Friday, June 22, 2007

Beard, Patrick, Stokke, Kournikova and the Sexualization of Female Athletes

One the biggest hit generating posts I have had in recent months is the post where I talked about U.S. swimmer Amanda Beard posing for Playboy. Even now, some month and changes after the original post, I am still getting a lot of traffic on the post. Another popular post is one where I talk about the trials of Allison Stokke and her family in light of the posting of pictures of the very attractive Stokke, and how parents might have to face similar problems in the future.

At the same time, prior to Amanda Beard, one of the most downloaded athletes in terms of photos was Anna Kournikova. Indy race car driver Danica Patrick, another athlete blessed with stunning good looks has appeared in a number of magazines where she is featured more for her looks than her driving skills. While men's magazines and other media have often been drawn the physically attractive, there are more and more comments about female athletes and how we as a nation are drawn to these women because of the way they look rather for their skills as an athlete.

From the outset, many of these women, with teh possible exception of Anna Kournikova, have generated interest in them because of their skills. Despite having never won an Inday race, Danica Patrick consistently performs well enough to be ranked in the top ten of her sport. Beard has a lot of gold medals hanging in her house and Allison Stokke is the California state champion in pole vaulting. Other athletes like volleyball's Gabrielle Reese, Kerrie Walsh and Logan Tom, soccer's Brandi Chastain and Heather Mitts, and literally dozens of tennis players, have racked up impressive records in terms of their sports. But more and more, these athletes are using their athletic fame to move into something else, such as modeling or at least using their physical appearance to further their career and expand their bank accounts.

When I first posted about Amanda Beard's decision to appear in Playboy, I got a few emails saying that I was objectifying her, degrading Beard and turning her into nothing more than a sexual being with no other purpose. First, I would like to point out that no one puts a gun to these women's head and says, "we are going to tak pictures of you in skimpy attire or without clothes." Amanda Beard volunteered and made money for her pictures. If she didn't want me looking at her with a sexual overtone, appearing in Playboy is a bad decision. Even for athletes like Danica Patrick and others, they made the decision to sexualize themselves, even without taking off their clothes, to a certain degree and for us to ignore that factor is to bury our head in the sand.

Second, in a society that at once exalts the sporting life and is descending into obesity, why not celebrate the physical appearance of an athlete whose body is honed not by mere genetics, but by hard work. As I noted in my original post, women have appeared in Playboy with a body that resulted from genetics. This is not to say that Beard would not be beautiful were it not for her gold medals, but without the medals, it is unlikely that Playboy would have approached her to appear sans her Speedo. Athletes work hard to maintain their bodies in peak condition and the fact that it happens to be connected to a pretty face is something that is to be celebrated.

What we forget, often times, when thinking about female athletes, particularly those like Beard, Patrick, Kournikova and others who are at least adults, is that these women, in addition to being athletes are themselves sexual beings. One presumes they have and in some cases we know, that they have romantic and presumably sexual relationships. These women are not nuns who wait in a convent until it is time to compete and retreat to the cloistered halls after the competition. If these women choose to express their sexuality in teh pages of Playboy or FHM or any other magazine, why should we as a society get our collective underwear in a twist?

We don't put the same standards upon men? Male athletes are assumed to be sexual creatures and no one questions their attendance at a strip club. But for women athletes to express a sexuality, that becomes something to be feared or criticized. And men who partake in the celebration of the female form in the shape of an athlete in a magazine are some how misogynistic for their enjoyment.

One emailer asked me if I would allow my daughters to pose in Playboy. Well, first, by the time Playboy could hire them to pose, they would be adults and no matter what I say, they would be able to make the decision themselves. But at the same time, I hope that by the time my daughters reach adulthood, I will have equipped them with the decision-making skills to make the choice themselves. If they choose to do so, why should I stand in the way. Such an activity is lucrative and if my daughters grace the pages of Playboy as result of their athletic achievements, who am I to argue. More to the point, who are you to argue. Would I buy that issue--maybe not, but I certainly wouldn't prohibit my daughters from doing what they choose.

In the expansion of the media to encompass so many different forms, there is a cry out for content. If a woman, who happens to be an athlete and attractive decides to pose with little or no clothing for a paycheck, she has no more sold out her sport or herself than anyone else who does things for material gain.

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