On Olympic Bodies
With the recent arrival of the Dobbs verdict, and the further threat to women’s bodily automy, it’s easy to forget that we have been on a road to this for a while. Apart from the political signs that have been there, the way we’ve treated women’s bodies for a very long time has illuminated the path we were on.
Back in Feburary, It was heart wrenching and awful to watch 15 year-old Russian figure skater Kamila Valieva crumple into heaving tears after stumbling and falling multiple times in the free skate portion of the Ladies Figure Skating competition in the 2022 Winter Olympics. Given that Valieva is a child of 15, and had been the subject of intense scrutiny during the games due to having tested positive for a banned substance in December, I’m amazed that she didn’t break down sobbing long before that. At 15 I was given to sobbing in my Algebra class.
The International Olympic Committee had allowed Valieva to skate after her positive test was revealed, citing that otherwise she might suffer “irreparable harm.” From the other side of the television screen, it looked more like she was suffering irreparable harm from skating in the Olympics. Admittedly I never got past the point in ice skating where you let go of the side of the rink, but I can identify heartbreak and despair.
“On a human level, I can’t imagine going through what she has been through. But that doesn’t change the fact that she should have been nowhere near this competition,” said NBC figure skating commentator Johnny Weir, who also described the events that evening as “the destruction of a young person.”
Usually the marquee event of the Olympics, this year the Ladies figure skating event was unsettling as it forced us to look behind the sparkly costumes and the illusion of the pristine ice princess effortlessly floating above a frozen pond.
How bad was the conclusion of the Ladies skating event? Even former ice princess Katarina Witt, who won figure skating gold in ‘84 and ‘88, became visibly upset during the event on German National television. Witt said someone responsible, like her mother, should have removed Valieva from the terrible situation.
That particularly disturbing evening of sports trains a laser focus on the huge problem of the general disregard for women’s bodies, particularly the bodies of young women. While this problem is particularly clear in elite sports, it isn’t limited to sports.
This past summer, phenomenal American gymnast Simone Biles got a lot of online blowback from couch coaches for not being in mentally healthy enough to compete for most of last year’s Summer Olympics.
The ugly public response to Biles choosing not to compete in the interest of her own health is a symptom of a much bigger problem: the idea that women’s bodies (and what they do with them) are there for entertainment or pleasure or benefit of other people.
This public ownership of women’s bodies explains why the men’s and women’s beach volleyball teams at the Summer Olympics competed in remarkably different outfits. The dudes in their official team competition outfits, with baggy shorts and athletic jerseys, looked like they could run into the grocery store without attracting notice. The women are only dressed for a day at the beach wearing plenty of sunblock.
Considering that the women of beach volleyball are expected to play a sport before millions in a bikini more revealing than any swimwear I’ve ever owned, it seems like the uniforms might be turning women away from the sport. While no one has yet asked me to join the Olympic beach Volleyball team, as someone whose swimwear runs closer to a Burkini than an “Itsy-bitsy-teeny-weeney-yellow-polka-dot-bikini” I’d never be comfortable showing that much skin at my neighborhood pool, never mind on worldwide television.
While these elite athletes suffer in different ways, nearly every modern woman has experienced the impact of the idea that her body does not belong to her alone. Public schools often have dress codes prohibiting things like spaghetti straps, hem lengths and the wearing of shorts. As a country we seem very concerned about what young women wear, but we don’t seem to be bothered about what is distracting to the young women. Even with my collection of turtlenecks and oversized jackets, I still often got sent home from public school in Texas for wearing “inappropriate” clothing. Having legs that are too long for most off the rack outfits meant that I was sent home because my allegedly too short skirt might be revealing one of my delectable knees to someone who might find the temptation too distracting for full focus in French class. No one seemed to worry that I might find a dude in a crisply pressed blue gingham and a close shave overly distracting, and that, clearly I could concentrate better at school if those boys would just stop all their unnecessary ironing.
Then, there are the coerced smiles. If you are a woman who hasn’t been told to “smile!” by an unknown man in public multiple times, please buy my next lottery ticket.
My most egregious example: was looking at a post-mortem photo of a Victorian child at a flea market booth in Brooklyn. The booth owner barked “smile, it’s not that bad!” in my face. It took a moment to process his nonsense, as I was looking at a photo taken at what must have been one of the worst moments of someone else’s long ago life.
One of the non-covid benefits of wearing a mask in public these days is fewer men pouncing on you to “smile,” as pointed out by Twitter user @NegateTheChaos:
“People no longer feel the need to tell me to smile, and I can mumble to myself without anyone knowing.”
You can also see the disregard for women’s bodies by the way we regard exotic dancers. The French prestige horror movie “Titane,” directed by Julia Ducournau won the prestigious Palme d’Or at the Canne Film Festival, screened at Fantastic Fest and is the French entry for best feature in the 2022 Academy Awards race. The film shows how current culture regards the bodies of women.
Titane features an exotic dancer with a multiple murder habit. Early in the film there is a “we’ve seen it everywhere” exotic dancing scene at a car show, where the main character is showing lots of skin while bumping and grinding in her fabulous fishnets. Later, while presenting as a male firefighter to hide from the authorities, the dancer does those same exotic dance moves while all covered up in an industrial boiler suit, something that deeply unsettles the fireman she is dancing for. Why is this? Maybe it’s because the place of the female exotic dancer in society is so far beneath that of a firefighter?
We’re so used to women’s bodies being presented for public consumption that the scene of a nearly nude female dancer is just ho- hum, because we see often see exotic dancers, strippers and female sex workers presented as just part of the background scenery in film and television, with no more nuance given to them than there is to a shimmering swimming pool or a great view from a hotel window. Sometimes they matter even less in entertainment, where they seem to get murdered even more often than they do in real life. Sex work is still one of the most dangerous professions.
Not everyone who disrobes for money is lucky enough to become Anna Nicole Smith, Gypsy Rose Lee or Tempest Storm.
We seem to give little thought to the exoctic dancers who staff the myriad clubs in Texas. Houston is known for its many strip clubs, but the workers who staff the clubs don’t have union protections or a lobbying group. One of the reasons is because they depend on the undervalued resource of women’s bodies. Over the years I’ve heard horrifying stories from multiple friends who have danced at various Austin strip clubs.
Sadly, this concept that women’s bodies are a commodity isn’t anything new.
From the beginning of forever, women have been married off to cement political alliances or advantageous farm mergers, something that didn’t always work out wonderfully for the women. For example, 14 year-old Marie Antionette was sent from Austria to France to marry the heir to the French throne in order to bind the relations between the two countries. It ended badly for her.
Marrying off daughters for family advancement went on for a long time, leading to the rise of the debutante and the marriage-focused world of the streaming show “Bridgerton.” Later, the daughters of the gilded age nouveau riche Americans were married off in exchange for British or European titles. Lady Grantham on “Downton Abbey” is a fictional portrayal of the real-life American “dollar princesses,” like Consuelo Vanderbuilt, many of whom were pushed into marrying broke dudes with fancy titles and acres of leaking roof on their stately home.
Far front the glittering worlds of olympic athletes and debutantes, the problem of undervaluing the bodies of women goes deep in American history,
You can particularly see this disregard for women’s bodies, especially the bodies of enslaved women, in the life of Sally Hemmings. Hemmings was a slave owner by founding father Thomas Jefferson…with whom he fathered six children. How consensual the relationship was between Jefferson and Hemmings is a matter of ongoing debate. Jefferson legally owned Hemmings, and she was not given her freedom during her lifetime. Is someone truly free to consent to sexual advances, if the person who is making the advances is the legal owner of the person to whom they are making advances? Do you need me to answer that for you?
Later on, this idea that women’s bodies were considered to be public property can be see it in the way that the women working in the factories in America in WWII were heavily encouraged to look lovely while they were doing their jobs–as if lipstick and fresh curls would help them do a better job building bombs or welding airplanes together. My grandfather worked in a Houston shipyard during WWII, but I don’t remember him talking about being encouraged to look his snappiest during his long shipyard shifts to keep up the morale of the women working alongside him.
This idea that the bodies of women are public property can be seen as being responsible for the way that the cells from Henrietta Lacks were harvested from her body during a treatment for ovarian cancer in 1951. It was likely without her permission as she was a poor black woman at a public hospital in the 1950s, and the 1950s were an especially awful time for female black Americans. The cells were then cultivated in a lab. Those HeLa cells from that line are still used in the biotech industry today. The story is detailed in the book and movie “The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks.”
This idea that women’s bodies and their work are not just for their enjoyment alone accounts for the idea that housework, cooking,childcare are women’s work. Even now, after decades of feminism, data shows that women who perform paid work outside the home also perform an excessive amount of unpaid household labor compared to their male partners, something that hasn’t improved during the Coronavirus.
This same misguided idea about how the bodies of women aren’t just theirs alone underpins the fight for reproductive freedom, where what happens inside the bodies of women is becoming more and more closely legislated by the day, a trend that shows no signs of slowing down or stopping.
I’m glad Biles stood up for herself at the summer Olympics. It’s her body and we should respect her ability to make her own choices for her own health. It’s the best thing she could do while representing America on an International stage. I wish that, for her own sake, Valieva had been able to do the same thing and had been allowed to gracefully withdraw from the Olympic competition.
Given the way Valieva was treated by the Russian coaches, it’s hard not to think of Soviet Gymnast Elena Mukhina, who was paralyized in a training accident before the 1980 Moscow Olympics. She had tried to persuade her coaches that the element that resulted in her becoming a quadraplegic was too dangerous. They didn’t listen to Mukhina, with tragic results.
NBC commentator Tara Lipinski, who won gold at the age of 15 in 1998 said that she thought Valieva should have not been at these Olympics.
“I can’t imagine how tough this has been on Kamila and it makes me angry that the adults around her couldn’t make better decisions. She’s the one now dealing with the consequences. And she’s just a teen and that’s not fair. … That being said, she should not have been allowed to skate in this Olympic event.”
Given that the Russian skating program Valieva is part of is known for producing very young champions who retire from the sport early, it’s doubtful we’ll see the young and gifted skater at another Olympics.
As long as the bodies of women, especially young women, are considered nearly disposable, we can expect more tragic evenings of sport like we saw in the Olympic skating event this year.