Muscle vs. Model
On a sunny morning in March, swarms of women surfers filed into a Long Beach surfing tradeshow. Two friends sailed in side by side -- but with completely different agendas.Nikki Jo Junker has four and a half years of surfing under her belt and is ranked third on the western amateur women's circuit. She went to the trade show to pick up sponsors.Junker's friend, Holly Robbins, surfs too, but has no portfolio to speak of, and was mostly interested in loading up on the free stuff that trade shows are notorious for throwing at attendees.At the end of the day, Robbins walked out with four offers for clothing sponsorship and Junker left with none.Like most amateur surfers, Junker relies on clothing and equipment sponsors to get her name out and pay for competitions. For men, a good ranking usually guarantees ample sponsorships, but for women, there's one other unspoken requirement -- they must also be model-thin."Holly's my good friend; I love her, but they jumped all over her because she's five-foot-nine, 110 pounds, with long blond hair. She has no portfolio," says Junker. "I, on the other hand, am five-foot-three, 130 pounds, so it doesn't matter that I rip out there. I don't blame the girls; it's not their fault that they're pretty. But shame on the industry."I have a lot of friends who quit surfing competitively because they hate the women's surf industry," Junker added. She had a short fling with clothing sponsor JimmyZ, but the company started asking her if she was one of the popular cute girls at school, avoided her calls, and squeezed her into the corner of most photos on a shoot that consisted of two skinny part-time surfers who were also models."It's not worth feeling like crap," Junker says. "And why? I'm not a size 3."Playing NakedJunker is not alone. Female athletes across the world are being reduced to the degree of their attractiveness. The Federation International de Volleyball (FIVB) introduced a new dress code for women's beach volleyball teams to promote the sex appeal of athletes. Female players are made to wear clingy briefs (no more than 6 centimeters wide at the hip) and tops, unless they can afford to pay the $3,000 fines for ignoring the rule. That leaves poor teams like Cuba with no choice but to play nearly naked.The Women's Sports Foundation (WSF), an advocacy group, argues that athletes should be allowed to choose their fabric and style according to a few guidelines. A player may prefer loose-fitting clothing for a number of reasons -- it may present the least restriction to movement, reduce the incidence of skin irritation, or improve the athlete's performance by easing her psychological attitude."Larger or exceptionally thin athletes may feel self-conscious in form-fitting uniforms," the foundation's statement reads. "Female athletes wearing pads during menstruation may feel uncomfortable in form-fitting apparel with such discomfort possibly inhibiting freedom of movement."WSF Executive Director Donna Lapiano says the volleyball dress code is exceptionally strict. "A uniform has to be functional -- whatever makes sense for the athlete's performance and sense of self. I don't know of any other sport that's so rigid," she says. "And why is it just women? Why aren't the men made to wear bikinis?"Who's on Top?Sports psychologist Carole Oglesby, believes the problem is institutional. "We need to shift the whole system if we want to see a change in the portrayal of women in sports," says Oglesby.Studies done after Title IX's inception show that while women's participation in sports has increased, their participation in leadership positions has gone down. Fewer women are coaching, researching, and participating in governing bodies of women's sports."It's different in Scandinavian countries, where a socialist government can make a rule that says these positions have to be filled by 50 percent women," Oglesby says. "But you don't get that in capitalist countries."The Olympic committee has set a goal that it will reach 10 percent women this year -- but it is already apologizing for missing this goal because it know it won't happen.Oglesby says the sexualization of women athletes end up affecting how the women see themselves. That may be what drove 11 members of a flailing Australian soccer team, called the Matildas, to pose completely nude for a calendar to raise their profile and a little money.Lots of people (including the athletes) would say that there's nothing wrong with doing that -- no one forced them into it, after all. But Oglesby doesn't buy it. She thinks that although athletes may feel empowered by choosing to do this, in reality they are discounting the power that the system has over them."It's like women athletes who have sexual relations with their coaches -- they think it's consensual, but they don't know that the power dynamic influences their decision," Oglesby says. "It's taking advantage of women at a level that's subconscious, insidious. And the benefits are going to the institution which gets notoriety for their team. Benefits are not accruing for the women."It's common for women athletes to agree to do publicity shots or ad campaigns that don't celebrate their athleticism -- and Oglesby says homophobia may be at the root of that. High school students eagerly jump into poses that accentuate their attractiveness rather than her physical strength because, says Oglesby, they don't want to be pegged as lesbians."I think Lisa Carulli [an activist lesbian surfer] had that held against her in surf contests," says Junker.Lapiano adds that athletes who don't use good judgement set the standard as damaging role models. "If you're an athlete, you should celebrate your skills. Pornography has nothing to do with skill," says Lapiano. "However, how one represents herself reflects on her values or her self-esteem. There are consequences to whipping off your shirt or posing nude for a calendar."Power of the PressThe WSF says that much of the power to change attitudes about female athletes lies with the press. The foundation published guidelines for female athletes, media, and corporations to keep in mind. From the way athletes are clothed and posed in pictures to the words journalists use to describe them, the foundation asserts that women athletes are often referred to in ways that "downplay or trivialize their achievements."To encourage equal treatment of female and male athletes, the WSF suggests that names, events, descriptions, and language should be consistent: "If it's Becker and Sampras who play tennis with great daring, then it should be Navratilova and Graf who do the same in women's tennis, not Martina and Steffi."In a Sports Illustrated article, Olympic figure staking champion Katarina Witt was described as "so fresh-faced, so blue-eyed, so ruby-lipped, so 12-car pileup gorgeous, 5-feet 5-inches and 114 pounds worth of peacekeeping missile."Stephanie Groll is a editor of ChickClick.com, where this article first appeared.