Sports: focus on ability, not appearances!

2ème tour Roland Garros 2013 : Serena Williams (USA) def. Caroline Garcia (FRA)

by Charley Griffiths

By no means would I call myself a sport expert, I will say that now. I usually never read or click on a sports article purely because I don’t really support any particular teams, and sport headlines just read to me as “Look, sport happened! People scored points!” There just isn’t anything in it for me.

But after a friend pointed out to me recently that sexism in sport is still massively a thing, it got me wondering whether that was some kind of subconscious reason for my lack of interest. Then, when I opened up the news app on my phone, I decided to browse the sport section for the first time ever. I was pleasantly surprised to be greeted with a female face. Until I read the headline. Brazilian surfer Silvana Lima wasn’t deemed “pretty enough” for sponsorship. Now even I can see how bloody ridiculous that is.

Essentially, sport should be about your ability as an athlete. Nothing more, nothing less. Yet Silvana Lima, eight times best surfer in Brazil, twice second in the world, is obviously very good at what she does, but this wasn’t acknowledged for the first 13 years of her career. Lima, talking to the BBC, acknowledged how “I don’t look like a model. I’m a surfer, a professional one. The surf-wear brands, when it comes to women, they want both models and surfers. So if you don’t look like a model, you end up without a sponsor, which is what happened to me… men don’t have these problems”. Why is it that women are unfortunately pressured into focussing on their looks to advance in their athletic careers?

Thankfully, Lima didn’t let this stop her. She explained how “I could get breast implants, dye my hair… but it would be so weird, nobody would recognise me. It wouldn’t be me”. After facing these obstacles, it made her “want to get better at the sport”, and thankfully her hard work has paid off, with important brands now giving her the backing she deserves. But successful female athletes are still repeatedly judged on their appearances, and not their athletic accomplishments. In fact, in a survey conducted by BBS Sport in 2015, almost 50 elite sportswomen said they had been criticised via social media about their looks.

Think back to last year, when Serena Williams was dubbed as ‘manly’ by pathetic trolls on social media. I think with her five Wimbledon championships, 21 Grand Slam singles and four Olympic gold medals, she isn’t at all bothered by what you have to say, but the point still stands. Tennis is one of the key offenders here. While the pay gap has been addressed, with male and female tennis players earning equal prize money at Wimbledon, it is not a coincidence that the women seen as more attractive get more media attention, I mean just look at Maria Sharapova. Talented athlete, but with her looks receiving greater attention. The All England Club actually admitted that “good looks are a factor” in choosing which players are selected to play on the high-profile courts. Comedian Amy Schumer does a great parody video of how sexy tennis players are treated, I suggest you YouTube that if you don’t want to read more of my ramblings, as she pretty much hits the nail on the head.

Alternatively, you could look at the video made by ‘Cover the Athlete’, an online campaign exploring sexism in sport. It highlights how ridiculous sports coverage is of women, by using clever editing to highlight how male athletes would not be asked the sort of questions addressed to female athletes, such as questions about their love life, hair or weight. Cover the Athlete’s YouTube page addresses how “inappropriate interview questions, and articles commenting on physical appearance not only trivialises a woman’s accomplishments, but also sends a message that a woman’s value is based on her looks, not her ability”. Considering the related videos bar on the right had videos titled “Top 10 Hottest Female Athletes” etc, I would agree with this statement. Yes, male athletes often crop up on these sorts of lists too, and looks are acknowledged, but their appearance never has a detrimental effect on their career in the way it so often does for women. Men are also victims to these pressures, and that is wrong. But there are literally endless examples of this happening to women all the time.

It isn’t even just about appearances here either. Coverage of female sport is seriously lagging behind. According to the Women’s Sport and Fitness Foundation (WSFF), only seven per cent of all sports coverage is dedicated to women’s sport. Look at the rugby and football; not only do they get much less focus in the media, but they get paid significantly less. The WSFF also pointed out how a mere 0.5 per cent of all sponsorship money in the whole of UK sport goes to women. Add this to the fact that on average, a female England international only earns around £16,000 a year. I am pretty sure male footballers make that in a day, or even a few hours. Don’t believe me? Forbes list of highest paid athletes of 2015 featured only two women. I could go on and on.

An athlete’s appearance has absolutely no impact on their sporting ability, male or female. If we are still in a position where only the attractive athletes are getting major sponsorship deals, I am seriously questioning the integrity of the sport industry in general. If we want to get more women interested in sport, both watching and participating, perhaps sending out a positive message that our abilities are actually valued might be the trick. Get it together. Support achievement, not aesthetics.

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