Female weightlifting champion Zoe Smith at this year’s Olympics responded to sexist Twitter comments with: “We don’t lift weights in order to look hot… What makes them think that we even want them to find us attractive?”
Sport can enable women to confront sexist objectification in a very direct way; by stating very forcefully that our bodies are ours, part of our identity, and their purpose is not the sexual gratification of men.
Some sports lend themselves to sexist vilification, for the same reason that female construction workers get the rough end of workplace sexism: they step outside society’s conception of what is appropriate for “the female body”. Football, weightlifting and wrestling are examples of sports where women face discrimination for being “masculine”, ie, focussed on the sport, competitive, strong and confident.
My favourite remark on women in the Olympics came from Andrew M Brown of the Daily Telegraph, whose article on the women’s Judo was entitled “It’s disturbing to watch these girls beat each other up.”
Conservatives express what wider society still implicitly feels; women are not as physically capable as men, their capacity to feel aggression is not the same as men’s, and so women’s sport is of a second-class standard to men’s. Women just aren’t as good at football.
Combined with this is an unhealthy level of body-consciousness which drives women, and many men, to diet, or to do exercises in enclosed, air-conditioned gyms. The goal is to gain the magnificent body, not enjoyment of exercise or sport for itself.
Guardian journalist Zoe Williams describes the sexual attraction audiences feel for athletes as a different mindset altogether: “watching these near-deities for whom every muscle has a purpose and every tweak of a body hair is a bid for greatness, we are allowed to make remarks we would never normally make.”
Staring at a body that is trained to be strong, agile, fast and enduring is different from staring at a body that is bullied into a sexist conception of feminine beauty. Admiring “athletic” beauty is similar to admiring the beauty of a comet (Williams’s simile).
I play on a feminist football team (self-defining women only) in Victoria Park, east London. More often than not during our games a man in his late 30s will sit at the side and shout “advice” at us, which we ignore until he gets bored and disappears. Blokes seem to feel entitled to comment on the conduct of the sport, because football is “theirs”.
The sense of masculine pride bound up in the sport seems to me to be an essential part of many men’s identity; and part of the reason it’s much easier to find blokes to have a casual kickabout with than women. But why can’t we celebrate these “masculine” attributes in ourselves? You’re unlikely to find posters of female football players on the walls of teenage kids’ bedrooms, but that should be our goal.
Team sport exercise isn’t played primarily to burn fat, the goals are very different. We play to win, to sustain a sense of camaraderie between our team mates, and for love of the sport. Team sports can be collective political statements by their existence.
Fights for team funding and training, stadium space, field time, and time within our working lives at home and at work — these are our battles.
* To join Feminist Fightback’s football training, open to all abilities, tel. 07527 064326.