What Does Physical Attractiveness Have To Do With Sport?

Picture the following scenes. It’s November, 2012, and President Obama has just won the US election. Amid the celebrations, keyboard warriors take to social media to comment, “Obama? President? What a joke, he can’t tap dance at all.” Or perhaps a group of students are in the classroom learning about Einstein, and wonder aloud, “Why is Einstein so admired? He clearly didn’t know much about hairdressing.”

Naturally, we recognise these to be completely absurd. One’s ability to tap dance has no impact on one’s effectiveness as a leader, and to be a theoretical physicist, hairdressing skills are unnecessary. To link them is simply ludicrous. Yet, this line of ‘logic’ was precisely what drove the actions of a horde of social media users in the wake of Marion Bartoli’s victory in the Wimbledon final.

While Bartoli, overwhelmed by happiness, hugged her family and friends, these men (for they were mostly men) took to Twitter and Facebook to express their anger over how “ugly” and “fat” she was. And judging from their tone and language used, there was some serious rage going on. Laura Bates of @EverydaySexism captured and tweeted a tiny selection of the comments, which you can see below. (Warning: abusive, violent and misogynistic language)


What is most bewildering is this idea that Bartoli “didn’t deserve to win”, and that she “shouldn’t have won”, due to the fact that she was apparently, to them, so unattractive. I’ve always thought of the Wimbledon Championships as a tennis tournament, and wasn’t aware that it was a beauty pageant as well. I can think of plausible reasons why an athlete might not deserve to win — perhaps they simply got lucky on the day, perhaps they constantly display unsporting behaviour, perhaps the referee/umpire/judge made a mistake. But an athlete being less attractive than their opponent is not one of those reasons, and to say so is every bit as absurd as condemning Einstein’s achievements on the basis of his hairstyle.

Of course, this weird logic only seems to apply to women, and Marion Bartoli is not the first female athlete to be judged on her looks instead of her skills. During the Olympics last summer, British weightlifter Zoe Smith had to defend herself from a bunch of sexist Twitter trolls, keen to share with her their thoughts regarding her appearance. After some pictures of Olympic triple-gold medallist Leisel Jones appeared in the media, showing her with a tummy that was (oh, horror!) not completely flat, the public was abuzz with criticisms. And we hardly need to be reminded that Serena Williams has always been on the receiving end of similar vitriol.

This isn’t confined to female athletes either; women in every possible field are somehow expected to meet with the approval of the male gaze, even when physical beauty has nothing whatsoever to do with their jobs. From politicians like Hillary Clinton, Julia Gillard and Angela Merkel, to Professors like Mary Beard, to singers like Susan Boyle, it seems that beauty is a compulsory attribute for every woman to have, if we do not wish to be bombarded by misogynistic trolls publicly declaring their fury and hatred.

What does physical attractiveness have to do with sport? Absolutely nothing. And if we want to encourage little girls to pick up a racquet, to throw a ball, and to aspire to sporting greatness, then we need to stop cementing the notion that female athletes, and indeed all women, will only be successful and appreciated if they happen to meet societal beauty standards as well. Marion Bartoli is a tennis player who has just won her first Wimbledon title. Let us rejoice with her and recognise her for her sporting success.

25 thoughts on “What Does Physical Attractiveness Have To Do With Sport?

  1. I shouldn’t be shocked by the ugly things people post online. And yet I constantly am (and maybe this is a good thing). This is vile stuff said to someone that committed the horrible crime…of winning a tournament. Makes me wish for the apocalypse.


  2. I don’t know why I’m still shocked by these outpourings of misogynist vitriol, but I am. I still am…


  3. Twitter users are not the only one marketing female tennis tournament as a beauty pageant. The French Federation of Tennis (FFT) does it too with unleashed enthusiasm.

    Last year during Roland Garros, the FFT organised a “Woman’s Day” (“Journée de la Femme”) featuring heavy female stereotypes (nail polish bar, overdose of pink, lewd analogies between the event and a glamour rendez-vous). As if for women, being featured in Roland Garros means being a trophy for a date. Nothing about women’s past and present achievements in Roland Garros tournament.

    This is not anecdotical. The FFT’s website showcases the federation’s systemic sexism. They have never had a female leader and at the bottom lack female coaches for girls. Tennis and competition are a man’s matter. Female tennis is a spin off of tennis.

    On the website male coaches are given appalling explanations about young girls’ natural weaknesses (“girls tend to be more docile”, “they are more subject to stress and an anxiety”, “they hate to lose against a rival girlfriend…”, “competition is usually not natural for girls”).

    The website also features a topic about “tennistic beauty” for women (nothing similar for men), which sounds worse than any consumerist fashion magazine: female athletes are encouraged to be sexy but not to show off, and to make sure they hide any signs of perspiration (body odour, sweaty armpit).

    Female athletes are also advised to wear a “skorty”, ie a mix of a skirt and a short. Any technical reason? No: it’s just that skirt is feminine but short hides the underwear which some men may be interested to glimpse, lol. The FFT seems to consider sexual harassment as a funny thing which the athletes should accept and handle individually. Shocking when we know sexual harassment and rapes have been perpetrated by licensed coaches against female athletes.

    My piece on the topic (one year ago, in French): http://dikecourrier.wordpress.com/2012/06/09/tournoi-des-galents-machos-femme-gare-au-roland/


    • “Female tennis is a spin off of tennis.” Thank you for bringing up this point. I’ve often wondered why women’s tennis matches are only three sets while men’s are five.


      • I don’t know exactly why and since when this three sets rule has been set up, but it probably was set by men.

        Many misogynists argue that this rule justifies the usual income gap between female and male champions. It wasn’t until 2007 that Wimbledon has made prize money equal for men and women.

        I am sure you will agree that the difficulty of winning a Grand Slam Tournament doesn’t stem from how many hours you spend on court during match, but from many complex factors (stress, training and coaching, mental and physical health, support, etc).

        The income discrimination is not specific to tennis anyway.


        • It’s simply because the women are not as strong as the men. There was an interesting interview of Serena Williams on women’s hour here in the UK last week in which she was quite straightforward about the top class women simply not being as good as the top class men (that extra 20% density in muscle fibre due to testosterone does make a difference you know – the men are simply stronger and faster), but that was completely to miss the point – the women’s game is just as interesting and entertaining as the men’s as so should be compensated at the same rate.


  4. “And if we want to encourage little girls to pick up a racquet, to throw a ball, and to aspire to sporting greatness,”
    Ah, I see where you’re getting confused. “We” don’t want women to do any of those things. “We” want them to stay at home, looking pretty, passing the patriarchal fuckability test, making sandwiches and giving blowjobs on demand. “We” don’t want them doing anything that might encourage them to do anything that benefits themselves rather than men.
    Those comments make me sick. It horrifies me every time I get a reminder of how vile some men can be.


  5. Pingback: What Does Physical Attractiveness Have To Do With Sport? | Mitherings from Morningside

  6. Sickening comments – why people can’t celebrate each others’ accomplishments is beyond me. Probably most of the commenters don’t even take walks, let alone compete with internationally renowned athletes. Thanks for posting.


  7. Thank you for bringing attention to this lingering problem. It makes me worry for my daughter, but as long as people continue to write and continue to be shocked, there’s hope at least.


  8. You say they were mostly men making those comments but I don’t think that’s true at all. Most of the people I’ve heard making jokes about her were women.


  9. I’m a french man, and i can assure u there are plenty of stupid messages about Bartoli on french web, especially on lequipe.fr, the first sportnews french network. I just can’t understand how people can insult a person because of her appearance, weight or look. And french people are pethetic : they are always talking about the results of french sportsmen and women, and when one wins one of the greatest tournament, the are just talking about her look…


  10. It shouldn’t matter if Bartoli is attractive or not. She has accomplished a lot and is a gifted athlete. However, she isn’t unattractive and is in fact very cute. Are the twitter users looking at the same woman that I am? I think Serena is beautiful also. Neither women are tall blondes but I didn’t know that there was only one type of beauty.

    It seems that women can’t win. If you are not the ideal, you’ll be mocked for being ugly and not deserving the rewards for your hard work. But if you do meet the physical ideal, you’ll be sexualized and not taken seriously.


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