Last week I wrote about the Sexist Thighs genre of World Cup listicles, the ones that zoom in on rippling muscles and rank the “best” of the body parts. In my essay, I tried to walk the fine line between acknowledging the problematic double standard of sexualizing female athletes (which I frown upon) and male athletes (which some people say is A-Ok because it’s only every four years and guys don’t get this all the time and blah blah blah…), while simultaneously arguing that contextual differences around male and female bodies mean we can’t measure objectification from an even playing field, because there isn’t one.
I wanted to share some feedback I got from all directions, because I think the complexities of this issue are many and there’s plenty of stereotype to go around.
From A, who felt generally in agreement, but took issue with my characterization of how much easier men have it in the media landscape:
“Young men are constantly bombarded with images of what a “sexy” and “successful” man looks like. Society has also conflated sexiness and career/financial success. Those who are good looking are successful in their careers and vice versa. This ultimately stems from a standard of beauty put on young men by fashion outlets (Abercrombie), TV (Don Draper), politics (Aaron Shock), and sports (Tom Brady). Just like it is somewhat easier for you wonderful, smart women to be successful despite certain gender stereotypes there are men who struggle against the “watch sports, let women cook, go into finance drive fancy cars blah blah blah” measure of success that is put upon up.”
From C., who felt that the athleticism displayed by world class athletes (male and female) makes for healthier idolization than, say, regular old hot people:
“The world cup is THE global sporting event. The men who compete in it are incredibly talented athletes and have the bodies to match. It’s not just that they have great thighs but that they are strong and coordinated. Also, part of what has been great about those lists is how diverse they are compared to the average “hot celebrity” compilation…But let’s flip it. Say there’s a women’s sporting event big enough that lists are being made about hottest female athletes (I’m sure this happened in the Olympics). I’m actually not upset about a slideshow that draws attention to the bodies of female athletes who are strong and capable…I don’t think you need to defend men from pictures of world-class male athletes any more than you need to defend women from pictures of world-class female athletes. These are people in the best shape of their lives who have worked really hard to get that way, and that’s a thing to admire.”
C’s point is very interesting, and in general I’m much more in favor of fawning over what bodies can do vs. how they look, even though those two things are very related. I used to have this amazing coffee table book of photography of athletes with lineups of champions illustrating the range of physiques that can accomplish crazy feats:
If that’s what we were talking about when we talk about “athletic physiques” then I’m all for it, because it truly prioritizes achievement over aesthetics, but that’s almost never what we’re talking about. Just as we don’t celebrate the physiques of weightlifting women in mainstream media, we don’t celebrate the 114lb, 5’2″ physiques of male marathoners either. They may be champions, but they don’t fit the “hot body” model we’ve come to expect.
Even when we talk athletic excellence, we are usually limiting our body worship to bodies that fit within the cutout of what we are already told is attractive. It doesn’t matter that Taylor Townsend is a tennis star, her body doesn’t look the way we think “fit” looks, and her sponsorship options already reflect how “confusing” people find that gap.
All of that is to say, soccer players are an interesting test case because they are athletically gifted and also perfect fits for what we have already deemed the “ideal physique.” I’m not sure we can separate those things and say that our adulation is about fitness rather than abdominal definition. And if it is about abdominal definition, then we have to own that, and we have to defend that, which personally, I’m not prepared to do.
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