Can we stop talking about sportswomen's appearance?

Elizabeth Tweddle poses with the bronze medal after the Artistic Gymnastics Women's Uneven Bars final on Day 10 of the ...

Elizabeth Tweddle poses with the bronze medal after the Artistic Gymnastics Women's Uneven Bars final on Day 10 of the London 2012 Olympic Games. (Photo by Ryan Pierse/Getty Images) Photo: Ryan Pierse

Earlier this week British gymnast Beth Tweddle appeared in a live Q and A for Sky Sports News. Excited at having an Olympic bronze medal winner on hand, Sky Sports tweeted to their followers, "Get your questions in now using #Sportswomen."

Sadly, if entirely predictably, a slew of negative, looks-centred questions of the "On a scale of 1/10 how pig ugly would you class yourself?" and "Are all female athletes lesbians?" variety followed.

It briefly looked as though the enterprise could be salvaged when one fan asked Tweddle, "At what point in your life did you know that Gymnastics was going to be a major part of it?" No doubt relived that not everyone on Twitter was a raving misogynist, Tweddle replied, "I loved it from the age of 7 but it took over from the age of 12."

Eugenie Bouchard

Eugenie Bouchard

Well, you can just guess what happened next. Unable to resist the urge to use every aspect of a woman’s life as fodder for sexual innuendo, Twitter users labelled Tweddle everything from a ‘dirty bitch’ to a ‘slag’ to the tiresome ‘slut.’


As Stylist magazine notes in its petition for a formal inquiry into the lack of coverage for female sports in the UK, only 5 percent of sports media coverage includes women. So here was a rare case of a major sports network highlighting the achievements of a female athlete, only to be met with casual sexism and cruelty.

Twitter is infamous for the sexism that proliferates on its virtual pages but it would do us well to acknowledge that this sexism does not begin and end with the tweeters themselves. The eagerness of large swathes of Twitter users to reduce female athletes to their appearance and sexuality has, at least in part, been informed by those involved in organising and promoting sport and by the media that covers it.

Also this week, tennis player Eugenie Bouchard became the first Canadian woman to reach the semi-finals of the Australian Open. In her courtside post-match interview, the 19-year-old was visibly embarrassed when asked by commentator, Samantha Smith (herself a former tennis player), who she "would most like to date." 

In Smith’s defence, she was clearly cringing as she asked the ridiculous question, even offering an apologetic, "They asked me to say this." Presumably, "they" being producers at Channel 7, who clearly thought Bouchard’s tennis wasn’t worth asking about.

This incident, which made world-wide news, is not even close to being the most galling question lobbed at female tennis players.

When Simona Halep reached the Australian Open quarterfinals on Monday, a journalist at her press conference asked whether Halep’s breast reduction surgery played any part in her success. When Halep replied that yes, "It was a good decision", the journalist came back with, "What about outside tennis?"

Yes, a professional tennis player who had just reached the quarterfinals of a Grand Slam was asked how her breast reduction affected her private life.

And who can forget hapless British commentator John Inverdale pondering on BBC radio whether newly crowned Wimbledon champion, Marion Bartoli, was ever informed by her father that she was ‘never going to be a looker’ like Maria Sharapova and would therefore have to "be scrappy and fight"?

Bartoli’s victory was greeted with shock and anger on Twitter, which many a perplexed Twit wondering how someone so ‘ugly’ could be ‘the new face of Wimbledon.’

Not that Bouchard will have to worry about that. Just yesterday, her agent Sam Duvall, positively salivating at the prospect of his percentage of profits fee finally paying dividends, boasted to the media that his charge has ‘the looks’ to topple Sharapova in the ‘marketability’ stakes.

Watches! Banks! Cars! Never mind the Grand Slams, we’ll all know she’s truly made it when her beaming face sells all of these and more. Genuine tennis lovers needn’t get too dejected though, Duvall did actually mention her tennis game once, even if it was only to note that, ‘the better she plays tennis, the more money…and the more famous she's going to be.’  

Last year, Australian surf brand Roxy was taken to task over their promo video featuring a professional surfer that failed to either show the surfer’s face or show her actually surfing. We are treated to lots of slow motion shots of her nearly naked body getting out of bed though.

This would probably be a good time to talk about the way Lingerie Football exacerbates the sexualisation of female sports stars, but frankly the less said about that the better. So I will move on to Men’s Fitness magazine and their annual ‘Top 10 Sexiest Female Athletes’ list, praising said athletes for working ‘tirelessly at maintaining their sexy bodies.’ As if female athletes exist entirely for the benefit of straight men’s erections. 

I tried to find a similar list for male athletes on the Men’s Fitness site but my search only led me to a ‘100 Toughest Athletes Ever’ list  (originally published by the Bleacher Report), which included a grand total of two women. Two. Because male athletes are gritty; female athletes are hot. Not to be outdone, Men’s Health magazine runs a "Hottest Female Athletes" countdown every year, where it gives readers the option to vote each entry higher or lower.

Twitter does not operate in a void but is a reflection of wider society. Audiences are groomed by many in the world of sports and media to value female athletes on their looks. In this world, the faceless bodies of female surfers are used to titillate as a means of promoting tournaments, tennis players are valued on ‘marketability’ as journalists unapologetically ask about the impact of breast surgery on a player’s (sex) life, the endless training of professional athletes is reduced to an effort to keep themselves ‘sexy’ for male viewers, and ‘average-looking’ girls are reprimanded for winning Wimbledon.

In such a world, it’s not a question of why Beth Tweddle was abused and ridiculed on social media, but one of how it could possibly have gone any other way.