Olympics 2012: keep your kit on

// 23 July 2012

Victoria Pendleton and Wai Sze Lee cycling at the London Olympic Velodrome.jpg Guest blogger Rebecca Hussein takes a look at the proliferation of sexualised photo shoots – and sexualised public scrutiny – of female athletes.

Victoria Pendleton MBE is a British cyclist gunning for gold at the upcoming London 2012 Olympic Games. She already has a gold medal from the previous tournament in Beijing, plus nine World Championship victories, and a string of European Championship and Commonwealth titles. She also has a nice bum. Where this particular fact ranks in her list of achievements is, increasingly, a matter open for debate.

Don’t believe me? Well, I’ve seen it! She showed it to me! Me and the rest of the Daily Mail Femail section readers. We all declared that it was indeed a nice bum. “She does have a magnificent bum!” said Mark from London. Too right, Mark. Victoria herself agreed, “I’ve been told I’ve got a nice bum.” I would never dispute the niceness of Victoria Pendleton’s bum. Never. I would defend it to my very death. What I do dispute is this recent trend of female athletes completely undermining their talents and achievements by donning a pair of lacy knickers, or indeed, nothing at all, to pose for photo shoots in which they appear to giggle and simper and say things like, “I’ve been told I’ve got a nice bum.”

Victoria, who stands naked whilst brandishing a bike wheel for the latest issue of GQ, is far from the only one guilty of this. Also posing naked in the magazine is volleyball player Zara Dampney. Unfortunately for Zara, her pictures do not receive the praise that Victoria’s enjoyed. “Zara could do with a breast augementation [sic] “, Dr.Plastic comments, whilst Justine from Herts summons all her powers of articulation to simply state, “someone stole her tits!!!!!” [sic]

At my last look, Justine’s comment had 109 red arrows, the indicator that other readers use to display their displeasure. Sadly the one who should be red arrowed is Zara herself for allowing these comments to arise in the first place, caving to media pressure and promoting herself to be consumed as nothing but a sexual object to the delight of tabloids such as the Daily Mail.

The story detailing athlete Jessica Ennis’ recent photo shoot (is this an obligatory thing now?) is headlined, “Olympic golden girl Jessica Ennis shows off her killer figure in glamorous photo shoot”. This comes after controversy surrounding comments about Jessica’s weight, supposedly made by a high-ranking official in UK Athletics. Naturally many athletes and other officials have come to her defence; and yet, I wonder why she chooses to further promote herself to a male gaze after already falling victim to it. Indeed, when one googles Jessica Ennis, the first option listed is, “Jessica Ennis bum”, followed by “Jessica Ennis fat” and “Jessica Ennis hot”. At the bottom of the list is “Jessica Ennis facts”. It is deeply sobering to think that this great athlete’s achievements have been ranked as a measly fourth option of interest compared to three above discussing her image. With a media hellbent on bombarding the public with these images, we really have to question whether Jessica’s decision to take part in the photo shoot was a consequence of her choice, or, simply, public and media expectation.

One could argue that the athletes have subverted these expectations to their advantage, defying sexualisation and using their nakedness to celebrate the body as an instrument of their craft. Posing naked can be empowering: the recent sculpture of disabled artist Alison Lapper’s pregnancy is a great example of this, a celebration of the power of the female body in complete defiance of its sexualised past. The British female athletes also have this ability to display the sheer power of the female body in a different way, contrasting its strength and discipline with Lapper’s celebration of its life-giving qualities. And yet Victoria’s inane comments, followed by the inane comments of Daily Mail readers, only further enforces the sexual undertone. All that these athletes have chosen to display is their ability to please men by posing like Katie Price, a woman who has made a living from it.

The most blatant example of this was the calendar released at the start of the year in which female members of team GB posed in lingerie “for charity”. I don’t know which charity benefited from these women posing in their underwear but can only presume it is one in aid of the victims of a possible knickers factory explosion. Athletes such as Francesca Snell pose in bondage-esque outfits to the delight of men who suspected all along that looking pretty is the only thing women are really good for. These women are role models to millions of young girls interested in sport – what kind of message does this promote to them? That the pinnacle of success is to be ogled at?

These women have worked incredibly hard and are a credit to every female out there in terms of what they have achieved in their field. They should be celebrated so, please, ladies, don’t make me have to condemn you. Keep your kits on this summer and show us that you should be celebrated for your talent, not your bums, nice as they are.

This blog post is by guest blogger Rebecca Hussein. Since leaving university, Rebecca spends most of her days roaming the streets of Dagenham tearing at her hair. She hopes to pursue a career as a freelance journalist, whilst juggling her demanding schedule of eating cereal from the box and watching Deal Or No Deal.

Image shows Victoria Pendleton and Wai Sze Lee cycling at the London Olympic Velodrome. Shared by Sum_of_Marc under a Creative Commons license.

Comments From You

Zilk // Posted 23 July 2012 at 11:52 am

I’m not comfortable with blame on the athletes for their choices and an expectation for them to be ‘good’ role models when (as far as I know) they haven’t claimed any feminist outlook and are products of our patriarchal society like the rest of us.

It’s depressing that the main money-making opportunities for these women with their small window of fame are through sexy photo-shoots. It’s depressing that there’s social/media pressure for them to ‘prove’ they can be sexy as well as talented. But it’s not them that is in the wrong.

sianmarie // Posted 23 July 2012 at 1:15 pm

I’m not comfortable with this article at all. Is it meant to be ironic?

We live in a patriarchy that judges women’s successes on their ability to match a male-defined idea of ‘hotness’ – can we seriously be condemning women who live in this world? As Zilk says, it isn’t our fault as women that money making opps, sponsorship etc come with a patriarchal rule that they need to look hot and be on display.

It’s a narrow line between presenting women as to blame for the lack of choices we have under patriarchy, and presenting women as victims who are powerless to make choices. Which is why i always refer to Laura’s ‘ask a feminist’ answer on this site back in Feb, where she says:

“”[this] doesn’t mean painting women who use fake tan or remove their body hair as incapable of thinking for themselves. The same goes for other examples of social and cultural pressures. Women have the capacity to make different choices, but given that most people want to feel a sense of belonging and do not want to be singled out as different, it makes sense to go along with the dominant cultural norms. And if they’re not exposed to any alternative perspectives, or if those alternative perspectives aren’t perceived as credible because they’re demonised within mainstream society, women are unlikely to question the status quo. That doesn’t mean we’re unable to: we just need access to alternatives and the tools required to deconstruct what has always been portrayed as normal and natural. We can then make more informed decisions about our lives, which may or may not include conforming to social norms.

For me, that tool is feminism. Reading feminist theory enabled me to stop thinking my hairy legs were disgusting, but prior to reading it I had never come across anyone or anything that told me any different. That doesn’t mean I was helpless or irreparably brainwashed, just that I didn’t have any reason to think outside the box.”


I’d say this lack of choice is heightened for women in the public eye, where the messages that their value lies in their hotness is even more prevalent.

To me, it’s always about judging and condemning patriarchy and the structures that restrict our choices, that devalue our abilities and talents. It’s not about condemning women who live in this world. Where does it end otherwise? Blame those who tell women that to be seen as really successful, you need to get your tits out – and those tits had better be just the right size. They’re the ones that are devaluing women.

LauraB // Posted 24 July 2012 at 8:35 am

Hey Rebecca, I enjoyed your post – I have been infuriated by the drooling coverage of women whose profound sporting achievements are apparently not interesting enough to warrant media-space alone without some exciting lacy lingerie or a debate about fatness!

I also sympathise quite strongly with you for feeling like you wish they weren’t complicit in it. But I think Zilk and Sian are right. It’s infuriating that women are judged according to how well they fit a narrowly defined version of hotness and it’s supercool when people refuse to play along, but there’s a gazillion reasons why playing along is easier, especially if you’re in the public eye.

I have felt massively irate when Rihanna or the Pussycat dolls go on about how empowered they feel for getting it all out and shaking it about in the male-gaze hokeycokey! It isn’t any kind of empowerment I relate to. It’s sortof just realising that you pass hotness-standards and can make men salivate at you, isn’t it? But maybe that does feel empowering for some women cos there isn’t a lot of other (real?) power around for us. Hrmph. (My friend and I came up with the expression Mmmpowered to describe it, you know, I can make people go ‘Mmm!’ at me as if I’m a tasty Macdonalds.’)

So yeah, whilst I get where you are coming from Rebecca I have been trying really hard recently to hate the patriarchy and not judge women for being affected by it. It is hard though.

sianmarie // Posted 24 July 2012 at 11:43 am

LauraB – i think what you say about there not being a lot of other power available for women is damn right! and loving the idea of mmmpower.

Have Your say

To comment, you must be registered with The F-Word. Not a member? Register. Already a member? Use the sign in button below

Sign in to the F-Word

Further Reading

Has The F-Word whet your appetite? Check out our Resources section, for listings of feminist blogs, campaigns, feminist networks in the UK, mailing lists, international and national websites and charities of interest.

Write for us!

Got something to say? Something to review? News to discuss? Well we want to hear from you! Click here for more info

  • The F-Word on Twitter
  • The F-Word on Facebook
  • Our XML Feeds