I was asked to write an opinion piece for the Fresh Outlook on the news story about women boxers wearing skirts. I actually felt a bit conflicted about it, as was concerned that it was fuelling a story that perpetuated the idea that women are othered in sport, rather than seeing women and men as equal in the sporting world. But I wrote it anyway.
The news that Polish boxers are expected to wear skirts, and the debate as to whether boxers from other countries should therefore do the same, will come as little surprise to observers of the way women are perceived when they take part in the male-dominated sporting world. It is a perfect example of how discussion of women in sport, if and when it happens, often seeks to strip away the sport and athleticism of the competitors and turn it into a conversation about clothes, or women’s bodies.
When a volunteer from Bristol Fawcett looked at the representation of women in the Guardian Sports pages over the month of November 2009, she found that 1048 of the images were of men, whilst only 28 were of women. And, unlike the in the photos of men, none of these women were pictured passionately, energetically and powerfully engaged in their sport. We weren’t shown their strength, their determination or their triumph. The women were either completely divorced from their sport, glammed up to show that ‘athleticism and sexiness can go together!’ or else they were shown crying. Whilst of course there is nothing wrong with looking glam, it says something quite stark about how we see women in sport that out of over 1070 images of sporting stars, we couldn’t find one that showed women being athletic.
This is symptomatic of a wider invisibility of women in sport. The BBC only agreed to show the Women’s Football World Cup after immense pressure was put on the broadcaster. Despite the fact that, as in cricket, the women’s team was far more successful than the men’s team. In areas where we are familiar with seeing women in sport, such as in tennis, a new issue arises. The All England Club (who host Wimbledon – perhaps the most famous tennis tournament in the world) was criticised in 2009 for putting matches between conventionally attractive women players on high profile courts (that get a lot of TV coverage) whilst former champions and top seeds were shifted on to courts 2 and 3. In 2002, Martina Navratilova also accused the BBC of sexism over its coverage of the matches, citing the same reason.
And of course we all remember how earlier this year, comments by high-profile Sky pundits about a woman who works as a lines person exposed the sexism women face in this male-dominated world.
Let alone the disbelief that shook the athletics world that a woman could run as fast as Caster Semenya can.
Even the way we talk about women in sport shows an accepted and unconscious level of sexism. Women boxers. Women tennis players. Women footballers. Women’s cricket. Women athletes. Can you imagine someone saying the ‘men’s football world cup’? Because when it comes to sport, our default is male. Women are almost consistently ‘othered’.
Arguably, the two most widespread news stories in women’s sport recently have involved beach volley ball players’ bottoms and Polish boxers’ skirts. I say widespread, as they are stories that I have been exposed to as someone who doesn’t follow sport, suggesting that they have been mainstream news items. Indeed, it is this that I have been asked to write about. We haven’t heard about the incredible athleticism of the volley ball players. Or the determination and strength of women who box. We’ve learnt a lot about what they’re expected to wear, or what they’re planning on wearing.
The achievements of women in sport are many and they are impressive. They are equal to and even surpass the achievements of their male counterparts.The women who box are athletic, strong, ambitious and passionate about their sport. They are not clothes horses. They are not women boxers. They are boxers. They are athletes.