by Doug Barry
For two weeks, the Olympics present the viewing public with a diverse range female body types, many of which will remain unrepresented in future advertising campaigns. Women who compete in the games, argues Time‘s Sonia Van Gilder Cooke, provide a counterbalance to all those glossy, airbrushed photos of magazine cover models and actresses who offer only a single, unrealistic physical standard.
Though women in the Olympics are creepily objectified, they also help expand the public’s idea of the many shapes women’s bodies can have. According to Jo Swinson, a British Member of Parliament and founding member of the U.K. Campaign for Body Confidence, the Olympics are “one of the times we actually get to see women without makeup on on television.” Swinson believes that, because athletes spend years honing their bodies to perform a single, highly specific task, there’s an “honesty” about their bodies that most celebrities, by contrast, do not demonstrate. That’s because female Olympians are trying to win competitions, while celebrities and models are essentially helping create the illusion of a certain kind of physical perfection in order to sell something.
Still, the Time piece opens with an investment banker taking his friends to a women’s beach volleyball match simply because the volleyball players are wearing bikinis. And even though the Olympics showcases the diversity of the female form, it also presents body snarkers with an opportunity to judge female athletes on their physical proximity to the cover model aesthetic. That’s part of the reason why NBC’s “Bodies in Motion” video features volleyball, field hockey, and track and field athletes prominently, and why there’s nary a female bodybuilder in sight.
Though certain male body types (the swimmers and divers, let’s just say) are ogled and idealized, male shot putters, weightlifter, or basketball players aren’t subjected to the same snarking as their female counterparts. British weightlifter Zoe Smith, for example, fought back against Twitter criticism that she looked like a “bloke,” which is just a Britishism for “bro.” British swimmer and four-time Olympic gold medalist Rebecca Adlington showed the world how cruel strangers can be when she retweeted something sent to her in June: “You belong in that pool you f— whale.” Australian swimmer Leisel Jones also became the subject of a terrible “fat or not” newspaper poll that, thankfully, readers took for the mean and stupid editorial decision it was.
Female athletes lose out in the endorsement race that follows the games because, according to Phillippa Diedrichs, a senior research fellow at the Centre for Appearance Research at the University of the West of England, scoring endorsement deals “becomes very much about [athletes’] bodies and their appearance and their being shown to be attractive as opposed to what their bodies can do.” As women’s sports gain popularity among spectators (the U.S. women’s track and field team, for instance, did waaaaaaay better than the men), that endorsement disparity between male and female athletes may start to change, which would go a long way, in turn, toward helping change the prevailing advertising industry’s aesthetic preference for impossibly thin (and exceedingly airbrushed) women.