Recently, after a big win at the Australian Open (one of the four most important tournaments in professional tennis), a rising star was asked to twirl. Eugenie Bouchard, who is ranked number seven in the world for women’s professional tennis, was asked by a male reporter to “Give us a twirl and tell us about your outfit.” When she questionably responded “a twirl?”, the male interviewer replied, “A twirl, like a pirouette, here you go.” Sigh. While she did it rather uncomfortably – awkwardly laughing and burying her face – she still agreed. Mind you, this incredible player had just handily won her match to advance to the next round of a world renowned tournament. I guess the reporter thought that was unimportant compared to her neon pink Nike dress, right?
I wish I could say tennis was the only sport where this happens and that the sexualization of female athletes was not a growing problem. Sadly, that’s not the case. I recently asked a male colleague to name women in various professional sports. Tennis? Anna Kournikova. Softball? Jenny Finch. Soccer? Hope Solo. Skiing? Jenny Vonn. Volleyball? “The two pretty girls who won the Olympics.” When I asked what stood out about these athletes, it was not their fierce competitive natures or incredible athletic skills. Nope, not at all. Rather, he only knew of them because of their physical attractiveness and social activities covered by the media.
For the most part, boys grow up observing male athletes who are presented as skillful, confident, and successful. These children then have someone to look up to and something to aspire to. Unfortunately, the media does not present young girls with the same idols. While male athletes most often receive attention regarding their skilled performances, female athletes are often mentioned for their beauty or non-athletic activities. General research shows that media often focuses on female athletes as sexual beings, instead of heroic athletes like their male counterparts. Further, this focus on athletes’ attractiveness ultimately robs these females of athletic legitimacy.
Anna Kournikova is one of the best examples of this depressing phenomenon. During her career, she never won a major professional tennis tournament but was well known in the athletic world because of her beauty. However, without any major wins under her belt, she was still one of (only) six women ranked among the most important people in sports. Maria Sharapova, another tennis player, also has received more media attention regarding her attractiveness rather than her skills on the court. While Maria (unlike Anna) was once the number one female player in the world, research shows that commentators almost always comment on her appearance when reporting on her athletic endeavors. As I mentioned earlier, tennis isn’t the only sport where this happens. Marion Jones’s Olympic fame took the opposite road – the media portrayed her as assertive, muscular, and often “unfeminine.” Because of this, the most photographed female that during the Sydney Olympics was instead a part-time model and high jumper, Amy Acuff, despite Jones's incredible victories.
While it may be difficult (and even impossible) to restrict how the media portrays women athletes, these individuals need take control when possible. When Eugenie was asked to twirl, she did it – albeit awkwardly and embarrassed, she still complied. Several days earlier, tennis powerhouse Serena Williams had also been requested to twirl. Instead of complying, she simply noted life was too short and that she just didn’t really want to twirl. She further stated she did not want to comment on whether this was sexist and then went on to say she always twirls anyway after her matches while she thanks the crowd. Sigh. What will it take for a female athlete to deny the request and also say how inappropriate it is? While individuals are outraged and saying that no one would ask the same question to male counterparts, why don't the players feel the same?
At the end of the day, I don’t care what Eugenie (or any competitor) is wearing on the court -- and let’s be honest, if I really did, I would google it. When it comes down to it, I don’t want an athlete spinning around on the court at the request of a reporter to see how her dress flares and how cute she looks. I don’t want athletes like Marion Jones to be punished by the media for being strong and “unfeminine”. I don’t want players, like Anna Kournikova, to become outrageously popular only because they are “sexy.” And I certainly don’t want females like Serena to casually avoid the issues of sexism they face both on the court and by the media. What I do want and what we need is for society to start demanding that athletic ability trump attractiveness and for females to gain actual legitimacy as professional athletes.