Some kinds of sexism kind of liberating

There is a great article in Canada’s National Post, A Weighty Issue at the Olympics: Swimmer Leisel Jones is Fit not Fat. It documents the policing of women’s weight in the context of the Olympics. Swimmer Leisel Jones, the Brazilian women’s soccer team, heptathletes Louise Hazel and Jessica Ennis-and the British women’s beach volleyball team have all been called “fat.” I must say that in an odd way I’ve been finding the media’s scrutiny of the bodies of the women athletes competing in the Olympics liberating. First, there’s the debates about gender testing and body policing. Because we all know real athletes can’t actually be female. But there is also the attention paid to the size of the bodies of women athletes, rather than to their athletic achievements and performance. You see for years I’ve wanted to look like the recreational athlete I am, to have people see me and recognize the hours and effort I put in. However, I now see that’s completely unrealistic. If the media are going to harp on about the weight of women who have qualified for the Olympics, the rest of us don’t stand a chance. Athletes aren’t built like fashion models. Surprise, surprise. Clearly a healthier attitude is to give up noticing what the rest of the world thinks because clearly lots of the world is far out of tune with the reality of what athletes look like.

21 thoughts on “Some kinds of sexism kind of liberating

  1. Excellent insights! I’d like to add the following, though: The issue of women’s weight usually overlooks where the weight resides. Women who are heavier than the skeletons people seem to prefer these days BUT have a healthy waist to hip ratio are not carrying toxic fat. When the fat is accumulated around the middle so that the woman looks like an apple, that is a red flag for diabetes, heart disease, and infertility. This is true even for women who have relatively little fat. So it bugs me when heavier women who have womanly figures are called fat and screamed at to lose weight or they are going to die of some horrible disease. They are perfectly healthy. They just don’t look like twelve year old boys with breasts.

  2. I appreciate that the article is pointing out how out-of-touch it is to (1) insinuate that these athletes are fat just because they are not super skinny and (2) that people are choosing “shes’s fat/ugly” as their go-to insult for these athletes.

    I don’t appreciate the line at the end insinuating that the athletes wearing hijabs are doing do under coercion.
    Recently found a blog that addresses this issue here:
    and here:

  3. Even if someone isn’t “perfectly healthy”, it’s still not that respectful to scream at them.
    And I’m sure you didn’t mean this, but even if you’re “apple” fat you can still have a womanly figure–being a woman and all.

  4. I agree that showing disrespect to people for whatever reason is just plain wrong. My point is that I get tired of hearing people justify hassling women about their weight because they equate “heavy” with “unhealthy”. I’ve heard people say “I’m doing her a favor. She needs to lose weight for her health” or “People like that are stressing the health care system.” The woman is just shaped like a woman rather than a bean pole, and there’s no reason to think she’s ill. It really does matter where the extra weight is being carried, and it behooves us to consider this when we evaluate our own shapes or those we care about. Men or women who have fat accumulating in the abdomen and upper body should be checked out for insulin resistance/diabetes. It is a red flag.

  5. As someone whose body type probably leans more in the bean pole/twelve year old boy direction, I’d still like to think I’m shaped like a woman. I’m sure you probably didn’t mean to imply otherwise, but just a heads up. I agree with the spirit of your comments Denise, I’d just love it if we could be a bit careful not to insult (surely unintentionally) some women’s body types in our defense of others.

  6. You know, this is getting silly. Are we going to take offense at every little thing, or are we going to actually read the main message. Women today are expected to be rail thin–far too thin for our health. We are harassed for not being shaped like bean poles when there is nothing wrong with having curves. We are harassed for being shaped like bean poles unless we have silicone enhanced breasts. We’ve all gotten criticized and bashed, but the worst is the bashing heavy women take.

    As I keep pointing out–but this message seems to get lost in everyone jumping to take offense–if you start to carry a lot of weigh in your upper body. That is a red flag for insulin resistance, diabetes, cardiovascular problems, and infertility. But we can keep bashing each other if that’s more fun.

  7. “First, there’s the debates about gender testing and body policing. Because we all know real athletes can’t actually be female.”

    I know this was a side point, but I think it’s important to point out that gender testing doesn’t presume that real athletes can’t be female. It just recognizes that (for most sports) it isn’t fair for men to be competing in women-only competitions.

  8. Sorry to have offended you Denise–really. I wasn’t trying to bash you at all. Like I said, I completely agree with the heart of what you’re saying. And I certainly didn’t mean to be making any claims about who gets the worst of it. I think it’s incredibly important to fight against expectations that women must be thin, both for psychological and physical health (and to be aware of the physical red flags you mention), I just also think important not to reinforce the “real women have curves” meme, or to use language that could reasonably be taken to disparage thin women per se in order to achieve that end. Really, though, sorry to have offended you.

  9. This is especially offensive since any number of male athletes–weightlifting, shot-put, etc. etc. over the years should have equally been targets for “fat” by the standards imposed on women, but never so labelled as I can recall.

  10. Kathryn, I’m not offended, just a bit exasperated. I think we all agree that women’s bodies are subjected to ridiculous scrutiny. And I think we can all agree that the attacks are mostly on heavy women or women who are certainly within a healthy weight range but over the rail thin image of perfection that is fashionable these days. In case you are curious, when i was younger, I was a “bean pole”, and that was not OK because beauty was supposed to be more voluptuous. As I’ve aged, I’ve put on weight–and now that’s not OK!

  11. Alan White, I have to admit that I don’t watch a whole lot of weightlifting or shot putting (even in Olympic years), but I hear male athletes called ‘fat’ constantly. American football players, baseball players, even many basketball players.

    Also, I don’t read the Age or listen to Cameroon’s women’s soccer coach, but I have never heard a female swimmer called ‘fat’. Is this really a widespread thing?

  12. “Many female swimmers have fought well-publicized battles with their body fat levels and with their coaches,” says an article posted in 1997. It seems like alan.white and jamiedreier are both right, in different contexts: I can’t recall hearing male Olympians refered to as fat, but I can think of many non-Olympian men who receive such scrutiny.

    This doesn’t mean women don’t face ridiculous scrutiny, as Anonymous says in #10. The lousiness of the hyperscrutiny of women’s bodies is not in competition with the lousiness of punitive attitudes to particular celebrity men.

  13. Agreed!

    You know, I think it would be really interesting to see if the effects of self-objectification and body monitoring on intellectual performance have a parallel in physical performance. Not only because of these ridiculous criticisms of women who are obviously in fantastic athletic shape, but also because of stereotypes of feminine grace possibly conflicting with physical exertion. Does anyone know if there’s research on this?

  14. Following up on what Jamie says above, I think it’s worth separating out two separate issues: (i) discussion of whether an athlete is carrying more weight than is ideal for their sport (and may hamper performance); (ii) discussion of an athlete’s physical attractiveness, slimness, etc.

    I think that you hear (i) all the time for both genders, and that it can be totally appropriate and non-sexist. (Though sometimes it’s just bitchy – cf. comments about the weight of heptathlete Jessica Ennis.) Sometimes extra weight *can* hamper performance, and there are elite athletes who would nevertheless be better if they lost some body fat.

    But what happened to Leisel Jones recently was an instance of (ii) – an Australian paper ran a poll asking readers whether they thought she looked fat. The question seemed to be primarily one of aesthetics, and while the performance issue was raised it seemed secondary. If instances of (ii) are more commonly directed toward women – and I wouldn’t be surprised if they are – then that’s upsettingly sexist.

  15. magicalersatz, I wouldn’t at all be surprised if those sorts of insults are directed toward women athletes, either. (Well, there are vastly more male athletes in the public eye, so let’s say proportionally more.)
    But you very often do hear, e.g., pitchers called ‘fat’ in a way that is pretty clearly not just commenting on how their conditioning is affecting their play. Here’s a good example (the second ghit I got on “bartolo colon fat”).

    The Herald Sun (article linked by redeyedtreefrog) asked whether Leisel Jones is ‘fit’, not ‘fat’. Obviously readers were supposed to make their judgment based purely on her appearance, but it’s performance-related judgment, at least nominally.

    Having said all that, there is pretty plainly something wrong when people (even lean mean Australian people) can think of an Olympic swimmer as overweight.

    Also: raise your hand if you’d like to be on a 10,000 Calorie/day diet.

  16. Interestingly, swimmers do tend to carry slightly more body fat than their cycling and running counterparts. Runners, in general, tend to look leaner than swimmers.

    And, I think we have an erroneous bias that super athletes must be super healthy. Ultra cyclists like those in the Tour de France do not live longer lives, and we can see the effects of boxing, basketball and American football on those retired athletes who are now struggling with health issues caused by their sports.

    Obviously, regular exercise is a good thing for body and mind, and Olympic athletes are amazing and inspiring. But, as a society we tend to worship these super athletes and hold them up as paragons of health and fitness that we should try to emulate, when really, regardless of what you look like, regular, moderate exercise is all you need to reap all the health benefits and be fit.

  17. Jamie, I think you’re probably right about male athlete getting their share of “fat” criticism as well. Interestingly, I was reading the paper’s poll about Jones as using the British/Australian usage of “fit” that basically means “hot”. I was at least thinking the poll easily suggested that reading, and didn’t cancel any implicatures.

    But that may well be reading too much into it.

  18. No, I think you’re right — I’m pretty sure I’ve heard Australians say, “Oh, she’s *fit*” in just that way. So the ambiguity is useful, and maybe intentional.

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