Talking to Girls about Strong Women who are Reduced to Sexual Images
As I write this, I feel as if it’s the literary version of walking on eggshells. I am not trying to stir up controversy, and I am not trying to engage in age-old feminist debates. I am trying to boil an issue down to one element for the purpose of a discussion with our daughters. I think this is of interest to all parents with daughters, but perhaps even more so to daughters who are athletes. Here’s what bothers me: I keep seeing amazing women who reach perhaps the pinnacle of their career, and then not long after are half naked on a commercial or magazine.
Imagine working so hard to achieve the feat of being the most successful woman in professional auto racing, and then your next move is to appear in exploitative ads. Or what if you become known as a force in the world of mixed martial arts fighting, and then you are suddenly appearing on the swimsuit edition of a magazine – not even technically wearing a swimsuit, by the way. At this point in my story, I’m sure there are at least two major camps forming. The first is “It’s their prerogative to capitalize on their success in whatever way they choose, that’s empowering.” And the second is “That’s so true! Once again, no matter what a woman does, she is reduced to her sexuality and looks.” Both camps have validity, and I’ll once again wave my neutrality flag to keep my promise of not trying to create conflict.
I like to consider issues like this as they are one part of the story of women in the world today. But currently, I care about this because I have a daughter who is an athlete and soon plans to play sports in college. What do I tell her about the women who have clearly worked so hard to reach the highest level of their profession, and then choose to commemorate their achievement by simply becoming eye candy? Is this what I want for her? Absolutely not. She puts in countless hours of blood, sweat, and tears to be the best at her sport. To think that she could reach the highest point as an athlete, and years later be mostly remembered for something that only had to do with her looks and her body would break my heart.
When this topic has come up, I haven’t approached it as a shame-on-them moment. I did, however, use the opportunity to have the following conversations with her:
Put it in perspective. You know how hard you work to be an athlete, and you’re only halfway through high school. Imagine how hard they have worked for years for their activity. Do you think doing something like that so men can stare at them is a step up or a step down? What else could they do that would still let them gain notoriety, but would also provide a higher level of distinction?
See if from the other side. What have you seen men do once they reach a high level of status in their sport/craft? (This was a clarifying moment for me.) My daughter thought about this and said, “Well, it seems like when football players retire, they end up becoming announcers or commentators. Or I guess they might end up on Dancing with the Stars.”
I do respect the work that goes into the hard-fought careers of any female athlete, no one should ever take that from them. And of course, there are many examples of women who reached great heights in their sport careers and went in a different direction. There are women who did become announcers, motivational speakers, consultants in their field, or even successful in endeavors that have nothing to do with their prior interest. And those are the examples I hold high for my daughter. We’ve been lucky enough to see some of her idols speaking or at different camps, and they are every bit the picture of women who worked very hard to become successful, and then found ways to keep themselves elevated in a way they found appropriate. I have seen that a professional women’s soccer team is fighting for higher pay – equal to that of their male counterparts. I will watch in interest to see how these strong young women conduct themselves, which will help me decide if I can use their stories as a good example or an upsetting warning.
Because I don’t have the pressure of celebrity, I admittedly don’t know what happens at that decision point when a woman reaches the top. Because I write about parenting, I’d like to think (and do believe) that at some point the influence of a parent played a part – for better or worse. I imagine the pressure to stay relevant and be able to promote oneself is immense, so I understand why a woman would choose to do something less than glamorous when there seems to be no opportunity for something of higher regard. But until I see the quarterback who won a big game holding his helmet… well, um, strategically… the issue of female athletes posing in any way that doesn’t scream role model will continue to bother me.
Debi Smith-Racanelli has two advanced degrees in Psychology, and is a passionate advocate of parenting education. Her book Between Baby Dolls and Boyfriends addresses all aspects of raising tween girls using wit and wisdom. Connect with Debi at www.betweenbabydollsandboyfriends.com or on Twitter @debijsr