Size Matters: Big Girls on the Court

The Women’s NCAA Final Four basketball games aired Sunday night, April 5. I enjoyed the games, but was distracted by the constant focus on the weight and weight loss of the athletes. Based on water cooler talk and Twitters, many others noticed this trend and were also bothered. Two of the most notable discussions pertained to Oklahoma player Ashley Paris and Stanford’s Jayne Appel—both of whom had “dedicated” themselves in the off season and lost “over 20 pounds”. I lost track of how many times their weight loss was discussed. I know the weight loss of “The Dancing Bear”(aka Draymond Green) a player on the Michigan State men’s team, was also a topic of discussion in the coverage of the men’s tournament…but not nearly to the degree of the female players (Note: when men are “fat” they are often feminized…i.e. “dancing” bear…not “fierce, vicious bear”…but that is a topic for another blog). Why does lopsided gendered commentary about weight matter?

In the case of Appel and A. Paris, sport fans were told the weight loss was motivated by the desire of the athletes to optimize performance and commentators were very quick to attribute improved performance to weight loss. This may be true, however the repeated focus of sport commentary on the weight loss of female athletes also raises concerns and questions.

A constant focus on weight loss may send the message to young girls that in order to be a good athlete, you need to be thin. Thin, lean, disciplined bodies are the feminine norm, while strong, powerful, big female bodies often fall under scrutiny. Young girls who love and play certain sports where big, tall, strong bodies are requisite—like basketball—might be scrutinized (internally and by others). Therefore it is not surprising is that both A.Paris and Appel are “big girls” that play under the basket—positions where you need size and strength. I did not hear any discussion about the weight or fitness of any of the perimeter players. Mixed messages about body size and athletic performance may deter some girls from pursuing sports where strength and size matter, while making “fat” athletic (as some sport scholars call f/athletes) girls feel inadequate or self-loathing.

Decades of research documents sport media coverage more often than not highlights the physical attractiveness of female athletes while downplaying athletic competence. This pattern has consequences. The American Psychological Association states that the high value placed on physical attractiveness can result in girls experiencing reduced cognitive functioning, low self-esteem, eating disorders, depression, diminished sexual health, and internalization of stereotypes. Similarly, the National Eating Disorders Association states, “Media messages screaming “thin is in” may not directly cause eating disorders, but they help to create the context within which people learn to place a value on the size and shape of their body. To the extent that media messages like advertising and celebrity spotlights help our culture define what is beautiful and what is ‘good,’ the media’s power over our development of self-esteem and body image can be incredibly strong.”

Public commentary about the weight of female athletes by coaches (i.e., in practice, public weigh-ins) or sport media on national television is not productive and might be detrimental to girls—let alone the target(s) of the commentary.

Commentary on weight loss also reinforces the idea that if an individual is overweight (which has a “know it when we see it” quality), she is morally corrupt and irresponsible. F/athletes often create resentment and hostility from onlookers who often assume, are taught, and learn that being “fat” or “big” is bad. These themes played out in the constant comparison between the twin sisters Ashley and Courtney Paris. Ashley Paris was described as a hard working, disciplined player who decided to get herself into shape and rededicate herself to becoming the best she could be. In fact, multiple times the commentators said Ashley would go in the first round of the WNBA draft due to her new found fitness level. Conversely, her twin sister Courtney Paris (known most recently for her promise to pay back her scholarship if Oklahoma did not win the national championship) needed to “lean up” and was implicitly constructed as the less dedicated (i.e., lazy), fat, unfit sister—despite the fact she is a unanimous first round pick. There were many times where talk of Ashley Paris’ improved footwork and her newly fit body was combined with talk of “only if” her sister could also “get fit” and improve her game for the next level. While this may be true, Courtney Paris ALREADY IS a good player! In fact she is the first player—regardless of sex, division, or governing body—to score 2,500 points and record 2,000 rebounds in a career, and the ONLY four-time All-American in women’s basketball. Some might ask, “How did Courtney Paris achieve this elite level of sporting success DESPITE her ‘level of fitness’?” or “How can a fat body be a healthy and athletic body?” C. Paris as a high-performing large female body, challenges assumptions and raises many questions.

Many of my colleagues have written about these issues in depth, I am merely borrowing from their critiques (see the special issue of the Sociology of Sport Journal in 2008 dedicated to the social construction of “fatness” in athletic bodies).

With both Stanford and Oklahoma out of the tournament, hopefully we won’t hear anymore female “f/athlete” commentary in the championship game. It is distracting to say the least.

Because sport can be a powerful tool in negating the effects of an over-emphasis on the physical appearance of females, media portrayals and sport commentary of sportswomen become an important tool for teaching young girls to focus on—and honor—what their bodies (regardless of size) can do versus what they can look like. For the Championship game the sole focus should be on the athletic abilities of these great female athletes—who come in all shapes and sizes.

4 Replies to “Size Matters: Big Girls on the Court”

  1. I am a girls’ high school basketball, so I deal with these types of issues first hand. I also coach girls’ cross country, but its not as big of an issue as it is in basketball. I watch the final four as well and did notice how much they spoke about their weight loss and the connection to their performance. This also happened several years ago with Maryland’s Jade Perry. She lost 20 lbs and was given praise for her performance because of her weight loss.

    I do agree that we make this a bigger issue than it should be, but we also have to understand what goes on behind the scenes. Are the media personalities getting this information from the coaching staff voluntarily or do they probe for it? If coaches are bringing it up more and more, then it gives the media an easy exit from blame here. I think its ashame that after the women’s game has come so far, we now are starting to look at it in the same light as modeling. I’m a male coach and would never think to put a player’s body figure up for criticism. I guess its just how the world is!

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  2. I also agree that weight loss sends the wrong message to young girls. Sports tend to reaffirm traditional gender roles, women are supposed to be thin and feminine, and men are tough and masculine. I suppose sport commentators constantly critique physical appearances of women athletes because they believe everyone finds that type of discussion interesting. However, the impact of these comments, although some may be subtle, definitely influences cultural ideologies.
    One question I ask myself, “would the weight loss of Jane Appel and A. Paris be as critiqued if women made these comments instead of men?” My answer is yes, I do think that their weight loss will be critiqued. In many ways Jane Appel and A. Paris reinforced the mechanisms of containment for girls and women in sports. Their weight loss can be seen as the female apologetic. Also, the emphasis the commentators placed on Jane Appel and A. Paris’s weight loss reinforces hegemonic femininity.

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  3. There are both male and female examples of this situation. In 2006, Glen “Big Baby” Davis, a star power forward at LSU led his team to the Final Four, despite weighing 338 pounds in only a 6’9″ frame. I watched that Final Four and in the week leading up to the games and during the telecast, there were many news stories and commentary regarding his weight. The next season, Davis came to school weighing 51 pounds less, at 271. There were many stories that chronicled his weight loss, saying that he rededicated himself in the off-season.( Like this one..http://www.nola.com/sports/t-p/index.ssf?/base/sports-24/115354743183610.xml&coll=1)
    He was proud of his weight loss and, by his own admission, said the weight loss made him a better player that could do more things on the basketball court. Had he not lost that weight, he may not have been able to make it in the NBA, where he now has a fairly successful career so far.

    The issue of weight plays a big part in sports and I believe that if there is drastic weight loss by a player on his/her own accord, that should be applauded because it’s a great accomplishment, both as achieving a goal and improving overall health and fitness.
    I do think it was out of line for the announcers to imply that Courtney Paris was “lazy” because she hasn’t lost as much weight. She uses her size to her advantage, which has been a great move so far as her dominance has reflected.

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  4. What I have seen in most woman’s sports is that most women who accel at their desired publicly portrayed sport do have a “Thin, lean, and disciplined” body. Unfortunately, I have to ask then, why is their such a negative disciplined view of this appeal? I know that this appeal can often lead to other personal health factors but it can also lead to an athlete being able to take their game to the next level. I therefore don’t always agree that weight loss sends the wrong message to younger girls. Coming from a guy, it would be appropriate to think that this view is just a view of masculinity and using dominate gender ideology, but if it came from a girl, then their wouldn’t be any fuss about the situation. I agree that appropriate weight loss to better the physical health of a human should be positive, and I sometimes think that women become too immersed at the effect that the media portrays on physical appearance. Its hard to believe that sports and the media can always be directly related to personal weight issues, but through our normal assumptions that society has placed upon us, I consider it a scapegoat that we too often jump to. Woman’s sports do often put an emphasis on what the female athletes look like, rather than their athletic ability, but I think it’s just something that society is used to and it is something that has evolved through the years to be accepted as the norm. I realistically don’t see a change in the future when dealing with male and female gender ideologies in relation to sport. If anything, I can only see it getting worse.

    Overall, using commentary to publicly and verbally critique a plus-size women isn’t appropriate, especially in relation to a young 20-something college girl. Sometimes, it can be appropriate to bring up the topic of weight loss to a team, whether guys or girls, in order to better improve the athletic ability and performance. There are certain ways of addressing this issue but I think that jumping right to the fact that the media is the main source of a weight loss problem isn’t the appropriate choice for a cause.

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