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Twirlgate: Women Athletes Deserve Better

By Annie Stewart--I have played sports since I was three years old. Being physically active has given me (and continues to give) more joy than my heart can contain. Sports were also one of the avenues through which my feminism came to life. As a female athlete, I experienced the inequalities that women have to fight against.  

I can still remember hearing comments like: ‘’She’s good…for a girl.” I still remember my team being compared to the boy’s team.  I still remember boys making sexual innuendos during the course of our matches (during which I beat them I’ll have you know). I still remember being slightly creeped out when a journalist from my local newspaper took pictures of my teammates and I in compromising positions during our tennis matches. Even years later, those memories hurt just as deeply as they did in middle and high school.

Now, to be fair, I simultaneously acknowledge that as a female athlete, I have certain privileges that my mother and grandmother did not have. I recall my mother telling me how she wanted to play tennis in high school but there was not a girl’s team.  I remember my mom attending every one of my soccer games and then saying to me, ‘‘You are so fortunate, Annie.’’ With the passage of Title IX in 1972 (giving women equal opportunity in sports,) with the role models of Mia Hamm, Julie Foudy, the Williams sisters, and Lisa Lesley to name a few, I grew up having female athletes to look up to. Yet, it seems that with every step forward, there are two steps back.

What brought this issue to mind this week more than other occasions was the Australian Open, which takes places for two weeks every January in Melbourne, Australia.  I have watched all the major tennis tournaments since I was a child and still watch with utter fascination, joy and excitement. In the past few days, there has been a bit of an upset and no, I am not talking about Roger Federer being sent home in the third round.

On January 21st, Eugenie Bouchard, the seventh seeded female tennis player in the world, was asked by a male journalist (Ian Cohen) to twirl to show off her outfit following her straight set victory over Kiki Bertens.  She did, looking awkward and surprised by the request. Social media went ablaze following this incident, calling the comment uncalled for, unacceptable in 2015, and flat out sexist.

And this isn’t the first time Bouchard was asked a question that did not have to do with her tennis abilities. Just a year ago, Bouchard was the first Canadian woman to reach a Grand Slam semi-final in thirty years. So of course, what was on everyone’s mind was this historic moment in the tennis world, right? Think again.

 “You’re getting a lot of fans here, a lot of them male”, began a reporter. “They want to know: if you could date anyone in the world of sport or movies—I’m sorry they asked me to say this—who would you date?”  The nineteen-year-old Bouchard blushed, looked embarrassed and said Justin Bieber.

What kind of world do we live in that a woman proudly plays a sport representing her country, yet what the media seems to be fascinated by are men she is attracted to and the outfits she wears? Please remind me….what year are we living in again?

To be perfectly honest, this isn’t ‘’news.’’ The fact that these journalists made these comment doesn’t surprise me, although it is quite disappointing.  These comments are reminders that in many respects, women are still judged for their appearance, rather than their athletic abilities. These words convey a deeper meaning—that women are sources of objectification, nothing more than men to ogle over. And I didn’t need the comment from the report to know this is true.

Why, when the Olympics are taking place, every comment I hear from a man about a female athlete, it has to do with what she was wearing or how ‘hot’ she is. And please, if you are male and reading this, when I ask you why you like a specific player, please don’t tell me it’s because she is ‘’smoking hot.’’  Men: you are better than that. Throughout high school, a great majority of my friends were guys—stand up, solid respectable guys who always respected me for the person that I was and the opinions I held.

As a woman, I am bombarded with messages each and every day that speak of my worth—essentially saying that my self-worth is entirely based on the food I may or may not eat, the miles I may or may not run, and the clothing I may or may not wear. We don’t need comments from others that reinforce these messages—messages that tell us that our value as human beings comes from what we look like. So, please next time you want to compliment a woman, please consider complimenting who she is or what she does—not how hot she looked in her tennis skirt.

Change must first begin and end with each individual choosing to stand up against these messages. We cannot fix our socially constructed ideas of gender if we are not educated about them ourselves. Read stories of women—from every sphere of life—who overcame the odds stacked against her and showed the world what she is capable of.   Learn the history of inequalities, mobilize, and connect with others who are passionate about change. Intentionally look for female role models who are choosing a better way. And when you hear people make degrading comments about women (or ANYONE for that matter), stand up and speak out. When you hear men (or sadly even women) comment on a woman’s appearance rather than her amazing achievements, don’t be silent but raise your voice. Ask them where they got those ideas about women; ask questions pertaining to when, where and how and most importantly, why. Sometime people don’t even know why they think the way they do, until someone invites them to think differently, to believe in something better.

During her news conference, Eugenie Bouchard laughed off the comment from Ian Cohen. She said, “I’m not offended. I’m fine with being asked to twirl if they ask the guys to flex. I think it was an in the moment thing and it was funny.”  She then continued, “I’m happy to have played three solid matches here and we could definitely be a little bit more focused on that.”

It should be noted that I don’t think it is wrong for a woman to take pride in her appearance. It is not wrong to enjoy clothing and makeup and partaking in these behaviours does not make me-or anyone else less of a feminist. But we should partake in these behaviours—if we so desire—for no one but ourselves alone. Twirl to your heart’s content if you so desire, but for you, not for anyone else.

I don’t know if Ian Cohen’s words truly affected Bouchard.  Any athlete who becomes a professional (where you essentially have to be married to your sport) develops very thick skin; mental toughness goes with the profession so maybe these words from this one journalist had little effect on her. But I do know this: there are young girls watching at home (like I did with my family as a child) who see this interaction between Bouchard and Cohen and thus believe that the way a woman presents herself outwardly is more important than her incredible athletic abilities.  Maybe young girls will quit playing tennis or soccer or basketball. Or maybe it’s something else entirely. Maybe young girls will stop pursuing their talents in math and science because they heard that those subjects are better suited for boys. We never know the impact of our words.

Mr. Cohen, and to everyone reading this, please watch what you say. You have no idea the impact it can and does make.  Please speak in ways that lift people up, rather than drag them down. And most of all, love and accept and cherish every individual for the gifts they have to offer the world, rather than how ‘hot’ they look using such gifts.

Picture courtesy of Channel 7 News

About this blogger: Annie Stewart graduated from university in May with a degree in sociology and gender studies. She is especially passionate about seeing individuals develop a healthy relationship with food, exercise and the body.  Beyond that, she is also passionate about  social justice, good strong coffee (usually accompanied by a book),  traveling and telling her own story of recovery in the hopes that it can be a beacon of light on someone else's road to healing, health and wholeness.  She is currently interning with a human rights organization in England and hopes to eventually go on to graduate school and pursue a degree in clinical social work.

For more by Annie: 

Colleges Need More Eating Disorder Resouces 

Recovering from an Eating Disorder in College: A Survival Guide

4 Ways to Embrace Freedom from ED this Holiday Season

The "Bikini Body" Lie: How I Found My Own Truth

Beauty Ideals Around the World

Celebrating my Birthdays





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