Backhanded insults follow women into sporting arena

Once again our obsession with body image has overshadowed achievement when it comes to women in sport. We should champion those of all shapes and sizes who go out and compete, writes Clodagh Finn

Backhanded insults follow women into sporting arena

Those recent pictures of former Wimbledon champion Marion Bartoli made me want to weep. Not because the Twitter trolls are giving the 2013 champ a hard time for losing so much weight – we’ve come to expect that kind of dribbling nonsense from social media.

What is utterly dispiriting in the first week of one of the world’s oldest tennis championships is that, yet again, body image has usurped women’s sporting and other achievements.

When the French player won the first Grand Slam title of her career three years ago, she was excoriated for being too fat. Now that she has shed who cares how many kilos, she is being criticised for being too thin.

The player-turned-fashion designer says she has never felt healthier and says she lost weight when she stopped doing the kind of intense gym work necessary to win a tennis title.

Instead of celebrating her achievement on court and heralding her new venture into the world of fashion, the headlines have all been about how Marion Bartoli looks.

No wonder seven in ten British elite female athletes told BT Sport pollsters they felt the public was more interested in how they looked than the medals they had won.

Unfortunately, there are far too many examples of wonderfully talented sportswomen who have had to endure blatant body fascism, from Olympic cyclist Jess Varnish who was told by British Cycling chief Shane Sutton “to just move on and have a baby” to British champion heptathlete Jessica Ennis-Hill who was told she was fat.

If it’s like that for these powerful women at the top of their game, what is it like for the rest of us mere mortals?

Well, here’s a really sad insight into what our obsession with the female form is doing to young women here and in the UK. A survey published by feminine product company Always this week found that, by the end of puberty, nearly seven in ten girls feel they don’t belong in sport.

They said they didn’t feel encouraged to play sport and when they did, they worried about being judged.

And who can’t identify with that?

One summer, in a Wimbledon-inspired tennis fever, I took to the local court in whites and started belting a ball around. Half way through the second set, some passing yokels shouted: “Nice legs, shame about her face” (The Monks had a hit with that in the charts at the time).

They were right about the face, I thought; it was puffy and purple and distorted by that very unfeminine thing – sheer determination. I did register the watery compliment about the legs, mind you, but I made a mental note to self that playing tennis equals possible ridicule. I played tennis less and less after that.

I wish now that I had some of the retorts listed in Sport England’s wonderful ‘This Girl Can’ campaign. “Talk to the backhand,” for example. Or “Sweating like a pig, feeling like a fox”, or, a favourite, “I jiggle, therefore I am”.

The campaign was launched in 2015 to help change attitudes and increase women’s confidence in sport. Since then, it has inspired more than 2.8 million women to get more active. That’s what I call a result.

Not only is getting active good for health, involving women and girls in sport will boost their involvement in society, fight gender stereotypes and lead to equal rights, according to the United Nations.

Though, there has been a good deal of progress here. In 2005, the Irish Sports Council launched the Women in Sport initiative to address the gender gap. At the time, the ESRI found that fewer than one in five Irish women met the National Activity Guidelines of 30 minutes of moderate/vigorous activity five days a week.

In 2013, that had improved: one in three women met the guidelines while one in eight women was sedentary.

Still, women in sport – and in particular in professional sport – have a way to go. Just a few short months ago, tennis pro Novak Djokovic was forced to apologise for saying that men deserved more prize money than women because they attracted more viewers.

His apology was even worse than his original outburst.

He said: “I have tremendous respect for what women in sport are doing and achieving. Their bodies are much different to men’s bodies. They have to go through a lot of different things that we don’t have to go through. You know, the hormones and different stuff, we don’t need to go into details.” Damn right we don’t.

What we do need to do, however, is champion the women, of all shapes and sizes, who show us that sport is never about the size of your thighs, dimpled or otherwise. It’s about health, fun, achievement, inspiration, professionalism, focus — and much more.

We have so many homegrown female role models who show us that all the time. There’s Katie and Sonia of course, but there are so many others. Here’s a very incomplete though inspiring list: the Irish female rugby team who beat New Zealand; Annalise Murphy, the Dun Laoghaire Laser Radial sailor who came fourth in the 2012 Olympics and is on the road to Rio; Leona Maguire, the Cavan golfer who retained her world number-one ranking in amateur golf this year.

There are hundreds more who tog out in winter and summer to play the kind of team sports that used to be considered men’s games.

As the ‘This Girl Can’ campaign says: “I kick balls, deal with it.” And finally, to venture outside Ireland for a moment, there’s Marion Bartoli who, whatever she weighs, will always be a hero of mine. As she says on her Instagram bio: “Tell me I can’t and I will.”

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