up. It’s society. It’s our culture. It’s the culture around the world. Girls are supposed to act like, well, girls.

On Saturday mornings, I ride a little bit later so I can sleep in and have a latte before I get out there. But that also means I typically walk Jack Bauer in my cycling spandex. A few years ago I never would have done that. Let the neighbors see me in my workout gear? OMG!

Now I do it just to see what they’ll say. And comment they do! I’ve heard everything from, “If I had a body like that, I’d wear spandex too!” to “Are you wearing that to support the Tour de France?”

Yes, I wear cycling spandex because the Tour is on. Right.

Athletes Don’t Wear Heels

This past weekend, Margie Clayman sent me an article from Salon titled, “Athletes Don’t Wear Heels,” which explores this very idea.

Girls aren’t allowed, by society’s measures, to act (or heaven forbid, look) like their male counterparts.

And what better time to explore what female athletes wear and how they act than during the Olympics?

Until this year, the International Olympic Committee required skirts for tennis and bikinis for beach volleyball. But it’s chilly in London so they’ve been “allowed” to wear more clothes – even long-sleeved shirts, pants, and jackets.

And the media typically only shows – and reports on – the athletes who demonstrate beauty and grace in sports, such as gymnastics and ice skating.

In fact, Australian swimmer Leisel Jones was shamed by the media for weighing 150 pounds. And Conan O’Brien (shame on him!) mocked weightlifter Holley Mangold for weighing 350 pounds (who, by-the-way, can lift nearly 600 pounds and could take Conan’s lunch without a fight).

These are great examples of how screwed up our brains are. Jones might very well be the very best female breaststrokers the world has ever seen, but we’re worried about how much she weighs?

Has anyone ever discovered that muscle does, in fact, weigh more than fat?

The Right Measures

I wish I could see a show of hands when I ask this question: How many of you would prefer to see an athletic woman to one who starves herself in order to stay skinny?

We all have this vision of what women are supposed to look like, how they’re supposed to act, and what makes them ladylike. And I know most of us think it’s more a Victoria’s Secret model than a 350-pound weightlifter.

I love a beautiful woman as much as anyone else, but the women I find beautiful? The ones who take care of themselves, who have calves that make me envious (I work really hard at mine), and who make you say, “Man, that girl is ripped!” as she passes you while you contemplate getting off the couch.

This year marks the very first Olympics that have female athletes from every nation. Perhaps that means things will begin to change and female athletes will be revered (instead of scorned) for looking and acting like their male counterparts.

About Gini Dietrich


Gini Dietrich is the founder and CEO of Arment Dietrich, an integrated marketing communications firm. She is the author of Spin Sucks, co-author of Marketing in the Round, and co-host of Inside PR. She also is the lead blogger at Spin Sucks and is the founder of Spin Sucks Pro.

120 comments
Keena Lykins
Keena Lykins

So, while I agree with everything that's been said below, I also think there's more to the story than just being a lady vs. being athletic.

 

I admit to being surprised at some of the body shapes of the female Olympians. Even the gymnasts remind me a bit of the old East German shot putters. To clarify, I think the athletic body is beautiful, but it bothers me when the athletes don't look cut or ripped, but doped. A masculinized look is one of the signs of doping for female athletes. I know it's impossible to separate what's talent, hard work and natural body shape and what's the result of using performance enhancers, but when commentator mentions a female athlete's "sturdy" build, I assume he's making an allusion to doping (as well as being insensitive and possibly misogynistic). Now, maybe I'm reading more into than is there, but that's my take on it.

 

barrettrossie
barrettrossie

Well done Gini. My wife can kick my ass in the weight room. I'm very proud of her. 

jelenawoehr
jelenawoehr

My Godmother had all sorts of stories about HER granny, from "Ladies don't perspire. They glow," to, "A lady with her skirt up can run faster than a man with his pants down," a statement made with a sneer of disapproval toward any woman who dared to suggest she'd been sexually assaulted.

 

Thank goodness she was too darn independent to take a lick of stock in that nonsense, because the sayings I got from her were more like, "If you don't want to shower between the barn and dancing, don't! Any boy who doesn't appreciate 'eau de cheval' has no sense anyway," or, "A few broken bones add character." (So maybe that was a little too far in the other direction sometimes, but she was the greatest badass and the overall kindest person I've ever met.)

 

Anyway, on the topic of Olympians, PREACH -- now, if only the 350 pound weightlifting ladies got the endorsement deals the beach volleyball players and tennis players do, 'cause right now the best female weightlifter in the US is broke and sees no way out of it unless she stops competing and spends her time on a "real job." There was a campaign to get Dove to hire her as a spokesmodel for their "Real Beauty" ads, but I'm not sure where that went.

 

I should also mention that equestrian events are the only Olympic sports where women compete on an equal footing with men. Nothing like a 1,200 pound animal that doesn't respond to brute force to make the playing field a little less about genetic predisposition toward arm and shoulder strength and more about the intelligence and dogged dedication that mark the best athletes. (If only Blue Hors Matine were still alive to shut the world up about "horse dancing." Sigh.)

lizreusswig
lizreusswig

Love this post!!  I know you're focusing on athletes here, but as the mom of 2 daughters, I've worked REALLY hard to make sure they care more about how they THINK as opposed to how they LOOK.  And let's face it, in this society that's not easy...let's hear it for all the "sweaty, tooting, overweight, bad hair day" athletes who are kicking stereotypes to smithereens!!  :)

JoycePodlesnikMcCall
JoycePodlesnikMcCall

Love your points on women athletes. Here Gabby Douglas shows why she's the best all-around gymnast on the highest athletic level yet people are criticizing her hair. I wondered why the men's beach volleyball players wear shirts, while women are in bikinis. Now that I know the Olympic rules "allowed" the women players to wear additional clothing due to the temperature, I'm even more amazed. Seems to me these are the best female athletes in the world and we should be celebrating their accomplishments -- not holding them to some artificial standards that have roots in sexism.

jennwhinnem
jennwhinnem

If we as women want to be respected as equals, we cannot ask to have it both ways. We cannot ask men to respect us, but then expect them to "treat us like ladies." Also, I really want to see women stop enforcing sexism through complaining about men, or talking about women as having inherent qualities as a result of a chromosomal & secondary sex characteristics mix. Unfortunately many involved in this conversation broadly tend to reinforce the very stereotypes they seek to escape. This offends me to the bone.

 

And yes, strength is beautiful.

rustyspeidel
rustyspeidel

Beach volleyball looks easy, but try it. It's freaking HARD. When they save the point with a great dig, scramble up and spike the next set for the point, I'm blown away. 

 

This whole topic is highly annoying to me, because I guess I can't understand how people can be so ignorant, misogynistic and ridiculous. Sure, we all respond to what we're attracted to, but I swear I could care less during sporting events. These athletes are amazing, and to try and exploit some other aspect of their lives for stupid, sexist ends pisses me off.  Like Sean says, excellence, passion and accomplishment are sexy in their own right. Where it gets difficult it when people want it both ways. 

rwohlner
rwohlner

I have two daughters who were/are very competitive athletes and would likely have kicked any boy's backside on the soccer field who made any sort of snide remark.  In fact I recall that happening a few times on the field.  

 

That said (and at the risk of sounding like a typical male) I'm convinced that woman's beach volleyball might be the greatest Olympic sport ever invented on many levels.  Though I do have to say the woman's soccer semifinal was the single best game across any sport that I have seen to date, except maybe the 1967 "Ice Bowl" game between Green Bay and Dallas (I am old enough to have watched it live on TV). 

Eleanor Pierce
Eleanor Pierce

Thank you Gini! I've really been appreciating your voice on these issues lately.

 

Related: I keep hearing all the criticism of beach volleyball - recently read a story that suggested it's not really a sport so much as a "spectator event." I'm not sure how I'd feel about it if I wasn't dating a guy who used to play beach voleyball competitively ... no bikinis.

ExtremelyAvg
ExtremelyAvg

Great post. Anytime the walls of stereo types can be brought down, it is a good day...or 17 as the case may be. Now, lets get to work on the "Girls can't do math". That is the one that drives me nuts. I wrote a paper in college and the truth of the matter is, yes, girls and boys brains are different, but not in the area that performs calculations.

 

If you think you can't do math, it is because someone told you that lie. Stop believing it. Math is sexy!!!  Muscles are sexy!!! Burping...well, I'm not sure I want anyone burping.

Latest blog post: Untitled pt 5

lamiki
lamiki

Great thoughts, @ginidietrich. One thing I love most about watching the Olympics is how different sports require different body types. I do CrossFit, and our bodies come with weird muscles in weird places that make halter dresses look atrocious on us (thanks to overbuilt traps! ;). We are not pretty and most of us are not chiseled (yet!0, but we are functional and we are strong.

 

It takes an enormous amount of work to be the top athletes in any sport and have a body that looks amazing. Why isn't hard work the focus of these articles?

ginidietrich
ginidietrich moderator

 @Keena Lykins Interesting take. I'm so naive when it comes to doping. I want to believe everyone works hard and gets where they are on their own talent and abilities. It sucks to think that stuff goes on. 

Latest blog post: Reconsider Fashion PR

ginidietrich
ginidietrich moderator

 @jelenawoehr OMG! I love those stories! I was just telling a girlfriend, who had a bicycling accident, to wear her scars like trophies. Those are the kinds of things that make a person and, in fact, I am going to steal some of these phrases.

Latest blog post: The Value of a Raving Fan

ginidietrich
ginidietrich moderator

 @lizreusswig It's no easy! Not at all. I tell this story a lot so you may have already heard it, but one of the very first speaking engagements I had, a guy walked up to me afterwards and said, "You are so attractive and you actually have a brain. I'd like to see you be a little more prepared." I had gone without confirming they had a projector so I couldn't use my slides and had to wing it. Trust me, I was prepared after that. But I thought it was interesting that his first comment was that I'm attractive.

Latest blog post: The Value of a Raving Fan

magriebler
magriebler

 @JoycePodlesnikMcCall I was shocked to learn about the IOC rule too. Just goes to show that sexism is still baked into many of our institutions. It goes waaay deep.

Eleanor Pierce
Eleanor Pierce

 @jennwhinnem Wait - are you saying that men and women should always be treated exactly the same? That we should ignore differences between men and women if they're related to chromosomes or secondary sex characteristics? Because personally, I don't think that's necessarily a helpful approach. Totally with you on being against male-bashing though. 

ginidietrich
ginidietrich moderator

 @jennwhinnem OMG. I served on a board a few years ago where every meeting was about bashing the white male. I lasted two board meetings before I resigned. When I resigned, the executive director told me she was disappointed I wasn't more willing to help other women in the business world. I told her I was happy to do that, but not it if meant we would do it by bashing men. I love men. And I love women. Why can't we all just get along?

Latest blog post: The Value of a Raving Fan

ginidietrich
ginidietrich moderator

 @ExtremelyAvg I have a niece who is 14 and, when she was little, I started telling her how cool math and science are...and would ask her about equations instead of telling her how pretty she is (even though she is VERY pretty). Now she's killing it in school in the areas where girls aren't supposed to play. I love that.

Latest blog post: The Value of a Raving Fan

ginidietrich
ginidietrich moderator

 @lamiki Ha! I can't wear anything sleeveless or anything that is shorter than my knee. For the same reasons and because of my atrocious cycling tan. But the point is, no matter your sport, you're fit, you're taking care of your body (minus the few who smoke some weed), and you're changing the perception of what is a sexy body. Girl power!

lynne.melcombe
lynne.melcombe

 @ginidietrich Female athletes' bodies become masculinized when their body fat drops below a certain point. Estrogen is produced by fat cells, so without adequate fat, we stop producing the estrogen required to maintain feminine characteristics. It's a shame when people  assume that because female athletes have small breasts (further flattened by tight-fitting sports bras) or because their bodies become more triangular than hourglass shape, they must be doping. There have been more athletes kicked out of this year's Olympics for tweeting inappropriate comments than for drug use. And on the whole, doping was not the huge problem the media blew it into; a small percentage of athletes did/do it, and the whole community was/is tarred with the same brush.

 

Keena, I don't think you're reading misogyny into what sports commentators say about women athletes. Misogyny is alive and well in the sports world and a whole lot of other places, too.

jelenawoehr
jelenawoehr

 @ginidietrich Oh man. I have SO many. She once broke her neck and didn't know it. Just kept going and found out years later when they x-rayed for something else. Also broke her back in two places, and got the news of the x-ray results while standing up leaning against the Coke machine in the hospital waiting room, from a doctor whose first words were, "How are you not paralyzed?" She literally went into labor on horseback with her first daughter while managing a working ranch by herself, and both her daughters were riding as soon as they could sit up and hold onto the reins, 'cause she didn't have anyone else to help her bring in the cattle.

 

Best role model EVER. I wish I could make a million of her and share her with every little girl who doesn't mind getting a little dirty and bloody and sometimes feels like a freak for caring more about her brain or muscles than her hairstyle.

lizreusswig
lizreusswig

 @ginidietrich Great story - sounds like he may have been a bit surprised that you had a brain seeing that you are attractive...makes me wonder if he would have been as bothered if you were an unattractive yet intelligent man?

jennwhinnem
jennwhinnem

 @EleanorPie I think we have the same chin. Otherwise, no, that's not what I said, but I appreciate the opportunity to clarify. I don't believe all women are exactly the same as each other just because we share the same chromosomes & sex characteristics - or however being a "woman" is defined. As such, I don't want to be treated a certain way just because I am a woman - that involves a lot of assuming based on primarily physical characteristics. Do we really want to advocate for making assumptions and generalizing? Does anyone really like to be stereotyped?

 

At the same time, feminism for me is about choice. You are free to choose differently than me (which sounds arrogant, I just think it needs saying - feminists can sound so prescriptive sometimes). With that in mind, I would just like this broader conversation to be less divisive. It often ends up looking like benevolent sexism. Which, I'm a gender theory nerd, so watch out, Chin Twin.

jennwhinnem
jennwhinnem

 @ginidietrich Yeah, I just don't see how we can bash men while simultaneously seeking equality. That just makes us look foolish. Why would we be trying to be equals with buffoons?

 

Right now I'm obsessed with hormones. I think we can learn about the biological basis of gender from transsexuals. Many trans people have shared their stories around the psychological changes they undergo as a result of the changes in hormones. I appreciate their journey and the understanding they bring to the gender conversation.

 

I'm not saying differences don't exist. They do. And those vary across cultures, socioeconomic status, even the different social constructions of race. So, can we really generalize as to what being a woman means? Can we really assign characteristics to a gender? It doesn't seem fair to me. @EleanorPie 

ginidietrich
ginidietrich moderator

 @lynne.melcombe It's like cycling. I'm a HUGE cycling fan and I refuse to believe Lance Armstrong doped (not the female athlete take, I know, but I'm pretty opinionated about it). As for the estrogen thing, I know it well. First your periods decrease or stop all together. And I don't work out like Olympics athletes or professional athletes. I ride about 15 hours a week and my doctor is always after me about estrogen and iron.

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rustyspeidel
rustyspeidel

@jelenawoehr @ginidietrich My moms horse rolled over on her during a hunt and broke her clavicle, wrist and 4 ribs. She was back out there in a month. She was 72 when it happened. Bad ass.

Eleanor Pierce
Eleanor Pierce

 @jennwhinnem  @ginidietrich Me, too. I'm surprised - I don't understand why women don't like the term. I mean, yes - I, too, have run across some (I hate to even type the words) angry feminists - but I've run across angry democrats, and yet people seem to be able to see past it.

 

I'm curious, too, Gini. Would love to be enlightened.(Also, Caitlin Moran was hi-LARious on this very topic on Fresh Air very recently) 

jennwhinnem
jennwhinnem

 @EleanorPie  @ginidietrich It does sadden me that more people don't embrace the term. For instance, as I was typing this, Gini said she didn't think of herself as a feminist. Why not? It's true the term has some negative associations for some. I've decided to embrace those associations and be the change I want to see for that word. Which, I want to see that word mean, "I stand for gender equality." Who wouldn't want to stand for that? Sexism hurts men, too. For example, men are allowed (in white American culture, at any rate) to feel two emotions: rage, and excitement. But feel sad? Forget it. I'd like this to change.

 

So, who's with me?? I'm glad we're having this conversation, too.

Eleanor Pierce
Eleanor Pierce

 @jennwhinnem @ginidietrich All fair points. I'm pretty sure the three of us are fairly well in agreement on these issues - it's a matter of degrees and phrasing. Here's another point I think we can all agree on: I have smart, confident women friends who don't characterize themselves as feminists. What can we do about that?Sigh.(Sorry - don't mean to try to turn this into a gender theory/feminism blog ... it's just too good of a discussion!)

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