I was that youngster who played just about every sport she could. But I was also the little girl who fully embraced the scrunchie craze and slicked on Limited Too sparkly (and scented!) hair gel every morning before school. Later, I was that athlete who missed her high school senior prom and graduation to compete at the national youth rowing championship. But I was also the young woman who considered Elle Woods from Legally Blonde to be one of her idols and loved any event as long as the dress code called for a fancy dress and high heels.
Growing up, however, I saw these two sides of my identity as mutually exclusive. I did not have many role models who were comfortable with being seen as both attractive and athletic. As a result, I grasped onto anything I encountered that suggested that strength and femininity were compatible. In fifth grade, I proudly carried around a clipping from a Gatorade advertisement with Mia Hamm that read, “You wish you could kick like a girl.” In middle school, one of my favorite shirts read, “Pretty in Pink, Wicked in Uniform.”
Sky Diver Roberta Mancino / image from lugaluda.com
Unfortunately, there still seems to be much tension between these two characteristics. Most female athletes have struggled with presenting an image that is both “feminine” but is also true to how intimidatingly strong they are when they compete. They may also feel pressure to use their attractiveness to promote their sport. In an article entitled “Raising Her Profile By Showing Some Skin” in The New York Times, James Vlahos explains how even Italian sky diver (and Men’s Fitness titleholder of “World’s Hottest Female Athlete”) Roberta Mancino has struggled with this fine line, even though she has a professional background in both fashion modeling and extreme sports:
“Last fall, for [an] ESPN documentary, Ms. Mancino pulled off one of her most dangerous stunts yet. She stood atop a bulb of rock that crowns the Eiger, in the Swiss Alps, then leaped. In her wing suit, she veered ever closer to the craggy black massif, rocks filling the view of her helmet-mounted camera. Finally she turned away and pulled the rip cord.
But ESPN also was sure to show Ms. Mancino preening in designer clothes, strolling bikini-clad along beaches at sunset, and delivering smoldering close-ups straight to the camera. It was as if a woman who could literally fly through the Alps wasn’t enough to keep viewers interested.”
The potential repercussions of sexualized portrayals like this?
“Sex sells sex… It doesn’t sell women’s sports.”
-Mary Jo Kane, executive director of the Tucker Center for Research on Girls and Women in Sport at the University of Minnesota
I agree with Ms. Kane, but I also wish that the younger me had had access to more women like Mancino, who are not afraid of showing off their strength or their sexuality.
Furthermore, there could be a positive benefit to the entry of female athletes into the fashion industry. Even though Mancino, with her “curvy figure” and “an endless succession of cuts and bruises,” does not have a body like that of most female models in advertisements or runway shows, she has been able to earn the money necessary make a living by modeling on the side. The debate over using waif-like versus healthy models in fashion is nothing new. Featuring strong and healthy female athletes like Mancino in fashion spreads may be part of the solution to promoting a healthy body image amongst young girls and encouraging women to live a healthy and happy lifestyle.
Another important point to stress is not only the importance of showing women examples of what a healthy and mature female body looks like, but also the importance of showing young girls that it is okay to be interested in both sports and fashion. One particularly good role model in that area is tennis player Maria Sharapova, who has designed a successful line of shoes and handbags for Cole Haan. Sharapova might be a tough world-class athlete, but she has a flourishing side career in fashion. And, a woman who is truly “pretty in pink, but wicked in uniform,” she sports pink tennis dresses on the court while she delivers her opponent a 100-plus mph serve.
image from tennistournaments4u.com
image from cornedbeefhash.wordpress.com