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Healthy bodies; gendered images

Updated Monday, 7th November 2011

Society is still obsessed by the size zero ideal for women. Kath Woodward observes that even Olympic gold medal winners have no escape. Will 2012 be different?

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The size zero debate re-emerged in 2008 just after the Beijing Olympics with the feminist academic and cultural commentator, Germaine Greer, again venturing into the terrain of popular culture to express the view that celebrities Cheryl Cole of Girls Aloud and the reconstituted Katie Price are 'too thin'. Greer has been criticised for her claims that 'a healthy girl is a fat-bottomed creature'.

This story may tell us more about the inadvisability of those from the academy entering the field of popular culture and speaking its language rather than confining interventions to providing an informed critique. However, Greer's comments do raise questions about what is a 'healthy body' and how far conventional representations of size zero women might challenge or reconstruct the 'healthy body' for women.

Sport is all about healthy bodies and healthy lives and sport is not an area where one might expect discussion of appearance, either of being thin or of being fat, except insofar as body size might interfere with and impede or enhance the body practices which make up sporting performance. Sport might offer role models in the form of healthy women which might challenge the tyranny of size zero.

Rebecca Adlington Rebecca Adlington

The Beijing Olympics produced representations of strong athletic women, who excelled in their sports, as I noted in my recent Invisible Athletes blog. Maybe things were changing and sexualised images of women agonising over dress size and even the tiniest bit of extra flesh were no more, at least not in sport. Kira Cochrane described it as the shift from 'wags to winners'.

One of the Beijing medallists was double gold winner Rebecca Adlington, whose image adorned the cover of the Observer Sport Monthly in November, somewhat surprisingly heavily made-up with golden ringlets and posing seductively in a swimsuit and high heels. The swimsuit is not so surprising for a swimming medallist and she is well known as a fan of designer shoes with high heels. Indeed this is her contribution to the BBC Sport's page on possible Sports Personality of the year.

However, the actual poses on the cover and inside the magazine, reminiscent of a 1950s card girl and the accompanying text in which Adlington expresses her anxieties about her spare tyre and body weight, is troubling and even depressing. The possibility of a post feminist parodic display is unconvincing, as is the likelihood of the OSM providing handy hints on what to wear for the forthcoming Personality of the Year awards (a swimsuit?).

If this is meant to be a humorous piece, it seems unjust, as Adlington deserves admiration for her massive sporting achievements, rather than trivialisation. The article on Shane Warne, in the same magazine does not reveal his body anxieties nor offer him advice on cosmetic care.

Even sports women who are elite athletes are constituted and certainly represented within the same discourses that frame the celebrities of the mainstream of popular culture. It seems that even by winning Olympic gold women cannot escape the tyranny of the slim, thin body. But at least  the run up to 2012 suggests the possibilities of change, albeit haunted by the ghosts of sexualisation with the Badminton World Federation claiming to be reviving public interest in the sport by insisting on short skirts on court

Most media coverage of women athletes is focusing on performance in the field and on the track, and especially possibilities in the ring, given the inclusion of women's boxing in 2012 although gendered dimensions of clothing feature strongly. Afghan women will be permitted to box in hijabs whereas FIFA is not as enlightened as the IBA. There is more debate about clothing in the context of FIFA's ban iranian footballers conforming to islamic dress codes but so far there is less evidence of the sexualisation and objectification of women athletes. Healthy bodies are those that are fit for athletic achievement. We'll have to wait and see though. What will be post match analysis deliver?


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