“…but we couldn’t move our arms to run.”

1 September 2012

Why do female athletes become involved in prettifying themselves for cameras?

It’s one of those questions that dogs me. The tennis players who wear too-tight dresses. The gymnasts who wear exaggerated eye shadow and sparkly dust in their hair. Sometimes those prettifications get in the way of the athlete performing. Why do they acquiesce? In what way can this help their performance?

All the more reason for me to be riveted to the soccer player Caitlin Davis Fisher, who’s now a Fulbright fellow in Brazil where she has played professionally for years. Fisher’s TED talk analyzes the body image of female athletes, and in less than 7 minutes she explains how her fellow players went from being ignored by most of the public — and thereby feeling free to perform their femininity in whatever way they pleased — to prettifying themselves once the women’s sport began to accelerate in popularity over time.

To underline their new popularity, they were offered new uniforms — that is, uniforms that weren’t 6-yr-old hand-me-downs from the men’s team — but the tops were so tight “we couldn’t move our arms to run.”

The women players begin to believe that in order to maintain the sport’s popularity — to increase the acceptance of the women’s game — they ought to change their appearance to be friendlier to public preconceptions/ prejudices (preconceito) about female attractiveness.

What’s happening is the women’s game in Brazil is being feminized, wherein only a feminine version of the game is being accepted, and only only this female player is being allowed inside, if she re-creates her identity in this manner. So although the cultural stigma is starting to fade, the exclusion, the preconceito, is reconfiguring itself and imposing itself on the only place left: the female body. The body of the female athlete is being policed. It’s being shaped, regulated, and controlled by the intensification of feminine expectations.

Davis Fisher smartly probes the ways women athletes themselves get bound up with the promotion of their sport in such intelligent, articulate ways that I’m tempted to welcome her as one of us academics — except I hope she directs her work toward a broader audience than merely an academic one.

4 Responses to ““…but we couldn’t move our arms to run.””

  1. ollie Says:

    I pretty much agree with your argument here, but your first paragraph kinda rubbed me the wrong way. At what point is a tennis dress “too tight”? At what point does sparkly hair or “exaggerated eyeshadow” detract from the performance of the athletes? I agree that female athletes shouldn’t be *expected* to do this, and that some of them probably feel pressurised to perform femininity, especially if they’re in sports that are perceived as ‘unfeminine’, and to be fair, a lot of sports are perceived as ‘unfeminine’, and a lot of female athletes receive cruel policing based on their performance of femininity, which is called into question by their even being athletes.

    On the other hand, who is to say that all these women are prettifying themselves for cameras? Some will be, sure, and that might be problematic or it might not be, depending on the individual person and situation. But some women like to “prettify themselves”, as you put it, not for cameras or for men or for sponsorship deals, but because it feels good. They like the process of applying the makeup or doing their hair, or picking out colours and styles and products. They like how they look when they do these things, or they like how it makes them feel. Suggesting that they are simply acquiescing to outside pressures doesn’t acknowledge any of wide variety of reasons that women, athletes and otherwise, enjoy “prettifying themselves” and ignores their agency in their decisions about their own bodies. It smacks a little of “poor women, if only they could understand that they were just tools of the patriarchy, they wouldn’t wear make-up or heels or sparkly hair!”

    On the other hand (again!) there’s Sarah Robles, who seems to suffer based on her failure to perform femininity adequately enough to secure sponsorship deals, which is plainly outrageous. So, like I say, I agree with your argument, I just felt a little bit like your opening statements were very dismissive of performing femininity in sports or in general.

    I’m sorry this comment is so epic! I got carried away …

    • Didion Says:

      Fair enough — I know better than to assume I can look at an athlete and discern her motivations. I was going off Davis Fisher’s comments that her compatriots on the Brazilian women’s football team started growing their hair and wearing makeup after the team’s popularity began to grow. When she asked them about it, they insisted they were doing it for the public image of their sport.

      On the issue of “too tight”, it seems less ambiguous. If a football uniform is so tight an athlete can’t move her arms to run, it’s too tight. If a tennis dress is so tight it keeps riding up her body and she has to keep tugging it back down into place, it’s too tight. I’m not objecting to the tightness per se but its inhibiting her athletic skill and/or distracting her from the task at hand.

      • ollie Says:

        Of course, and you’re totally right on those points. And I’ve just read the piece you link to, and agree with that too (I’m sure you’re relieved :-p). I thought when you mentioned tennis you were talking about people complaining about the kind of dress that flies up when they move fast on the court, which of course is unladylike and therefore shouldn’t be allowed. That makes me cross, especially when it combines with the kind of racist commentary that Serena and Venus Williams are continually bombarded by.

      • Didion Says:

        Yeah, that kind of commentary overlooks the fact that all women wear skirts that fly up. Every once in a while the whole skirt thing gets to me; at Wimbledon (or was it the Olympics?) Serena was wearing a much fuller skirt than usual and every gust of wind gave us a full shot of her underpants — so she spent a goodly amount of time smoothing it down. This is time wasted when I want to see Serena kicking the shit out of some tennis balls, mind you. Remember Victoria Azarenka’s cocky, swaggering wearing of shorts at the Australian Open last winter? I cheered.

        But that’s not really the point Davis Fisher is making, nor the one I care about…that’s just idle grumbling. What I really care about is killer women athletes getting told — by their own brains, teammates, coaches, handlers — that above & beyond their skills they ought to look different, wear different clothes, etc.

        Oh dear, we’re crazy confused about female athletes.

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