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.