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.

I’m a fair-weather sports fan — by which I mean summer, when tennis and soccer have their big tournaments. And this year we have the Olympics to look forward to … drool fest!

Yup, that means Abby Wambach (I’m yours, Abby!), Megan Rapinoe, Amy LePeilbet, Hope Solo, and all the others from last summer’s Women’s World Cup finalist team will be back. Watch this video and get all excited already. (JE explains that she watches this to get herself motivated for running every day. She also warns that the accompanying song, “I’m Sexy and I Know It,” is ridiculous to the point of offensiveness aside from its driving beat, especially if you consider the many feminist messages of this sport.)

Squeeeee!