Sunday, August 13, 2017

Ability Over Aesthetics

This is a repost of something I wrote in 2014 after a USAC ProGRT round in Snowshoe, WV. Has remained unedited other than this contextual note.

As a female athlete, I often find myself under differing amounts of scrutiny from many outlets on varying topics, but one of the most prevalent topics is physical appearance. 

Some weeks back after placing well at a US national race, I was reading the comments on a recap article about the results here on Pinkbike and came across a comment about my legs from another Pinkbike member. Granted, in the accompanying photo of the podium, I look like a fat kid whose shorts are hiked way too far in the awkward direction; it was an awkward picture, to say the least. But what really caught me off guard was the fact that this male commenter felt the need to comment on my legs in the first place. Yes, they looked AWFUL. Yes, I looked fat. But to publicly point it out? Is that really necessary? After an angry, emotional rant to a friend and a few beers, I calmly sat down at my computer and patiently explained to this gentleman why I love my chubby little stems. It ended fairly well.

What stuck with me from this experience, however, was that a large portion of the public, as well as members of the action sports industry truly believe that female athletes are all supposed to look like the models displayed in the magazines and ads. This false advertisement and hype not only creates perception issues for the general public, but it creates an economy within the action sports industry that punishes and devalues women who prioritize their skills and athletic ability over their physical appearance and 'look'. Many companies and sponsors will outsource product shoots and advertising campaigns and tradeshow appearances to professional models while the very athletes who test and use their products get 'budget cuts' and reduced incentive payouts, despite being the people doing the work... It creates a false public belief that athletes are these beautiful people who always look perfect and instills in young women a lie about the definition of success. Some of the strongest female athletes I have ever met are women who don't give a damn about how they look; they're usually more concerned with progressing their sports and pushing the performance line than smudging their mascara. These women are the girls going huge, 'chicking' the boys and changing perspectives and ideas about female athleticism, yet they don't get advertising campaigns devoted to their competitive prowess or total athletic domination. They don't receive accolades for building outreach programs for other women and girls and they don't get press for pushing boundaries, because someone has already given that ad space to a pretty face who 'looks' athletic. 

Now, I clearly understand the issue from a marketing standpoint: a brand needs to look attractive to trigger an aspirational response within a potential consumer, which usually leads to a purchase, aka the "buy this because this product makes you pretty" campaign. This campaign is why models are paid to stand around in the first place. I get it. Believe me. But my problem is that this is required in an industry built around skill and progression. Male athletes are endorsed because they are particularly talented or skilled in a certain discipline or area, or because they're personable and make the sport fun, or because they do crazy shit. That's great. But female athletes get press for being pretty. If you have skills, great! If not? Well, that's okay... You can still be a professional athlete! We'll just make sure you don't race or film or do any sort of event where raw skill is required. A pretty face is literally a golden ticket to success in our appearance-obsessed world, and sadly, the bike industry is no exception. In a world of followers, likes, and comments, an athlete's value is based on how much 'influence' they have across social media platforms, and it can be easy to get caught up in the waves of lustful adoration from pervy lurkers. It's easy to confuse attention for respect and followers for influence; it can happen before we even know what's going on. 

Anyone with enough motivation can be 'fit'. Anyone can train to look good. Anyone can wake up, hit the gym, eat right and get a great body. Anyone can wear makeup and have their hair done for some cute photos. How do I know this? Because I've done it. It's a whole lot easier than you'd think. Sexy bodies reflect commitment to fitness, but anyone can just go out and exercise -- training for and excelling at a sport requires dedication to a long-term vision of success, and a strong body often looks much different than a 'sexy' body. It's not easy to consistently push back what we want now for what we want most. It's not easy to go to bed early and wake up early and mix jobs and training and riding and skills work and travel and family. But it's worth it because it goes far deeper than what any of us 'look like' on the surface. We owe it to ourselves and to the next generation of athletes and girls to build a realistic concept of 'strong' and 'successful' that isn't based on appearance. 

It no longer surprises me when people make comments about the attractiveness of female athletes as related to their value ("yeah, but she's HOT!"), because that's what we've allowed our industry to become. We objectifiy female riders and athletes every time we fail to speak up during a conversation or debate. We demean our female athletes every time there's an ad, an Instagram post or a video of bouncing boobs that casts the women of our sport in a sexual light and we stand idly by, waiting for someone else to step forward and create change. 

It's the responsibility of all of us to rise above the sexual shitstorm that plagues women in sport, and that includes the female athletes. As women we need to focus on what our bodies can do, not what they look like. If we do this... If we refuse to exploit our sexuality for profit, our sponsors, our companies, our male counterparts, our industries and the public will follow suit. At the end of the day, much of the responsibility comes down to those of us in the spotlight earning our places as professional athletes. Not by having pretty faces or great bodies and using our appearance to 'get ahead', but by pushing the boundaries and limits of our sport every time we're on our bikes. We need to set an example for those coming generations about what we will and will not tolerate from our own industry, and what we will and will not do for the sake of notoriety, glossy pages or social media fame. If we truly want equality in sport, we need to behave equally and stop commercializing our sexuality. All of us have to be willing to put the work in, step outside of societal roles and start earning those equal payouts. We DO have something to prove, and that's why we're out here: to prove that we're more than a genetic lottery. That's the beauty of sport. 

As a culture, as athletes, as a community and as an industry, it's high time we start paying attention to the messages we're sending to the members of our sport and the image we project to those outside. It's time to start asking ourselves what we REALLY want as a sport: athletic-looking models who capitalize on the status quo of companies looking to send the wrong message? Or women who really do throw down and have committed to the permanent health and growth of our sport? It's time to start seeing these powerful, incredible women as what they are: the building blocks of a healthy future.