News Colette Browne

Monday 22 September 2014

Colette Browne: Just fed up of women’s sport coverage focusing on appearance and not skill

Published 11/08/2014 | 14:42

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Niamh Horan
Niamh Horan

WOMEN’S sport is important but, remember ladies, it’s not as important as looking good.

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That seemed to be the central message in a piece about women’s rugby that appeared in the Sunday Independent yesterday, which managed to contain every tired, offensive trope about women’s sport that female athletes have long battled to escape.

Replete with juvenile sexual innuendo, lazy gender stereotypes and an apparent complete lack of understanding of the sport, it caused outrage online.

“I never play a game without my tan,” confessed one Railway Union player, revealing that another player, “never goes on the pitch without her blonde hair done, a full face of make-up and her nails perfectly manicured”.

You see, contrary to public opinion, female rugby players are not misshapen ogres, clumsily lumbering around a pitch pummeling each other into the dirt.

Or, in the words of journalist Niamh Horan, they are not “butch, masculine, beer-swilling, men-hating women”.

They like sport, but, incredibly, they like men too! So, there were no buzz-cut dungaree-wearing lesbians on the team then.

You see, the players may be “fit” and “toned” but they manage to counter that dangerously masculine athleticism by “getting dolled up” and looking “effortlessly pretty”.

Phew, what a relief. Because, as we all know, it’s important to look attractive when you’re playing a grueling, physical contact sport in which you will spend a lot of time with your face in the mud.

Horan, in her defence, would say that the piece is a lighthearted feature about her experience of playing rugby for the first time and, while legitimate criticism of the piece is warranted, the personal abuse and invective she has been subjected to online is not.

Ultimately she does point out that ‘vanity is pointless in this game” and state the team’s coach belief that “women are easier to train” than men because they are “more inquisitive, curious and faster learners”.

However, the reason that it has been monstered is that people are fed up with the dismissive coverage of women’s sport, ubiquitous in the media, which disproportionately focuses on appearance instead of skill.

The repetition of so many derogatory stereotypes about female rugby players was especially unwelcome at a time when the national team has qualified for the semi finals in the World Cup, managing a feat that the men’s team never has, beating New Zealand, in the process.

Instead of plaudits about the dedication and commitment of the players, what we got was largely a description of their beauty routines.

We learned nothing about their training schedules, the league they play in or the difficulties they may have faced as women in a sport that is still widely viewed as a male preserve.

This superficial coverage, focusing on appearance instead of achievement, is not exclusive to women’s rugby.

Even female athletes in sports that are perceived as gender neutral are not safe from society’s obsession with their bodies.

Rebecca Adlington may be the Britain’s most successful swimmer, having won four Olympic medals, but you will probably know her because she allegedly had a nose job, which received far more coverage than her numerous professional accomplishments.

Apparently, women not only have to excel at their chosen sport, they are expected to look as if they just stepped off a catwalk while they do it.

This damaging obsession with women’s bodies, which are not valued for their athleticism but their conformity with beauty norms, breeds insecurity and anxiety, even among athletes.

A recent BT Sport survey found that 80 per cent of female athletes feel pressure to conform to a certain body shape while 67 per cent believe the public and media value appearance more than achievement.

Meanwhile, a separate study has found that girls as young as eight are conscious of gender stereotypes in sport and will avoid those perceived as unfeminine for fear of being mocked or bullied.

Part of the problem is that the coverage of women’s sport is so pathetically small that articles that fawn, or fulminate, over appearance comprise most of the coverage that women’s sport gets.

Despite the successes of athletes like Katie Taylor and Rebecca Adlington in the 2012 Olympics, stories about men’s sports outnumbered those about women’s by 20 to one last year.

Given the media vacuum in which women’s sport operates, it is almost impossible for it to build an audience that would generate more interest, attract new players and, ultimately, lead to more coverage.

This is the depressing catch 22 that articles, like the one that appeared in the Sunday Independent yesterday, do little to address.

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