Sex sells, but it also steals

The athlete in female athlete must come first

As young women, we are often told to beware of places where creeps may lurk: in alleyways, parking lots, gas stations — the list goes on. Until recently, volleyball tournaments were one place that I could exclude from the list, but that was before my volleyball team’s coach had to call the police on a 50-year-old referee after discovering that his camera roll consisted mostly of zoomed-in photos of my 16-year-old teammates in spandex. While it was shocking to see images of my own friends on a random man’s phone, the knowledge that men were sexualizing us even while playing a sport was nothing new.

My message here is simple — stop sexualizing female athletes. Women’s sports are not a show put on for others, so viewers must stop perceiving female athletes based on their sex appeal rather than their athletic abilities.

Although the sexualization of female athletes rarely presents itself in such clear light as it did in the case of the 50-year-old ref, it commonly seeps throughout the sports world in discrete ways such as uniform discrepancies between male and female sports.

Similar to how school dress codes promote sexist ideals by making young girls cover up their body parts for the comfort of others, uniform requirements in women’s sports control women’s bodies for the viewing of others. Only, the clothing requirements within athletic settings are directly opposite to those of school settings because, you guessed it, female athletes are highly sexualized. 

An example of this is how the European Handball Association fined the Norwegian women’s beach handball team $1700 for wearing thigh-length elastic shorts instead of bikini bottoms in the sport’s Euro 2021 tournament. The association fined the team on the basis of “improper clothing,” yet they allowed male players to play in shorts and tank tops.

When male players can play in loose clothing, women must wear midriff-baring tops along with bikini bottoms “with a close fit and cut on an upward angle toward the top of the leg” according to International Handball Federation regulations, it becomes evident that women’s uniform requirements are more about the way people view women’s bodies than the way clothing may affect their play.

One sport particularly subject to sexualization is women’s beach volleyball. The image of athletic women wearing skimpy bikinis diving around in the hot sun feeds into the male gaze, drawing in viewers who eroticize these athletes’ bodies. 

Here, I feel the need to elaborate that the most ideal solution would be to fully detach the stigma from clothing and simply regard bikinis as competition gear. There are valid reasons why female players choose to wear bikini bottoms instead of shorts, and it is true that many girls may find these uniform requirements perfectly reasonable from a performance perspective.

The problem is, peak performance is not the only factor going into these clothing requirements. Yes, wearing bikinis is fitting for playing on the beach in the heat, but if comfort is the only thing that matters, then why don’t men’s beach volleyball players play shirtless instead of wearing tank tops?

The double standard between these uniforms display the obvious answer: the underlying objectification of women in sports.

Magazines and commercials continuously portray female athletes in sexual manners by placing them in suggestive poses or clothing because that attracts viewers and therefore profit. The sexualization of women in the media allows those at the top to make big bucks, but people seem to rarely consider the other side of the economic gain–how does this sort of media representation affect the female athletes within them?

To begin, such portrayals of female athletes minimizes their athletic accomplishments, reduces their self-esteem and identity, and may pressure them into hyper-awareness of body image. Sexualization promotes women to succumb to self-objectification, and even if these women refrain from doing so, they still learn that they must cater their body to fit the demands of the public.

Attempting to abstain from the media’s sexualization is not an option. Women who try to do so face backlash from their viewers and peers, and they experience criticism, particularly from male viewers. Through advertisements, shows, movies, and magazines, society will paint these women as stubborn, aggressive, and traditionally unattractive.

According to a 1997 Harvard Law review, “Female athletes in the United States have historically faced resistance, even outright hostility, for not confining themselves to ‘feminine’ activities.”

Society constantly upholds expectations on how women should look and behave, and women cannot detach themselves from them even in the realm of sports. Why must our identities be stripped down to physical appearances? Why can’t we just be athletes?

Additionally, the media’s attempts to cater to male viewers by sexualizing female athletes results in men failing to appreciate women’s sports. If you ever scroll through the comment section of a TikTok video where a woman is trying to even remotely demonstrate some sort of athletic skill, you will see the vulgarity of men’s inability to accept the fact that women can be athletes. If a woman is doing a pull-up, a man will say that her form is incorrect. If a girl is doing a push-up, a boy will say that the camera angle doesn’t show her knees touching the floor. 

People will find any excuse to separate girls from athleticism because it doesn’t fit their stereotypical view of a woman’s role in society.

The unfairness in all of this is that even if a woman is an amazing athlete and she knows it, she will always be a female first.

Viewers’ concentration on sex appeal rather than skill unfairly strips away the amount of time and dedication and hard work these women put into excelling in their sport. Furthermore, the perversion of women in sports not only discourages the athletes themselves, but it also affects female viewers who perceive female athletes as unattainable idols of beauty and sex appeal. 

Women’s sports should not be something that brings down the people who play it or the girls who watch it. Women’s sports is empowering; it is something that allows girls and boys alike to appreciate the sheer power and skill of women.

This summer, when I watched the U.S. women’s volleyball team win gold in the 2020 Olympics, I watched as an excited volleyball fan and not as a girl. Now, as I write this article about the sexualization of female athletes, I write as a student journalist and not as a girl. Tomorrow, when I arrive at the Acalanes gym for volleyball practice, I will enter as a volleyball player and not as a girl. My sex does not define who I am, so it should not affect the way others view me.

Ultimately, when I step onto the volleyball court, I should not have to worry about whether or not someone will be taking pictures of my butt. In sports, female athletes are there to be athletes and solely athletes. As viewers, it’s time to respect that.