July 1, 2022

when the diktat of physical beauty remains a criterion of visibility, and therefore of performance

“When I was young, I was quite strong and I had an ‘atypical’ body. The hardest part was hearing the criticism from friends: ‘you’re too fat’, ‘look at your thighs'”, sadly recalls Charlotte Lembach, Olympic vice-champion in women’s saber by team. “My nicknames were ‘big ham’ or ‘chicken legs’. I often went home crying. But it gave me even more strength to work and be better than the others.

Charlotte Lembach is not the only athlete to have suffered such comments on her physique. The body of sportswomen does not escape the phenomenon of sexualization, even hypersexualization already present in society as a whole.

>> READ ALSO: “We must stop believing that a single morphotype leads to performance”, testifies the skater Maé-Bérénice Méité<<

By these terms we mean “the highlighting of characteristics which are not linked to sport strictly speaking, but to aesthetic or even sexual considerations. It is a question of making the sportswoman conform to gender stereotypes linked to women, i.e. whatever goes ‘lens it’ and make it available to man”, explains Béatrice Barbusse, sociologist and vice-president of the French handball federation (FFH).

In addition to remarks and comments that can be degrading and difficult for the athlete to live with, this sexualization can have a real impact on a sports career. When they do not correspond to the standard standards of beauty and femininity – slender silhouette, well-made up face, etc… – defined and imposed by today’s society, they can experience real difficulty in finding sponsors. And quite simply, to be visible.

However, it is these same sponsors that allow them to live and have the financial resources necessary to participate in the various competitions. “The sportswoman must first win and show that she is efficient. Afterwards, it is even better for her to correspond to the canons of beauty”, points out Béatrice Barbusse.

An observation shared by Charlotte Lembach. Despite her title of Olympic vice-champion at the Tokyo Games, the fencer is struggling to find sponsors for Paris 2024. “When I see that I’m struggling while other very pretty sportswomen, who don’t have my track record, have more visibility and are outright approached by brands on social networks, that leads me to ask myself questions. …”, frankly loose the one who has a maternity project before Paris 2024.

“In men, I find that performance is put forward more. In women, you have to fight if you don’t fit into the criteria of beauty predefined by society.”

Charlotte Lembach, Olympic vice-champion in women’s saber by team

at franceinfo: sport

A trend also experienced by Mélina Robert-Michon, Olympic vice-champion at the Rio Games in 2016, and twenty times champion of France. His brilliant track record speaks for itself. However, the discus throwing specialist is also having difficulty finding sponsors. “Performance is more important in men, while physique has a more important part in women”, says the one who is aware of being “a little more robust than average”.

“Equipment manufacturers prefer to work with curvy girls, who look good on screen, even if they haven’t done anything special. A few years ago, they weren’t afraid to tell us that directly. Today today, it’s much less politically correct, so they find other excuses. We have to stop hiding, this vision is still present.”

Melina Robert-Michon

at franceinfo: sport

And the phenomenon goes even further. According to several researchers interviewed, some athletes go so far as to “to recreate a femininity”. The goal? Attract sponsors and pursue their career in better conditions.

“Those who do not have a physique similar to female stereotypes will put on nail polish, jewelry or even over-invest in dresses to try to give pledges that bring back a femininity”, expose Sandy Montanola, lecturer at Rennes 1 University and specialized in sports, gender and media issues. “Athletes have anticipated that sponsors expect fairly stereotypical social representations.”

Well-established norms of femininity, even among partners, which can prevent some young athletes from feeling good about themselves, especially during adolescence. “Media representations have an influence on the way we perceive ourselves, how we identify. Everyone, each one, also builds their identity in relation to that”, insists Natacha Lapeyroux, sociologist of gender and sport media.

Mélina Robert-Michon remembers: “I grew up very early. Adolescence is a time when you want to go unnoticed, and in the end you only see yourself. I knew I had more shoulders than the others, more marked thighs. No need to add to it. Such remarks can frighten some young girls, when the body changes and when we have a relationship with it which is more difficult.

The criteria of beauty and morphology implicitly imposed by certain sports are also factors of trouble for the athlete. The skater Maé-Bérénice Méité was the subject of heavy reflections about her physique and her weight, on the pretext that she did not correspond to the fine, slender and slender figure of the figure skater.

Your dress, your makeup, your hairstyle, your face, your physique, will be scrutinized in detail, because your line will play on the final note (…). It would be necessary to know and understand all the types of morphology, instead of wanting to transform each athlete into a predefined prototype”, firmly claims the six-time champion of France. This episode unfortunately left its mark on his career. “Since then, I’ve suffered from body dysmorphia. In the mirror, I see myself a bit fat, not toned and sharp enough. Luckily, I’m aware of it so I’m working on it.”

Gender stereotypes aren’t just about looks. They are also reflected in outfits, which are an integral part of the process of sexualization. Sometimes considered too short or too indented, many sportswomen have already been offended. Little by little, tongues are loosened and the athletes no longer hide their discomfort.

“Beach handball players refused the tricolor selection because of the compulsory wearing of the bikini. And again, it looks more like a thong. They were uncomfortable, it’s a reality”, laments Béatrice Barbusse. “Sport must be inclusive. It is not through this kind of outfit that we will facilitate the process.”

Many disciplines have already faced such a problem. French handball player Allison Pineau was playing in Nîmes in 2013 when it was decided that the players would play matches in skirts. “We didn’t feel super comfortable with this change, because we didn’t really know the motivations behind it”, confesses without language of wood the Olympic champion. “Ok, there is a desire to feminize outfits. But why the skirt? With the skirt, we are talking about a genre, we are entering into stereotypes. It’s also shorter… Isn’t there another way to feminize?

“Psychologically, we are not ready for this change. We are more comfortable in shorts to move. We all have different bodies. The goal is for everyone to feel good in their clothes, in their jersey. And not , conversely, to create complexes.”

Allison Pineau

at franceinfo:sport

In an essay published this summer, the British heptathlete gold medalist at the London Games in 2012, Jessica Ennis-Hill, took a stand on the subject of outfits. The one who used to run in her underwear at the start of her career admitted to being terrified at the thought of undergoing “an embarrassing problem with his outfit” during a competition.

In a similar logic, the German gymnasts had taken part in the Tokyo Games in “academic”, a uniform which covers the body from the arms to the ankle, instead of the usual leotard. “We wanted to show that every woman has to decide what she wears“, had then insisted Elizabeth Seitz.

German gymnasts in academic dress during the Tokyo Olympics, July 25, 2021. (MARIJAN MURAT / DPA via AFP)

Contacted by france info: sports, the director of the French women’s artistic gymnastics teams, Véronique Legras, wants to be reassuring: according to her, the outfits are discussed with the gymnasts themselves, in line with their wishes.

If academics are now authorized by the international federation, France has not yet taken the plunge. “We are currently considering, because federal gymnastics regulations have not yet validated academics in France. This is a subject that will be dealt with.”, she explains. “We have to evolve with our times and we are attentive to the well-being of gymnasts.”

“We must not stop gymnasts from wanting to practice their sport, simply because they are not comfortable in their body and in their outfit.”

Véronique Legras, director of the French women’s artistic gymnastics teams

at franceinfo:sport

But what are the reasons advanced for such a sexualization of the body? “It always comes back to the same thing: attracting sponsors and partners”, replies Béatrice Barbusse.

“When athletes do not respond to female stereotypes or are too muscular, like boxers or rugbywomen for example, there will be a media sanction. We see them very little in photos or in the media”, completes Sandy Montanola.

“There is a whole ecosystem with the media, the sponsors, the federations, the athletes and the agents. These actors need to sell, there is a search for profit. To respond to it, they will value themselves in relation to what they think they are expected. The media will do the same, the sponsors too, which means that we have a whole system of maintenance here.

But what must be done to put an end to the phenomenon of the sexualization of sportswomen?An awakening of gender consciousness, proposes Béatrice Barbusse. “More and more sportsmen and women need to wake up to what feminism is and realize that we are locked into stereotypical representations, which are so many pressures to be like this or like that. Athletes would be more successful and fulfilled by freeing themselves from that.”

“Obviously, women have toare much more represented in the governing bodies and that they federate around these questions”, continues the sociologist. But parity is not for now. On January 18, the Senate rejected the establishment of parity in the governing bodies of sport from 2024. As a reminder, only 18 women are at the head of one of the 113 sports federations in France.