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Athletes’ Body Talk in the Media Serves No One

On a recent Sunday I was doing two things I rarely do: 1. watching pro golf on TV, and 2. complaining loudly at the TV. Why I was watching golf (the 2022 US Open, final round), I’m not really sure. But I do know why I was complaining.

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I was complaining because the broadcasters were making comments about the bodies of the pro golfers as they teed off on the first hole. One player was described repeatedly as “baby-faced,” another was “slender,” and a third was “sturdy.” Maybe it was just a lazy start to the commentary, but with all the history and statistics available to discuss, who is served by this body talk?

Televised commentary on athletes’ bodies is a much more prevalent issue for women, one that creates a double standard to boot. As Kathita Davidson notes, descriptions of male athletes’ bodies often reinforce perceptions of strength, athleticism, and performance. In contrast, the descriptions of women athletes’ bodies are often hetero-sexualized in ways that undermine their athleticism. As well, non-binary gendered and intersex bodies are the almost nearly always the subject of controversy and discrimination.

Body talk happens in the media at all levels of game. In the last year, two commentators were fired for making disparaging comments about high school basketball players’ bodies. At the 2021 Winter Olympics, there was pressure to focus on sports appeal and not sex appeal of the athletes. Not long after, an Olympics figure-skating commentator was fired for a degrading remark about a female Canadian figure skater (though it was about her personality, not her physique).

Focus on the bodies of athletes is not only a frequent issue but a problem, as Christine Yu observes:

Aerobic capacitypowerstrength, muscular endurancebiomechanics, strategy, tenacity, and good genes—none of which are necessarily visible to the human eye—all determine an athlete’s ability. And yet, especially with women athletes, appearance often becomes the sole focus, even when it has nothing to do with performance. This overemphasis on what athletes look like is damaging on both an individual and a cultural level, and it’s time to reconsider how we talk about their bodies.

Christine Yu, 2020, para.6

The emphasis on appearance and physique can be damaging to men and boys as well. The American Addiction Center has an article of men and body dysmorphia disorder (BDD) that highlights bigorexia, combining the Latin -orexia (an appetite for) with obsession over the big-ness of muscles. This disorder causes pain, distress, and sometimes harmful physical and dietary changes, and men are far less likely to ask for help.

The pro golfers weren’t listening to the broadcasters’ body talk as they teed off at the US Open’s, and they might not have cared about what was said.

Still, thousands of aspiring male golfers were watching and listening to the televised patter about bodies that had nothing to do with the game. By drawing attention to who is slender, sturdy, or baby-faced, the broadcasters invited body comparisons and scrutiny—to no meaningful end.

So, ultimately this post is just a reminder to anyone who gets an opportunity to talk about any athletes in front of a microphone: Focus your comments on athletic performance, not on athletic bodies.

Image by @midsizequeens

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