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Olympics grab-bag: gender stereotypes, eating disorders, ignoring your body…

Posted by on Jul 31, 2012 in Blog Posts | 24 comments

By the middle of the opening ceremonies of the Olympics,  the most celebrated accomplishment seemed to be when the teen girl in the pop music montage triumphantly changed her status from “single” to “in a relationship.” Sigh. With all the talk about “inspiring the next generation of athletes,” I practically guffawed.

As a mom of a girl, I consume media with a much more critical eye, particularly with her sitting next to me. (I know mothers of boys are also bothered by the pervasive media picture of what being a girl or woman—or boy or man for that matter—should look like…) What better opportunity to observe the media than the Olympics?

A few disappointments:

—The teen girls in the opening ceremony music scene preen, primp, put on make-up, try different outfits, flirt with boys and use social media. Hurray! How about we celebrate what teen girls can do, like the Hippie Pandas, a group of girl scouts who developed a cheap solar pasteurizer,  who aren’t just into “partying” like Matt Lauer and Meredith Vieira assert all teens do around the world. (I bet in many nations, teens are out getting clean drinking water and working to support their families.) Why don’t we celebrate humanitarian and scientific achievements to inspire young people as much as pop culture and stereotypes?
—Why does my daughter have to see the beach volleyball player in the Cover Girl commercial making sure that she won’t forget she has to look pretty, not just be an elite Olympic athlete?
—The rap song featured during the opening ceremony “house party” scene  describes going out and drinking until you “pass out.” Super!

In other Olympic news (not the opening ceremony)
—Will the women’s beach volleyball compete in thongs in 2016? Why are the men’s butt cheeks covered while the women’s are on display?  (There was a controversy about some of the women selling ads on their butts in earlier competitions. Folks could scan the code on their butts with their smartphones and get to gambling websites. Huzzah!) What I object to is that it is compulsory for the women to wear bikinis, though kindly, now women can wear more clothes if it is below 60 degrees. (Will the women in ping-pong be ordered to start wearing bikinis to increase viewership? How about skeet shooting?)
—Interviews focus on the “player” Lochte  (not player as in athlete, but as in “playing” the field and his swooning female conquests), or how the fans will recognize the gymnasts who might get to meet Hollywood celebrities!
—A recent story reported that 20% of elite women athletes suffer with an eating disorder, and I’m getting tired of the interviews mentioning how the athletes never eat gluten, or “fast every 8th day,” or how they haven’t had “dessert in two years.”
—Story after story focuses on horrid injuries (mostly in gymnastics that I have seen so far) and praise the athletes for not giving up: one gymnast after a head injury and two repaired ACLs (knee surgeries there). I worry that many of these athletes will live with chronic pain for the rest of their lives.

The message seems to be to ignore your body, your pain, your hunger. Do not trust your body, but punish, push and ignore it.

The good news is, it is giving me many opportunities for talks with M, for media “literacy” but also to question messages about what is “healthy” and admirable versus extreme and maybe not healthy. And, you’re right, I’m not a lot of fun to watch the Olympics with, but M cries anyway when the team she likes, usually Australia because she loves koalas, doesn’t win. It’s all really quite an ordeal all around.

(Ironically, while searching through articles on gymnastics and injuries, several Livestrong articles online outlined the increased injuries from stress fractures to osteoporosis and early arthritis. Not one “treatment” section recommended backing off on grueling training, and the Livestrong catch phrase, “The limitless potential of you” was telling. No, we don’t all have “limitless” potential. When the labrum tears in your hip joint, or your achilles tendon ruptures—twice—it has to be clear, there are limits…)

What do you think? Am I a cynical fuddy-duddy, or can we inspire and normalize girls and young people wanting to make the world a better place? Can we not celebrate more than house parties, hooking up and binge drinking, the lipstick you wear, how short your skirt is over only-skinny legs, or the boy you crush on? Other than the National Spelling Bee, which is a bit of a side-show, how about we celebrate young people for doing amazing things with their minds, not just their bodies?

I think it’s official. I am a cynical fuddy-duddy. (P.S., an FB friend also noted how fast the cameras picked out the best looking women to focus on from each country in the parade of nations.) So far, Mr. Bean has been the most “inspired” part of the Olympics for me.

Are you watching the Olympics? What do you think?

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  1. Jennifer Hansen

    Here’s a photoshoot of all types of Olympic athletes:

    Some observations:

    1. Note the differences among the bodybuilders, weightlifters, and boxers. Working bodies do not look like bodies modified for display, among either men or women.

    2. Note the thick waists of many of the otherwise wiry women. At least they look thicker than the current “norm” for “fit” women. That’s because these photos are unretouched. I can’t locate the link right now, but apparently a currently widespread weightloss ad actually removes one of the muscles in the waist that permits a human being to stand up!

    3. I am told that the women who are doing the “invisible high heels” thing are actually showing off the strength in their calves. Ballet is a starting point for more Olympians than I suspected as well. Can you spot the person who is demonstrating their strength by standing en pointe without shoes?

    • katja

      These were fascinating! THanks for sharing!

      • Jennifer Hansen

        Oh, I found the retouched photo. It’s in an ad for Sensa, “The Easiest Diet Ever.” A muscle that goes from the bottom of the rib cage to the pelvis has been shaved completely off using Photoshop. And this is what Sensa implicitly promises to do.

  2. Ellyn Satter

    I love this rant and yes, it is biased but whose viewing isn’t? It is hilarious, well-written, and raises important points. These Olympic athletes have achieved a great deal but it comes at a very high price.

  3. Sarah

    Katja, we are in Australia so I’m not sure our rhythmic gymnastics club will be much use to you. But I’ll send you the details anyway. It stands in contrast to a local gymnastics club which is apparently ‘invitation only’ for children over the age of 5 – they actually kick out the kids who are less talented once they turn 5!

    This discussion has got me reminiscing about my own experiences as a college-level rower. After the final race of the year our coach (who also coached the national squad) started talking to us about trialling for the national squad. I made a conscious decision not to do it because I knew I did not want to deal with the gruelling training, the pressure to compete for places in the crew and the psychological and logistical issues of fitting my life around training and competing. But there was a lot of pressure on us to ‘take it to the next level’ with the implication that we were weak or letting ourselves down if we didn’t do absolutely everything to achieve our potential as elite athletes.

    As a society we idolise people who are the ‘best’ at things and I think there is a tendency to encourage children and teenagers to push themselves to the limit in the pursuit of ‘success’ at the expense of their physical, mental and social health. This is very evident at the Olympics where a tenth of a second can meant the difference between success, national adulation and lucrative sponsorship… and failure. There’s no celebration of achievement in the Olympics except at the very top level of performance.

    • katja

      Great point. You never see folks interviewed, or mentioned who get knocked out in all the early rounds either. I think there are unimaginable sacrifices. Just read a little about a Gold medalist Dominique Moceunu (sp?) who talked about the psychological damage inflicted at the Karoly camp, with public weigh-ins, and how desperately the kids there try to please these ersatz parents. Sad stuff…

  4. Sarah

    I haven’t watched any of the Olympics yet but it’s been interesting to read the comments here about rhythmic gymnastics as my seven year old daughter started doing this sport earlier this year. It’s good alternative to dance if you have a child pestering you for ballet lessons! One thing I really like about it is the range of body types I see among the higher level gymnasts. As the focus is on equipment skills rather than the acrobatics of traditional gymnastics, or the body aesthetics of ballet, there are tall girls and large girls competing at a state level. It’s great for the younger girls to have them as role models.

    And I think our young children do have some great teenage role models in real life. They have dedicated sports coaches and other club and community volunteers, older kids at school etc. As I’m a high school teacher, my own children occasionally meet my students and invariably idolise them. When they watch my eighth grade debate team compete or see a group of teenage girls preparing with me for a challenging wilderness trek (including planning balanced menus with plenty of calories and fat to fuel us) it encourages them to aspire to similar things. They think that’s what all teenagers do in their spare time! Unfortunately we are also subjected to the stereotypical media image of teenagers shopping, texting and dieting their lives away and the pop music culture obsession with sex and romantic love.

    • katja

      Sounds like heaven! Would you be willing to share the name of the place where your daughter does rhythmic gymnastics? I am trying to build a database of body-image friendly place for children and adults to be active. You can email me at I did rhythmic gymnastics and loved it. Loved the ball skills and the hoops, something I could do in my yard too.I love the idea of cool teen role models. Recently we were at the mall and there was a robot fighting thing going on. There was only one girl, but when we watched, I made sure M saw her. She was at the table fixing a robot. I didn’t want to be too obvious or make a big deal out of it, but I sure pointed out and wondered aloud what she and her teammates were working on…

  5. Emgee

    Interesting that my 14 y.o. son asked me why the female gymnasts (and none of the other athletes) are wearing heavy make-up.

    • katja

      curious! What did you say?

    • Kate

      Every year I watch the College World Series of Softball and for several different reasons I find it completely fascinating. First, you see a complete range of body types from short and tall and thin and large and secondly, you see a complete range of femininity reflected in the players. Some of the women wear make up and ribbons or sparkly barrettes and some have none of the more girly accessories. But they are all athletes and competitors and teammates and I really like watching them play.

      That doesn’t really help Emgee, but you can tell your son that synchronized swimmers also wear heavy make up, if that helps, but somehow I doubt it. Personally, I think it’s a holdover from when gymnastics was more artistic and less athletic, but considering the leotards are getting more sparkly I doubt the make up is going anywhere soon.

  6. Annabelle

    Unfortunately, elite athletics – and ballet – is terrible for the body. So is running.

    Should we encourage people not to do it? Or not to push themselves? Personally I think we’re better off for having had the great athletes, skaters and ballet dancers, even if they damaged themselves.

    I take issue with your criticisms of the opening and am surprised you saw the fleeting relationship as the thing that was being highlighted. The ceremony absolutely celebrated scientific and humanitarian achievements, with its acknowledgement that the industrial revolution and the building of Britain was done by ordinary workers. And the National Health Care bit was a reminder of just how decent society can be, by treating people who need it, when they need it. What could be better to celebrate than that?

    As for the getting drunk and passing out… well, that’s Britain today. It wouldn’t have been realistic not to include it. But it was balanced out by the emphasis on Britain’s rich heritage of literature for children.

    • katja

      Right you are! Again, I think I see this all through the lens of what is going to happen with my child. I am hoping she doesn’t become an elite athlete. I was so sad to see in my medical days 14 year-olds with ruined knees after playing on travel soccer teams, or heading for a lifetime of pain in their hands and wrists because of gymnastics. For all the athletes we see on the Olympics, how many have been hurt along the way. But yes, it is really cool to see what they can do, and my M was playing “Olympics” on the monkey bars this morning, so yes it was neat and inspiring, and I remember wanting to be an Olympic swimmer when I was six… I don’t know what I would do if M ever expressed a passion for a punishing sport. I know I wouldn’t pressure her to do it, would support her if it got hard, and maybe yes, even discourage her if it was hurting her body. I’d love to hear from parents of kids in those sports who pulled the plug because of injuries and how that went. I was talking to another mom, she’s 24, was a serious dancer, has now had two surgeries to fuse bones in her feet, and is having knee and back problems from her abnormal gait. She wishes she’s have stopped sooner. Is it a parent’s job to step in? What if the child loved something else so much, but it was hurting the child? I can’t even think of an analogy, but I think this is a topic worth thinking about…

      You are right, I loved the part about the industrial revolution, and the sweat and labor (I did think they painted the pastoral life as totally idyllic when it was a heck of a lot of hard work too!) I love the NHS tribute and the Children’s literature, but watched my child enthralled not by all that, but by the teen putting on make-up and going out dancing… Oh well. You are right on with your comments. I also started the post before the parade of countries, so I was glad to see the Olympic flag carried in by the humanitarians, Nobel peace prize winners etc.

      • Annabelle

        I’m just reading the bio of an elite gymnast who didn’t make it to the Olympics. She had all kinds of injuries and her training schedule cost her parents their marriage.

        There must be other bodies littered along that road.

        Tough one for a parent. Still! The achievement is extraordinary and any kid with that much drive and focus will be intent on letting it out somewhere.

        Better training for the Olympics than discovering they have a genius for drumming that can only be satisfied by practising for eight hours a day…

        • Freya Warren

          No, a talent and furious passion for drumming is a far more satisfying and effective means of venting energy, both for the individual and for parents, friends and family. Music is a far more rewarding pastime, and should always be encouraged above physical achievement and excessive physical exertion. I talk about this from the perspective of an anorexia sufferer of 4 years who, prior to the illness’s onset, had a glorious obsession with electronic music composition which defined my personality and was an outlet for all emotions, both negative and positive. Nothing could have been better, especially since the activity harmed neither me nor those close to me.

    • jaed

      Unfortunately, elite athletics – and ballet – is terrible for the body.

      I’d just like to see this acknowledged more. It seems to me that the message is that athletics is inherently healthy, and that top-level athletes must be the healthiest people in the world and take such good care of their bodies. (At least the thin ones.) They aren’t and don’t.

      (I am not criticizing – they are trading off the chance of damaging their health for the chance of excelling, and that’s a legitimate and in some ways admirable choice – but that message isn’t what people are getting. Especially children.)

  7. Paul Eilers

    Great blog post. You have expressed the way I feel in regards to much of what I see today in the media. How do I protect my five year-old little man from all of the negative influences in the world?

    No, I do not think you are a “cynical fuddy-duddy” and yes, we are selectively watching parts of the Olympics together as a family.

    USA! USA! USA!

    • katja

      I don’t know. I remember we had no Disney or princess stuff, and made it until she was almost four, when she discovered it all at the neighbor’s house. I’ve chosen not to fight that, but I do draw the line at Bratz dolls. I am not fond of Barbie, but we have the DVDs—in German 🙂 and we got loads of hand-me-downs that she loves playing with right now. I don’t know, I just don’t know. I think being an example of the man you want him to be is the most important. But, it feels like an uphill battle… Thanks for writing!

  8. Lisa

    Katja, you’ve just about encapsulated why we don’t watch the Olympics (or much tv at all) at my house. And don’t get me started on the whole Livestrong thing! I cannot stand the hardbody no-pain-no-gain jock attitude that seems to permeate all organized sports, gyms, fitness training, etc…. I am glad there are now some HAES oriented ‘fathlete’ sites where someone can balance working towards their personal best athletically with good self care ongoing.

  9. Samantha C

    I think all of this is perfectly accurate and not what I’m personally interested in thinking about. I’m more tired of spending my energy sighing about it than I am at the actual things anymore and that’s sad.

    But I will say that I was pleasantly surprised at the variety of body types I saw watching some of the gymnastics (I mostly caught the rhythmic gymnastics dancing so far). I wish I could remember names, but there were more than a few women who were short and stocky, or tall and powerful, and not just willowy ballerina types. It was pretty neat to see.

    • katja

      Ooh, I would have loved to watch Rhythmic gymnastics! Will have to find that. I used to pretend to do that with a hoola hoop, and a small ball too! It felt accessible to a kid somehow, like swimming did… I know, I’m not fun to watch TV with. I too am tired of being tired with it all, but I struggle with just let it go, versus, no, this has to change… Trying to find the happy balance. I like what Hardy Girls are doing, where the young women themselves are speaking out against the media (SPARK) Thanks for writing, and I hope my moaning didn’t put you off too much 🙂

    • katja

      yes. That is what I was getting at. We need to educate and acknowledge. I think parents and athletes deserve to know what the long-term sequelae can be so they can make informed decisions…