Crotch shots, upskirts, sports reporting, and the objectification of female athletes’ bodies

A front page figure skating picture in the Globe and Mail recently caused a stir. You can read about it here and here and here.

Here’s a brief run-down of the events: The front page of The Globe and Mail last Monday  featured 17-year-old figure skater Kaetlyn Osmond of Marystown, Nfld. Osmond came in eighth place overall at the World Figure Skating Championship here in London, Ontario over the weekend. Some critical comments on Twitter about the selection of the photo were followed by a response from Globe public editor Sylvia Stead: “Photo on #globeandmail front today is not acceptable in my view & readers. More later.” Eventually the story died down after Osmond herself tweeted that she liked the photo and a few of us were left wondering what the fuss was about. See the “not acceptable” photo for yourself at the bottom of this post.

Personally, I don’t mind the picture. I guess I wouldn’t have included it below if I did. And I think it’s odd that the Globe was so quick to apologize and so adamant in its apology. Kaetlyn is smiling, happy, excelling at something she loves. It doesn’t seem to me there is anything particularly scandalous about it. No one actually says what’s supposed to be wrong with the picture but I gather the complaint is that it’s a ‘crotch shot.’  In this case though the view is one you’d have if you were watching her compete.  I think that’s different from the ‘odd angle’ crotch shots of women athletes that are so common and so awful.

Another sport that’s known for scandal around the way it’s photographed is, of course, beach volleyball. See What if every sport was photographed like beach volleyball? and read Jezebel on the leering Olympics sports reporters. No one denies that athletes have striking bodies but it’s the emphasis on body parts rather than athletics that makes feminist blood boil when it comes to reporting on women’s sports. Why can’t we care about what those bodies do, rather than on what they look like? (See our past post Athletic versus Aesthetic Values in the Pursuit of Fitness  for some discussion of this distinction.) Now beach volleyball is controversial not just for the photos but also for the uniforms female beach volleyball players are required to wear and there’s some argument that in that case, that’s where the battle should begin.

Crotch shots seem worse yet when they are photos taken at peculiar angles with the resulting image, captured for all eternity, being nothing like one would have seen watching the sport in question. Something that flashes by quickly is frozen in time, blown up, and displayed in a manner to which the photo’s subject would not have consented. The issue of crotch shots of female athletes is addressed by feminist philosopher Carolyn McLeod in her paper “Mere and Partial Means: The Full Range of the Objectification of Women” published in the  Canadian Journal of Philosophy (Volume 32, Issue Supplement, 2002, Feminist Moral Philosophy) McLeod’s philosophical aim is to defend the idea that there can be degrees of objectification and that lots of the objectification of women in contemporary Western society that contributes to oppression is “partial objectification.”

In the course of her argument for the degreed nature of objectification (about which I think McLeod is importantly correct) McLeod tells a story about her experience as an athlete and the subject of a crotch shot photo, as an example of partial objectification:

“When I was a teenager, I was in a  tennis tournament in a small town where the McLeods of my family first  settled in Ontario. I was in the finals of “ladies singles.” The next day, a picture of me appeared in the sports section of the local newspaper. I  was lunging for a ball, and like a good “lady” of tennis, I was wearing  a little skirt. Clearly the photographer had taken the shot while lying on  his back, for the most prominent feature of it was my crotch. (It became  known in town as “the crotch shot.”) My Aunt Fern fumed (my mother laughed), and Fern almost boiled over when she found out that some  men at a nearby hydro plant (what we call “Hydro”) put the picture on the wall in the men’s change rooms. The whole thing was discomforting  for me, especially becoming a target for the sexist jokes and fantasies  of men at Hydro. (I’d worked at Hydro, so I knew about the jokes.) Never before had I imagined myself so thoroughly as something that could just get men off. I was angry with the photographer, although I later found out that it was a photographer’s trick to point a camera  upward if you want only one figure in a shot and no background objects to distract attention from it. It is possible that the photographer did not intend to produce a crotch shot. “

Crotch shots in the context of sports reporting seem to me to be on a continuum with the loathsome phenonama of “upskirting.” If sports photos are often partial objectification, then upskirt photos are the full blown thing. Here’s how Wikipedia describes the “upskirt.”

Upskirt refers to the practice of making unauthorized photographs under a female’s skirt, capturing an image of her crotch area and underwear. The term “upskirt” can also refer to a video, illustration or photograph which incorporates the upskirt image. The term is also sometimes used to refer generically to any voyeur photography – i.e. catching an image of somebody unaware in a private moment. The practice is regarded as a form of sexual fetishism or voyeurism and is similar in nature to downblouse. The ethical and legal issue relating to upskirt and downblouse photography is one of a reasonable expectation of privacy, even in a public place. The victims of the practice are almost exclusively females, including teenage girls. Women feel harassed or humiliated when they realise that they have been a victim of the practice. This is especially the case when such images have already been disseminated on the Internet and they are identifiable.”

Let me end with some advice: If you should search either “upskirt” or “crotch shots of female athletes” be prepared for an avalanche of tumblrs. Sigh.

globe and mail skating front

About Sam B

Philosopher, feminist, parent, and cyclist!

22 thoughts on “Crotch shots, upskirts, sports reporting, and the objectification of female athletes’ bodies

  1. Craig Burgess says:

    This photo, whether you object to it or not, clearly has as the central focus of its composition a 17 year old girl’s vagina, and it was chosen from all of the other photgraphs available, because it is an instant attention-grabber, it is controversial, and because sex sells.

    • Sam B says:

      Respectfully disagree, as do lots of journalist friends. What I like about that photo is a her smile and it’s what I noticed first. Unlike the beach volleyball photos it shows her whole body, including her face, and I don’t think it was chosen for controversy.

      • Craig Burgess says:

        Interesting. Really interesting actually. I don’t even know how to begin to think about what you’ve just said, as your view and that of your many journalist friends, is contrary to what I would otherwise consider obvious. The fact that some of your friends are journalists by the way, means little, in my opinion. Just because they are journalists does not in my view provide them with any position of privilege, in judging this matter. I admit that what I see is a photo of a beautiful young smiling female figure skater holding what I think is a naval officer’s hat (think the Joe Crocker song: “You can keep your hat on”) and raising her leg in a certain manner, whereby the central focus of the photograph’s composition is her vagina. I guess we’ll never know the true thoughts of the editors of this edition of the Globe, as clearly they’ll never tell the truth if indeed they were attempting to raise controversy and use sex to sell newspapers. Sam, you have a teenage boy who plays many sports. Ask for his honest opinion of the photograph. I may be quite wrong, but my guess is that he will have the same initial reaction as did I (if that has any meaning at all). Perhaps most important of all though, I wonder how Kaetlyn and her family feel about it. And perhaps less importantly, the fact that this conversation is taking place means that the Globe’s editors were successful in raising controversy (if indeed that was their intention, and I think that it was) and perhaps in selling more newspapers.

      • Sam B says:

        The athlete in question said on Twitter that she really liked the photo.

      • Craig Burgess says:

        I cannot deny that her reaction is meaningful. If she is no way at all feels violated or comes to feel violated, then I must from an objective standpoint admit to the possibility that the problem may be mine. I really don’t know what to think. Not simply to justify or defend myself or my reaction, although I’m likely herein doing some of that, I wonder why exactly there seem to be such polarizing views on this subject – why the two sides, so to speak, can’t even begin to fathom each other’s views.

  2. Alyssa says:

    Interesting – when I first saw the photo, I saw it in its entirety: a female skater striking a fun pose with a smile on her face. BUT, when I look at it with “controversy” in my head, I look directly at the crotch area. I can see how some might not like the photo, but I don’t find it offensive.

  3. Craig Burgess says:

    All of this is making me very suspicious that the editors of the Globe and Mail understood full well that the photo would raise controversy and would generate such polarizing views – making it justifiable or at least excusable to post the photo by feigning ignorance of the whole affair, thereby “legitimately” raising controversy over issues involving a minor, and thereby securing the opportunity to sell more papers as a result!

  4. Cady says:

    Interesting point, Alyssa. I read Sam’s post about the controversy before seeing the photo, and with that idea in my head I found the picture problematic. I’m not sure that I would have reacted differently if I saw the picture first without any context.

  5. Tim Kenyon says:

    Hat, big smile, and athletic high leg. Difficult to see how this amounts to a “crotch shot.”

    • Craig Burgess says:

      Obvious reply: Because along with the smile, the admiral’s hat, and the althletic high leg, there’s a crotch. It’s in the lower half of the photograph, in the centre. Should you require further direction, I would suggest review of a human biology textbook. :)

      • Tim Kenyon says:

        My biology textbooks do not define “crotch”. And if a crotch shot means any photo in which “there’s a crotch,” then things have gone badly off the rails. Naturally nothing prevents one from looking immediately and directly at the crotch region of any photo of a person. That fact seems like thin soup from which to manufacture a moral concern about any particular such photo.

  6. Suzette Chan says:

    I had the same reaction as Tim Kenyon. The Globe’s swift response added up to “obviously, it’s inappropriate,” but if that’s true, then it’s saying that any photo that shows a female body part is “obviously” inappropriate.

    Women (and girls) have crotches. It’s a fact of life. What sets this photo part from the beach volleyball photos that it portrays the whole athlete, the sport and what we may construe as her personal engagement in the activity.

    • Craig Burgess says:

      Some of us seem to see a central focus on the crotch area of a minor in the photograph. But some of us do not see the crotch area as a central focus of the photograph’s composition. The question clearly is not whether women have crotches or whether this young girl’s crotch is the “only” thing depicted in the photograph. It is a question of what is emphasized or focused upon in the photograph. And clearly there are different opinions regarding whether a minor’s crotch is being focused upon in the photograph.

  7. Suzette Chan says:

    It would be interesting to compare the reaction to a photo of a male athlete. I suspect we’re all a little more attuned to the sexualization of a female athlete than a male. For example, I don’t remember photos of the teenaged Alexandre Despatie causing alarm, and the outfits in his sport are much smaller and emphasize the crotch more.

    • Craig Burgess says:

      If she were wearing skin tight black pants, as do many male figure skaters, there’d be no issue, as the focal point of the composition would no longer be her crotch. If however, a male figure skater was wearing an outfit similar to the one she was wearing, and a photograph of the male figure skater in the same pose was taken, the same issue would exist, in my opinion.

  8. My concern when I first saw the photo was the age of the athlete. She has said, as noted, that she likes the photo but I wonder if she will feel differently when she is older. I think her age is an issue. She is a minor. If she were my daughter, I think I’d feel a little uncomfortable about the photo.
    Having said that, I don’t think it’s sexual in any way but I do think it pushes the boundaries of taste. Frankly, when I first saw it, I thought, there must have been another photo that could have been chosen. It strikes me that it was chosen because it is provocative. And yes, I do think it objectifies the athlete.
    And I don’t think it’s necessarily representative of her skating performance, either. It’s not really newsworthy and it doesn’t really convey a lot of information.
    So I guess I’m commenting more as a mom and less as a journalist but that’s my two cents.

  9. Meredith says:

    I see merits to both sides of the argument – that the photo is fun and captures a moment of strength, success and pride, that a photo in which a woman’s crotch is shown is not necessarily sexual depending on context, but also that figure skating is a sexualized sport and that a crotch-shot like this isn’t necessarily the best choice even if crotch-shows (which is a technical term I learned from my former synchronized swimming coach ;)) are the norm in the sport. That people, including an editor, objected to this shot suggests that the question of whether or not it was sexualized or objectifying is not clear-cut. There were many beautiful photos of her program; why this shot? I don’t actually think that her endorsement of the photo after the fact makes the Globe’s choice any less controversial than any other circumstance in which permission is asked for once an action has been taken. What if it had been a much younger athlete, or if she hadn’t been happy with the picture? I’d rather women (and teenaged girls) be able to decide for themselves whether or not they want their crotches on the cover of the national newspaper before it is printed rather than after.

  10. […] just a sad state of affairs for women in sport.  It’s why, sadly, Sam’s blog post on crotch shots and upskirts is among the most popular posts on this blog. People literally search the internet for pictures of […]

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  14. […] blogged about before, women in sport are often sexualized. In fact, Sam’s post “Crotch Shots, Upskirts, Sports Reporting, and the Objectification of Female Athletes’ Bodies,” is one of the most popular posts because of all the people who search for “crotch […]

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