Body Image and Sports vs. The Beauty Myth

Kim Clijsters, former World No. 1 in singles and doubles tennis.


Kim Clijsters, former World No. 1 in singles and doubles tennis. In interviews she has proudly stated that she inherited her “footballer's legs” from her father and a gymnast's flexibility from her mother.


She is one of the most dynamic and powerful tennis players of all time.


She is one of the most dynamic and powerful tennis players of all time.


A one-of-a-kind Barbie doll is modeled after Kim


Flash to February 2010 – A one-of-a-kind Barbie doll is modeled after Kim and is unveiled during the opening day of the world’s largest toy fair in Nuremburg, Germany. Unfortunately, instead of accurately portraying Kim’s footballer legs and athletic frame, the doll appears “done-up” and emaciated. It is a shame that they could not recreate the sportswoman to actually look like herself.


Taking a cue from tennis, the Badminton World Federation (BWF) has introduced a new dress code, which went into effect on May 1st, 2011 and required all female players to wear skirts or dresses in Grand Prix tournaments and above "to ensure attractive presentation of badminton."


Badminton World Federation (BWF) has required all female players to wear skirts or dresses in Grand Prix tournaments


Demanding that the women look more feminine and attractive to increase viewership is using sex appeal to promote badminton. To focus on the women's appearance, not their athletic ability, to lure new fans and TV viewers, undermines the physical capacity of these phenomenal athletes.


Could the public really get behind a woman because of her skill rather than how she looks in a skimpy skirt? It's a pretty wild idea, but maybe it's worth giving it a shot.


Following a similar vein, September 16th, 2011, marked the début of Canada’s first Lingerie Football League.


anada’s first Lingerie Football League


Enough said?


As an athlete, I have always felt that sport was an avenue for self-expression in which appearance was a non-issue. To me, sport was sacred because I could prove to myself that I was a strong, capable and determined young woman.


Disappointment does not even begin to describe how I feel when I see examples of our societies obsession with physical beauty encroaching upon the sanctity of sport.


As a little girl, I believed there was respect and honour in women’s athletics. I believed that people actually cared about the strengths, abilities and talents of women out on the field, and that being strong and tough were assets.


I never felt that what females did in sport was less valuable than their male counterparts.


I trained for many years to be a high level athlete, and I took a great amount of pride in my abilities and how my physical form had been molded from the hours of training. I loved being strong and powerful, and feeling in complete control of each movement my body made.


My athletic identity was a fundamental component of what made me a confident and self-assured young woman.


As I moved into early adulthood, I started to feel an overwhelming sense that what I did in sport was over-shadowed by things that had very little to do with my athletic capabilities. I felt that people cared more about my looks, figure and femininity than my talent. This feeling undermined the value of my athletic competence and more broadly, my sense of self.


In recent years, I have spent some time trying to understand why this shift in my perception occurred, how it changed the course of my athletic career and how other women can become more resilient to these social pressures.  I have realized that the messages we are bombarded with on a daily basis are confusing and destructive.


I think that we are doing a disservice to our young women when we start lingerie football leagues, when international badminton regulations force female athletes to wear skirts rather than shorts to “increase viewership,” and when we make Barbie dolls of athletes that don’t resemble the athlete themselves. The message is strong and clear. It’s not enough to be talented or powerful or skilled, but that you must also be beautiful, thin and feminine.


This message had - and still has - a significant impact on my day-to-day perception of self. Critical discussion and debate surrounding these ideas need to be forged in order for young women to be inspired to do anything more than their make-up.

Sarah Gairdner is a volunteer for NEDIC, a graduate student at the University of Toronto, and a retired elite athlete. She completed in gymnastics and trampoline for 17 years and was on the Canadian National Team for 8 of those years. Sarah competed at multiple international events and capped off her career at the 2008 Beijing Olympics.