Criticism of Female Olympians’ Bodies Harms Athletes

August 10, 2012

U.S. Olympic weightlifter Sarah Robles almost could not afford to compete in the London Olympics despite her outstanding strength and impressive accomplishments — she is ranked higher than any other weightlifter in the United States, male or female. She had the skills, athletic excellence, and formal qualifications, but Robles says she had trouble finding sponsorships because of her body. “You can get that sponsorship if you’re a super-built guy or a girl who looks good in a bikini,” she says. “But not if you’re a girl who’s built like a guy.” The two strongest women in America, Sarah Robles and fellow weightlifter Holley Mangold, were not offered the same sponsorships, positive media coverage, or treatment that thin women Olympians enjoy.

On her blog, Pretty Strong, Robles voices frustration over discrimination against her body in media coverage, sponsorship opportunities, and too-tight uniforms. Unfortunately, she is not the only female Olympian who faces cruel criticism about her body. British heptathlon champion Jessica Ennis, Australian swimmer Leisel Jones, British weightlifter Zoe Smith, and the entire Brazilian women’s soccer team have also faced criticism for looking “unfit.” Newspapers and magazines have compared the athletes’ current bodies to how they used to look and polled readers about whether the women “looked fit enough” for the Olympics.

Irrelevant criticism of female Olympians’ weights and body shapes fuels a damaging myth that thinness is more important than fitness. This body-image obsession encourages girls to prioritize becoming ultra-skinny instead of healthy and fit, which is a primary barrier deterring girls’ participation in exercise and athletics, according to a study conducted by the Women’s Sport and Fitness Foundation. Regardless of what these Olympic women athletes look like — and many of the aforementioned women actually have washboard abs and defined muscles — all are amazing and successful athletes. Athletic women do not always appear skinny or ultra-thin because many sports require larger muscles for endurance and strength. Mangold emphasizes that “an athlete can come in any size,” and media focus on body appearance and shape rather than skill or ability is misleading.

Media criticism can harm the athletes as well as viewers. As noted by Women’s Sport and Fitness Foundation Chief Executive Sue Tibballs, body criticisms “really add to the pressure on women athletes, many of whom already have a disordered attitude toward foods because they are in a controlled routine where weight is a key issue.” One in five Olympic-qualifying female athletes suffers from an eating disorder.

Showing emotional strength in addition to their physical strength, many female Olympians have gracefully and powerfully responded to cruel comments about their bodies. Weightlifter Smith says,“We, as any women with an ounce of self-confidence would, prefer our men to be confident enough in themselves to not feel emasculated by the fact that we aren’t weak and feeble.”

Women had lots to celebrate during the 2012 Olympics — the “Women’s Games.” Women’s boxing debuted; for the first time ever, every country at the games sent female athletes; and American women won lots of gold medals. Though women made great strides in competition, they still faced inequity and discrimination in media coverage. With so much success to celebrate, news should focus on the athletic accomplishments and skills of our female athletes rather than their weights or body shapes.

This post was written by AAUW Public Policy Intern Laura Dietrich.

AAUWguest By:   |   August 10, 2012


  1. […] Williams’ excellence, manufactured from both mental and physical power, rebels against ideas that minimize the success of women athletes with bodies that do not meet mainstream definitions of beauty, a practice that disproportionately […]

  2. Avatar Rachel says:

    Thank you for this insightful, timely blog post. I have not come across any criticism of any male Olympic athletes for looking “unfit.” Also, I would like to see the people who criticized Sarah and Holley try and lift 320 lbs overhead. Then we’ll see who is unfit!

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