We need your help now

Support from readers like you keeps The Journal open.

You are visiting us because we have something you value. Independent, unbiased news that tells the truth. Advertising revenue goes some way to support our mission, but this year it has not been enough.

If you've seen value in our reporting, please contribute what you can, so we can continue to produce accurate and meaningful journalism. For everyone who needs it.

Team GB's Zoe Smith broke a British record in weightlifting but had to put up with sneers from some social media users. Nick Potts/PA Wire

Column Female Olympians are national heroes, not national sweethearts

The desire to see female athletes looking feminine at all times is a bit of a relic, says Lisa McInerney, but it doesn’t stop some people bodysnarking at female Olympians.

AH, THE OLYMPICS. A chance to see humanity’s most epitomising specimens competing to determine who’s the fastest, who’s the strongest, who’s the most nimble – who’s the best.

Any opportunity to see brilliant people being brilliant is… well, brilliant. But only the most resolute pragmatist would deny it’s also the chance to see very hot people being brilliant. Olympians are in the prime of physical health. They are the best of the best. It is not at all unusual that we find ourselves admiring them as much for their aesthetic properties as for their achievements.

So this isn’t necessarily a critique of how we view the world’s best athletes (even if how we photograph the beach volleyball competitors is borderline creepy). It would be a sad day indeed if we weren’t allowed to appreciate physical condition, since the future of the human race depends on our continuing attraction to one another.

What’s a head-scratcher, though, is how we are generally more appreciative of the male than of the female Olympians. The male competitors are a chorus line of veritable Adonis stunt doubles. The female are best appreciated when they subscribe to certain social standards of beauty.

Let’s come out and say it: when they’re thin and perfectly coiffed.

Well of course they’re thin! you may well be thinking. They’re fit, toned and strong, and possess abs you could play Greensleeves on, had you a set of spoons and a complete lack of disregard for your own physical safety. But with Olympian strength comes big Olympian muscles, and big Olympian muscles aren’t socially deemed so attractive in a woman. Better that she attend gym classes purely to fit into pretty dresses than do so to build her upper body strength. It’s hard to ogle a woman who could put your head through a wall, in fairness.

English weightlifter Zoe Smith had to put up with sneering tweeters telling her she looked like a “bloke” and a “lesbian”

Take three-times Olympic gold medal winner, Australian swimmer Leisel Jones. Before the Games, she was denounced as being “too fat to compete” by Melbourne’s Herald Sun. She’s taking home a silver medal.

English weightlifter Zoe Smith had to put up with sneering tweeters telling her she looked like a “bloke” and a “lesbian”. She broke the British record for ‘clean and jerk’ lifting, lifting twice her body weight.

Sixteen-year-old US gymnast Gabby Douglas has been roundly, and weirdly, criticised because her hair didn’t look right. Her hair? She’s taking home a gold in both team and individual events! Not bad for a veritable Medusa who shouldn’t have been allowed to leave the house, or something.

Even super-toned Jessica Ennis, one of Team Britain’s standout stars and communal crushes, was allegedly told by an unnamed official before the Games that she was ‘fat’. This is depressing for myriad reasons for us couch potatoes – if Jessica Ennis isn’t immune to the worldwide trend of gawking at and loudly critiquing the female form, what hope do the rest of us have? But let’s not forget how damaging it is to the Olympians themselves, who despite evidence to the contrary, are only human. Hollie Avil is one example of a high-profile sportswoman (a triathlete) who had to quit competitive sport after admitting she had battled eating disorders.

Yes, what hope is there for any of us plain Janes if even the Olympic athletes are getting bodysnarked to weeping husks of their former selves because they don’t quite match the current physical standard for beauty, which, last I checked, says the perfect woman manages an eating disorder in between cosmetic surgery appointments?

And while it’s undeniably true that going to the gym is encouraged and promoted for women, it’s often done so as a lifestyle choice you can slim down with and accessorise your smokin’ new wardrobe to, rather than as an outing that will make you stronger. Check out the gym ads you see scattered all over magazines and roadside billboards – women are encouraged to get fit to get thin (hence the amount of images that include measuring tape props) or to procure for themselves an appealing arse (hence the amount that try to sell conceptual beach bums to insecure and potentially lumpy ladies).

Matchstick arms are great for modelling delicate straps and expensive watches, but not so fantastic in competitive swimming.

All of this of course misses the point that were our female Olympians to look like underwear models, they wouldn’t be very good at sports, now would they? Matchstick arms are great for modelling delicate straps and expensive watches, but not so fantastic in competitive swimming. Likewise for thighs, busts, calves and shoulders – Olympians need strength, not the approving glances of us mere mortals. Wafting down the track in tea-dresses, augmented boobs hitting them on the chin, is surely not how we want our female athletes to compete.

The desire to see female athletes looking feminine at all times is a bit of a relic, really. As a norm, it should have been abandoned back with having to stay home on voting day, or needing a man’s written consent to even cross the threshold of a financial institution.

We here in Ireland have had great cause to get behind a truly formidable female athlete, Katie Taylor, who’s had a phenomenal and inspirational Olympian run.

Prior to the Games, when officials were debating whether or not to make skirts mandatory for boxing’s female competitors, Taylor was quoted as saying that if she wasn’t interested in wearing mini skirts on a night out, she certainly wasn’t going to do so in the ring.

Taylor is the perfect example of a brilliant athlete uniting her country’s fans in support: so far, I haven’t heard or read a single disparaging comment on her lack of false eyelashes.

Katie Taylor is a national hero, not a national sweetheart. And long may that line of thinking continue.

Read previous columns on by Lisa McInerney >

Your Voice
Readers Comments
    Submit a report
    Please help us understand how this comment violates our community guidelines.
    Thank you for the feedback
    Your feedback has been sent to our team for review.