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By July 27, 2012 No Comments

Remember this photo? The primal energy, the explosive joy—the controversy? Yeah, this photo was taken seconds after Brandi Chastain slotted a sweet penalty kick, winning the 1999 Women’s World Cup for the U.S. against China, 5-4.

It was a moment that became, as sportscasters are so fond of saying, “iconic.” For many reasons. Maybe you watched with the rest of the nation, as our family did, while the U.S. women’s soccer team dominated the international scene in the 1990s. The compelling novelty of these elite women athletes—strong, skilled, poised, and beautiful—captivated even the soccer-indifferent American public. Mia Hamm, Julie Foudy, Kristine Lilly, Joy Fawcett, and their teammates seemed unspoiled by the corruption plaguing their male colleagues in more lucrative industry sports. They were genuine role models, and they played exciting soccer.

So versions of that photo appeared on the cover of Sports Illustrated, Time, and Newsweek because winning the 1999 Women’s World Cup clinched the dominance of these players internationally and the new prominence of their sport in the U.S. Chastain’s post-goal celebration, however, also raised issues about women athletes and the fine line between empowerment and exploitation.

Well, with the summer Olympics under way, here we go again. How do we celebrate women athletes without sexualizing them? I’m not sure we’re much closer to answers than we were thirteen years ago.

It’s puzzling now to remember how critics harrumphed at poor Chastain for exposing a sports bra, for crying out loud. She had to explain in post-game interviews that in the moment she wasn’t thinking at all about what she was doing, she was just ecstatic and, hey, sweaty. Her defenders tried to get the focus back on the sport and the U.S. team’s triumph. As ESPN’s Laura Boswell remarked, a sports bra is “about as risqué as a sweatsock!” Still, the topic of shirt removal would not go away. When Chastain came out with a nice little biography in 2004—which was mostly about the importance of teamwork and sportsmanship (um… sportspeopleship?) in the increasingly crazy world of youth sports—the publishers emblazoned it with what they evidently thought was a killer title: It’s Not About the Bra.  Eesh.

Since 1999, we’ve watched female athletes struggle with the dilemma of what to do with those incredible female bodies they’ve got going on. Just before that World Cup match, Chastain herself had posed nude—with carefully placed soccer ball—in Gear magazine. (She didn’t know that buff was the plan until she got to the shoot, she says.) She, along with many other female athletes, some before and many since, typically explain their choices with some version of the following premises:

1) I’ve worked hard to achieve this body and there’s nothing wrong with showing it off.

2) What’s wrong with sexy pictures? After all, we’re sexual beings, too.

3) Better for everyone to see images of strong female athletes’ bodies than all those waify, starved models’ bodies.

4) Anything that draws attention to women’s sports is a good thing.

5) Hey, we have to make a living, and let me tell you, even elite women’s sports don’t bring in the bucks that men’s sports do. So if my body is an asset, I have every right to derive cash value from it. Now, while I’m fit and the spotlight is ever so briefly upon me.

6) Plus, this is a total ego trip! Yeah!

I have to concede all those premises.  Well, except maybe for number 2, which is where, I think, we might find some crucial nuance. The on-the-other-hand arguments, put forward by critics and by many athletes, seem to go something like this:

1) When I pose for obviously sexualized shots, I am capitulating to a culture that objectifies and sexualizes women. Calling it empowerment is just a rationalization for exploitation.

2) People are threatened by powerful women. Sexualizing us is just a way of making powerful athletes seems safe: “Yeah, but she’s still just a girl.” Why should I give in to that?

3) Sexy shots promote sex, not my sport. In fact, they further diminish the chance that anyone will take women athletes seriously. We want attention for our skill and achievement, not for our sexiness.

4) I can enjoy and show off and celebrate my athletic body without posing like a lingerie model or a centerfold.

All right then: what, exactly, is the distinction between sexualizing women’s sports and celebrating the beauty and power of the female athlete? It’s hard to generalize, of course, but then again sometimes it’s obvious. For instance, did you know there is a fully functional Lingerie Football League? I kid you not. Rationalize all you want, that’s just titillation in pink shoulder pads.

However, what to make of the viral video featuring 19-year-old Australian hurdler Michelle Jenneke, whose little ponytail-tossing warm-up dance at the IAAF World Junior Championships earlier this month has garnered millions of YouTube views? Her pre-race jiggles were sexy enough to prompt someone to make a slow-mo, soundtrack-enhanced version. But I don’t know. I think in this case I agree with the commentators who grin along with her and call her actions “youthful exuberance.”

For more examples that illustrate a clear contrast, check out this photo series in the Vancouver Sun, which conveniently gathers photos of “the 20 sexiest women of the 2012 Olympics.” Here are the gals who have made the choice to pose in nuthin-but-body-paint or whatever. Then compare to the Huffington Post’s efforts: “21 Photos That Will Make You Appreciate The Power Of A Woman’s Body.” Ah. That’s more like it. Wow, sweat is beautiful. And, as Ellie Gordon-Moershel dryly remarks, “most sports fans, at their core, want to see heart. Not thongs.”

But good heavens, what about this annual, equal-opportunity ESPN romp through the wonders of male and female athletic nakedidity? Gorgeous photos, you gotta admit. But too sexualized, some of them? Or just a celebration of the body with a hint of sly fun?

I still don’t know where to draw the fine lines in all this. At the very least, I wish women athletes wouldn’t do the kitten poses. I understand why they do, but I wish they wouldn’t. Yesterday in my mailbox—this is true—four catalogs arrived. On the covers: 1) a willowy model with a come-hither look, 2) three teen beauties leaping on the beach, 3) a coquettish brunette in a leopard-pattern push-up bra, and 4) a Eurosport catalog with soccer great Heather O’Reilly trapping the ball in mid-air with an “I am so in charge here” grimace on her face.

Women athletes, that’s why I wish you wouldn’t capitulate: because the ratio of sexy-beauty-based images to skill-and-power based images for women is still three-to-one. At best.

As for Brandi Chastain, she’s now a soccer commentator for NBC and it’s nice to see her finding her way in the sometimes shadowy afterworld of pro sports. We’ll always have her to thank for that incredible moment and for that photo. It still speaks, eloquently, the message that women’s sports ought to deliver:

Say what you want, we have a power of our own. Look all you want, it’s not about your gaze. We will claim our strength, we are determined, and we will win.

Debra Rienstra

I am a writer and literature professor, teaching literature and creative writing at Calvin University, where I have been on the faculty since 1996. Born and bred in the Reformed tradition, I’ve been unable to resist writing four books about theological topics: beware the writer doing theology without a license. My most recent book is Refugia Faith: Seeking Hidden Shelters, Ordinary Wonders, and the Healing of the Earth (Fortress, 2022). Besides the books, I’ve written well over two hundred essays for the RJ blog as well as numerous articles, poems, and reviews in popular and scholarly contexts. I have a B.A. from the University of Michigan (Go Blue!) and a M.A. and Ph.D. from Rutgers. I am married to Rev. Dr. Ron Rienstra, and together we have three grown children. Besides reading and writing, I love classical music, science fiction, fussing in the yard, hiking, and teaching myself useful skills like plant identification and—maybe someday—drywall repair.

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