The way we talk about female athletes is messed up
"You have vaulter's thighs," my coach sighed as she explained the judges' remarks on my scorecard. They'd noted that while my floor routine performance was good, I didn't have the "long, lean lines" expected of a competitive gymnast. That may not sound like much of a slam, but I understood the coded language very well. "Long, lean lines" meant thin, thin, thin — the ideal body type for a gymnast when I was competing. And "vaulter's thighs"? Let's just say that was not meant as a compliment.
My ignominious gymnastics career ended quickly, but the body hate sure didn't. "Vaulter's thighs," I'd say to the sales girl and shrug dejectedly when I tried on high-end jeans at the mall and found they wouldn't go past my knees. "I want to be long and lean," I'd add. It didn't even occur to me then that how people talked about me as an athlete — and how people talk in general about female athletes — had poisoned my psyche so much.
That is until the 2016 Rio Olympics showed me. Even though I was never a great gymnast, I loved the sport more than anything and so I've watched it (and pretty much every other sport) breathlessly since coverage first started last Friday. But my adult eyes and ears quickly picked up on things my teen ears missed.
- When Hungary's Katinka Hozzoú shattered a world record in swimming, the announcer said, "And this is the man responsible..." as the camera panned to her husband.
- When trap shooter Corey Cogdell took the bronze, her hometown newspaper announced it as "Wife of Bears lineman Mitch Unrein wins bronze in Rio."
- When 41-year-old gymnast Oksana Chusovitina declared her intention to compete, the first thing everyone did was point out her age and status as a mother. When asked if the sexist commentary bothered her, she shrugged and said, "I am a woman."
- When swimming phenom Katie Ledecky broke yet another world record, the Daily News gave credit to her teammate, calling her the "female Michael Phelps." (Although it should be noted that in NBC's coverage, they said, "Some say she swims like a man, but she swims like Katie Ledecky." So that's... better?)
This way of talking about female athletes only in terms of their looks, husbands, children, age or "fuckability" isn't new. In a recent video as part of the I Am Second project, Beijing Olympic medalist Shawn Johnson shared how even though she won both bronze and gold medals, everyone was obsessed with her weight instead of her talent. It nearly killed her spirit and it influenced her decision to retire from gymnastics.
In a new Dove campaign, they are calling out the way talk about female athletes.
The campaign is called My Beauty My Say, and it highlights other recent media talking points about female athletes, including commenting on a tennis player's "huge nipples" (what?), a volleyball player's "quality ass" and how a gymnast was "built like a fire hydrant." It's enough to kill anyone's spirit, frankly, even for those of us just watching. I mean, if an elite athlete's record-breaking body isn't good enough, then whose is?
But there is hope. Things are changing as female athletes speak out and challenge the stereotypes. And on a grassroots level, we can change the conversation by changing the way we talk about others and especially how we talk about ourselves. Just last night, for instance, as I watched the gymnastics qualifying rounds with my young daughter, she pointed to Simone Biles after her incredible vault and said, "Wow, look at all the muscles in her legs!"
"Yep, she has vaulter's thighs," I said proudly.
"I want vaulter's thighs," my daughter gasped and it was clear it was the highest compliment. As it should be.