Fatphobia in Fitness, Olympics Edition

Thursday, August 02, 2012

Photo: Steve Christo
By Mina Itabashi

Tavae already wrote about the racism and sexism in the Olympic games in her awesome post. Unfortunately, I'm going to have to add fatphobia and body-policing to that list of flaws.

Quite a pity, because this year's Olympics was supposed to be an empowering event for women. As Bitch Magazine notes, "the U.S. is sending its first ever female-majority team to the games, tennis pro Maria Sharapova is going to be Russia's first female athlete to carry her country's Olympic flag, women's boxing is being allowed for the first time, and—in the biggest news since women were first allowed to compete in 1900—for the first time ever, every single country in the Games is sending women to compete."

So it was off to a good start... until the Australian press decided to criticize the body of Leisel Jones, the first Australian woman ever to compete in four Olympic Games. The Herald Sun published photos of Jones in this year's training session, comparing them to a photo of her in 2008. The caption read,  “The Olympic veteran's figure is in stark contrast to that of 2008.” They even posted an online poll asking readers whether they thought she was fit enough to swim.

Let us take a moment here. Seriously? You're questioning whether she's fit enough to swim based on her appearance? This is a three-time gold medalist we're talking about. 

Dodai Stewart from Jezebel asks the crucial question:
Why do we insist on believing we can look at someone and know what their health and fitness levels are? Because we live in a society that fetishizes thinness, inundates us with images of svelte female bodies and brainwashes us into believing that thin is The Best Way To Be. Models and celebrities are rewarded for thinness with magazine covers and muti-million-dollar ad campaigns; it doesn't matter if they smoke or have an eating disorder or have truly odious personalities. Thinness trumps all, tricking us into equating it with health and worth, just as fatness trumps all, conning us into believing its presence is a sign of ill health and unworthiness.
But at the same time, let's be real, Leisel Jones isn't fat. And even if she were, so what? Christie Blatchford from the Vancouver Sun gives us some perspective:
First, much as the temptation at these events is always to long for the sentimental result, Jones would not be swimming to gold on behalf of all the wounded fat little children of the world or those who once were. That's because she ain't fat: She weighs about 150 pounds, or about what the average woman in the U.K. and the U.S. weighs.

Secondly, calling someone fat isn't criticism, not in any meaningful sense. It's small and unnecessary, period. You want to criticize a world-class athlete, talk about her sport, her technique or her training - not her makeup (synchronized swimming excepted, of course).

Thirdly, the appearance insult (ask any woman on television what sort of mail she gets compared with her male colleagues) is the insult of first and last resort with women.
ESPN's Body Issue in the lead up to the Olympics was also a little bit of a let-down. They did some things well, which you can read about in more depth here. But obviously, all the athletes featured fit into mainstream society's stereotypical conventions of beauty.  And as Culturally Disoriented points out, more than half of the female athletes were shown only as passive eye-candy while pretty much all of the men were shown in action shots. Are they trying to reinforce the idea that women try to be fit in order to have a body that can be considered eye-candy? Instead they should listen to these Australian female Olympians who tweeted in support of Jones:

Katherine Bates, former Olympic track and road cyclist: "My bad - I didn't realise Leisel Jones earned her spot in London at a pageant. Here I was thinking she was a great swimmer!" 

Giaan Rooney, former Olympic swimmer: "...an athlete is called 'overweight'. I didn't care about what my body looked like when I swam, I cared about what it could do. #perspective"

Seriously, the Olympics is about appreciating and supporting talented, dedicated, inspiring athletes. It's not about policing or objectifying their bodies or conflating fitness and body size. People choose to exercise or engage in sports for various reasons, whether it be to win a gold medal, to be healthy at their own size, to comply to societal conventions on what makes a beautiful body, or whatever else. It's not anyone's business to guess or assume their intentions. Fatphobia and body-policing don't belong in fitness; they belong on the list of things that the Olympics shouldn't represent.

Mina is a summer intern at Forward Together, a proud Japanese American raised all over east and southeast Asia. She embraces her identity as a womyn of color and doesn't believe in borders.