The 2012 Olympics is popularly being called the ‘Women’s Olympics’. There are several reasons why this designation has been assigned to these particular games. One reason is that with the addition of female boxing, women are for the first time competing in all sports featured at the Olympics. Also, women in a historical achievement, are represented in all the nations with delegates. The International Olympic Committee finally succeeded in persuading Brunei, Qatar and Saudi Arabia, to include female Olympians in their delegations. Several big and small victories abound in the 2012 games that have advanced the cause of women. Some of the women who broke popular stereotypes were: [Linda Lowen, Notable women at tha London 2012 Olympics – The famous and Infamous, 14 August 2012
Malaysian shooter Nur Suryani Mohdwho, at 8months she is the most pregnant athlete to compete, at one time she had to step back from the shooting block and take a series of deep breaths when she felt her baby kick. Natalie Partyka the one-armed tennis player from Poland who is competing in her second Olympics after winning two gold medals in the 2004 and 2008 Paralympics, sees her disability as ‘nothing’, South Africa’s gender ambiguous runner Caster Semenya who was subjected to tests and banned from the sport for 11 months because of a sexual development disorder was finally allowed to compete in these Olympics and several other women whose participation was symbolic. Though some may not have won medals, they exhibited a nobility of spirit and honour that was a step forward for women accomplishments in not just athletics but all human endeavour.
It is therefore incredibly disheartening and disappointing to read accounts of the criticisms fired at several female athletes during the 2012 Olympics. Gabby Douglas, the 16 year old American gymnast, who is making history as the 2nd African American to make the American gymnast team and the only one to win medals in both single and all round categories in this Olympics, received several negative comments on something as trivial (in the scheme of things) as her hair. According to critics on twitter, Gabby Douglas’s hair is ‘unkempt’. The Australian swimmer Leisel Jones, was called ‘fat’ and unfit’ on both mainstream and social media by her country folk. Britain’s weightlifting team mates, Zoe Smith, Hannah Powell and Helen Jewel were viciously targeted and called lesbians and blokes. Several other athletes including; Rebecca Adlington – British Swimmer, Jessica Ennis – Heptathlon athlete, The entire Brazilian women’s soccer team, were the victims of negative comments and articles in the media. Several athletes have confessed to avoiding media reports (especially social media forums) in other to keep from being affected by negative and demoralizing messages about themselves and their bodies in the media.
The qualifying process for the Olympics is extremely rigorous. The fact that these women (and men) have made it to the Olympics at all is proof that they have shown unusual discipline, excelled in their sport and have already been judged worthy by competent officials to compete in their fields. It would be expected therefore, that on the world stage they will be judged on the basis of what they came to compete for, not on frivolous criteria such as looks or body image. Several of these women won medals and a few even broke records! Focusing on their looks rather than their accomplishments and the obstacles many of them have overcome to excel in their fields does not only trivialize all they have sacrificed but also creates a dangerous precedence where looks and social acceptability are considered more important than hard work and a drive excellence.
It is shocking to realize that the bulk of criticism appears to be coming predominantly from women. In a study published in the European Journal of social psychology Sarah J. Gervais et al (2012) [Gervais, S. J., Vescio, T. K., Förster, J., Maass, A. and Suitner, C. (2012), Seeing women as objects: The sexual body part recognition bias. Eur. J. Soc. Psychol.. doi: 10.1002/ejsp.1890
]noted that both women and men objectify women’s bodies. While men objectify women’s bodies probably because they are interested in them as potential mates, women objectify other women’s bodies more in comparism with themselves. This is particularly important because instead of looking at another female’s body and thinking “if she can look like that and excel in her field then I don’t have to hold myself to the standards of societal concepts of what is considered beautiful”, women appear to be looking at other women and judging them as somehow ‘not worthy’ to have received recognition in their fields because of the way they look. The decision by the planning committee for the London 2012 Olympics games to parade fashion models (several of who have admittedly struggled with eating disorders and drug use to manage their weight) in the closing ceremony of the games did not help the situation.
The juxtaposing of the healthy female athletes body with the frail bodies of the super-models who featured in the closing ceremony is particularly ironic in that it appears to send the message that when all is said and done, what matters is not hard work but how you look and yes, it is ok to go through unnatural eating habits and substance abuse to achieve what is considered socially acceptable beauty. This trend is particularly worrying because there is already a dearth of female role models for younger girls to emulate. The females who by their visibility in the media (artistes and other media superstars) have become, by default, role models for young girls everywhere leave a lot to be desired. Super-models with eating disorders and stringent weight and body part requirements as well as movie stars, musicians and celebrities whose’ careers hinge on their ability to fit the socially accepted concept of beauty, are not fitting role models for young females who are probably already battling with body image issues. This is not to minimize the dedication and hard work a lot of entertainers and celebrities give to their chosen career but rather to call for a space where women, no matter how they look or what their proclivities are, can be judged for their dedication and excellence in their chosen field and not on how they fit into society’s context of what and who is considered beautiful and as such culturally acceptable.
We need ‘ugly’ women, ‘fat’ women, ‘short’ women, ‘tall’ women, ‘dark’ women, women with abilities and disabilities of every sort who are succeeding in their fields of endeavour. We need women who every and any young female can see on the big screen of life and say “she ‘looks’ like me! And if she can, I can too!” The strength of women everywhere is not in how we are different but in how we share the same struggles and issues in our various endeavours and as such are uniquely placed to help each other grow and achieve personal and collective goals.