“Athletic” or “Artistic”: Appearance as Integral to Female Gymnasts’ Success

At the 2012 Summer Olympics, American gymnast Gabby Douglas soared to incredible heights, both in her bar releases and the records she set.  The only American gymnastics all-around champion to win multiple gold medals at a single Olympic games, she was also heralded as the first black woman in history to become an individual all-around champion.  Naturally, her success stirred up a lot of talk, which, unfortunately, did not just focus on the records she broke.  Perhaps unsurprisingly, Douglas received a lot of criticism, especially on Twitter, for the state of her hair.

douglas hair.jpg
Gabby Douglas during her floor routine at the 2012 Olympics.  Image obtained from Daily Mail

Twitter comments included “Why hasn’t anyone tried to fix Gabby Douglas’ hair?” and “gabby douglas gotta do something with this hair! these clips and this brown gel residue ain’t it?” [1] As outlets like the Washington Post and the Daily Beast quickly published, some of these jibes came from women of color, leading to claims that “self-hating” African-American women were more concerned with how Douglas’s appearance would reflect on them than her incredible accomplishments.  However, as T.F. Charlton questions in “The Media’s Gabby Douglas Problem,” is it really black women who are obsessed with Gabby Douglas’s hair, or the media?  [2] This narrative, as Charlton examines, was pushed by racist, sexist outlets and writers, searching for negative tweets about Douglas and overall manufacturing or inflating a controversy to avoid centering what should be centered: Douglas’s MVP role on the women’s gymnastics team.

In this case, the focus on Douglas’s appearance was rooted in “the media’s appetite for negative portrayals of Black femininity and…inability to accommodate a narrative of a woman of color being extraordinary.” [3] However, commentary on the appearance of female bodies in the sport of gymnastics, rather than their accomplishments, is nothing new.  In my personal experience as a competitive gymnast, comments on women’s bodies and how they had been dressed, or dressed themselves, to compete was part and parcel of the sport.  I was taught, as a young girl, to aspire for six-packs and lean, muscular legs, because that was what a gymnast looked like.  Commentators, coaches, and judges alike discussed which leotards and cuts were “flattering,” whose hair looked the most competition-ready, and which competitors looked the most “athletic.”  To be a gymnast also meant being “beautiful” in a particular way that existed at the intersection of societal body norms, ballet body standards, and concepts of “athleticism.”

kbee ad
A Leotard ad from K-Bee Leotards.  Image obtained from kbeeleotards.com

The sport is, as many coaches, gymnasts, and writers are exclaiming, in a particular state of change and flux, which is reflected in how the bodies of competitors are discussed and which bodies succeed. [4] In her article “ ‘Athletic’ Shawn Johnson Retires: How Gymnastics Talks About Bodies in Code,” Dvora Meyers discusses what she calls the “artistry fallacy”; previously, women, in training and in the press, were more openly derided for not having the right body type.  Although that language persists today, more often certain gymnasts are coded as artistic.  Judging still favored (at the time of Johnson’s competition against Nastia Liukin in the 2008 Olympics) a long, lithe build over a short, stockier one; as Meyers states, “evaluation of performance is still entwined with evaluating gymnasts’ bodies.” [5] Liukin, with her ballerina-like body, won both the all-around gold medal and the beauty showdown, appearing in ads for Max Azria while Johnson was torn apart in the media for her weight gain on Dancing with the Stars. [6]

max azria ad
Nastia Liukin’s Max Azria ad, released after her Olympic success.  Image obtained from bcbg.com.

Johnson’s “repentance” or “recovery” from that weight gain represents another re-coding occurring in gymnastics and in society overall; particular bodies as “healthy” or “fit”, with “strong” as the new “beautiful.”  As seen in the “fitspiration” movement overall, Johnson, now that she runs half-marathons, drinks almond milk shakes, and eats lean proteins, is able to speak about “finally loving her body” and “accepting herself.”  [7]

Since Douglas’s success, Simone Biles, another African-American gymnast, has burst onto the scene, breaking the record for most gold medals won by a female gymnast in a single Olympic games in 2016. Perhaps Biles, who could be characterized as having a “short, stocky build” like Johnson, represents a movement forward in gymnastics, where more bodies are deemed acceptable and allowed to succeed.  Both Biles and Douglas were, and are, incredible athletes who achieved unprecedented gymnastics heights.  However, despite the heralding of both women as evidence of black female success despite the odds against them, it is worth ruminating on whether their bodies, and their success in the sport, are truly radical. [8] Did Shawn Johnson, a white woman, pave the way for the body type of many African-American women in gymnastics, representing how the gatekeepers in the sport are not marginal bodies or communities, but still white people?  Did Biles and Douglas create space for differential bodies in gymnastics, or do they simply fit into transforming body ideals in the sport and in society at large?  Does Biles’ new book, Courage to Soar, where the erasing, neoliberal narrative of individual hard work is advocated, point to how her success is being managed and pointed to as exceptional, not as representative, of black women? [9]

courage to soar
Image obtained from amazon.com.

That both women are amazing athletes is indisputable, but these questions, along with the terrible media portrayal to which they were subjected, point to the remaining work the sport, and society overall, needs to do. [10] Women’s gymnastics continues to exist as a space where the rhetoric around female beauty and acceptable female bodies is enacted and diffused, even as transforming notions of beauty and linguistic re-coding changes who can occupy that space.

Endnotes

  1. Vanessa Williams, “Gabby Douglas’s Hair Sets off Twitter Debate, but Some Ask: ‘What’s the Fuss?’,” The Washington Post, August 3, 2012, washingtonpost.com.
  2. T.F. Charlton, “The Media’s Gabby Douglas Problem,” EBONY, August 8, 2012.
  3. Charlton, “The Media’s Gabby Douglas Problem.”
  4. For an example of this type of rhetoric, see “Dominique Moceanu Sees Change in Gymnast Body Types Since Her ‘Abusive’ Training,” PEOPLE.com, August 16, 2016.
  5. Dvora Meyers, “‘Athletic’ Shawn Johnson Retires: How Gymnastics Talks About Bodies In Code,” Deadspin.
  6. “Shawn Johnson Talks About Body Struggles and Eating Disorder,” PEOPLE.com, November 18, 2015.
  7. Meyers, “‘Athletic’ Shawn Johnson” and “Shawn Johnson Talks About Body Struggles.”
  8. For an (completely valid and empowering) example of feminist heralding of Biles’s success, see “The Year in Black Girl Magic,” Bitch Media, December 21, 2016.
  9. Melissa Kimble, “Simone Biles’ New Book Inspires You To Push For Excellence,” EBONY, September 11, 2016.
  10. For discussion of media coverage of Douglas and Biles, see Feller, Madison. “14 of the Most Sexist Moments From the 2016 Olympics (So Far).” Cosmopolitan. N.p., 15 Aug. 2016. Web. 17 May 2017; David Zirin, “Gold Medalist Gabby Douglas Speaks Out, Is Smacked Down.” The Nation; and Louise Radnofsky, “NBC’s Al Trautwig Apologizes for Comments on Simone Biles’s Parents,” Wall Street Journal, August 8, 2016.

Sources

“Against the Ropes: For Women Boxers, It’s a Fight Just to Get in the Ring.” Bitch Media.     N.p., n.d. Web. 17 May 2017.

Charlton, T.F. “The Media’s Gabby Douglas Problem.” EBONY. N.p., 8 Aug. 2012. Web. 17 May 2017.

Davis, Rachaell. “13 Black Women Who Changed The Face Of Gymnastics.” Essence.com. N.p., 15 July 2016. Web. 17 May 2017.

“Dominique Moceanu Sees Change in Gymnast Body Types Since Her ‘Abusive’ Training.” PEOPLE.com. N.p., 16 Aug. 2016. Web. 17 May 2017.

Feller, Madison. “14 of the Most Sexist Moments From the 2016 Olympics (So Far).” Cosmopolitan. N.p., 15 Aug. 2016. Web. 17 May 2017.

“How the ‘Stereotype Effect’ Hurts Women Athletes.” Bitch Media. N.p., n.d. Web. 17 May 2017.

Kimble, Melissa. “Simone Biles’ New Book Inspires You To Push For Excellence.” EBONY. N.p., 11 Sept. 2016. Web. 17 May 2017.

Meyers, Dvora. “‘Athletic’ Shawn Johnson Retires: How Gymnastics Talks About Bodies In Code.” Deadspin. N.p., n.d. Web. 17 May 2017.

Radnofsky, Louise. “NBC’s Al Trautwig Apologizes for Comments on Simone Biles’s Parents.” Wall Street Journal 8 Aug. 2016. http://www.wsj.com. Web. 17 May 2017.

“Shawn Johnson Talks About Body Struggles and Eating Disorder.” PEOPLE.com. N.p., 18 Nov. 2015. Web. 17 May 2017.

“The Year in Black Girl Magic.” Bitch Media. N.p. 16 Dec. 2016. Web. 17 May 2017.

“UPDATE: Gabby Douglas Leads Team USA to the Gold.” The Crunk Feminist Collective. N.p., 1 Aug. 2012. Web. 17 May 2017.

Williams, Vanessa. “Gabby Douglas’s Hair Sets off Twitter Debate, but Some Ask: ‘What’s the Fuss?’.” The Washington Post 3 Aug. 2012. washingtonpost.com. Web. 17 May 2017.

Zirin, David. “Gold Medalist Gabby Douglas Speaks Out, Is Smacked Down.” The Nation. The Nation. Web. 17 May 2017.

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5 thoughts on ““Athletic” or “Artistic”: Appearance as Integral to Female Gymnasts’ Success

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  1. aliball, this is a really interesting dynamic in gymnastics that you bring up. Your comment about the inflation of controversy over Douglas’ hair reminds me of the Rewire article by Imani Gandy, where she talks about the difference between disparate impact and disparate treatment. Similar to how banning dreadlocks did not fall under racial discrimination, the need for hair to look competition-ready or flattering according to white, straight hair standards makes Douglas’ hair style a technical, not racial, problem that needs to be fixed. Additionally, the same tension between athleticism and artistry in gymnastics is also very prominent in Synchronized Swimming. There is definitely a privileging of a specific body type (very long, lean, muscular legs) that is considered better for Synchronized Swimming than other body types. However, I’m also struggling with how different body types are often more suited for different sports. Specifically, I am thinking about basketball, and how most NBA players are extremely tall. Are most players really tall because society’s basketball body ideal is being really tall or because it is actually more advantageous to be tall in a sport like basketball? It seems like we need more people with diverse body types to prove that different body types are able to succeed just as well as ideal body types, so the selection and judgement of certain bodies diminishes and the spaces for differential bodies becomes more prominent.

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  2. This article is interesting to think about because it discusses race and changing beauty standards in the context of our class. I think it fits very well into our discussion because the response that Gaby Douglas’s hair was not “right” should not matter – our focus should be on her skill. The discussion of the ideal “sport” body type was interesting to me. Ali states, “I was taught, as a young girl, to aspire for six-packs and lean, muscular legs, because that was what a gymnast looked like. Commentators, coaches, and judges alike discussed which leotards and cuts were “flattering,” whose hair looked the most competition-ready, and which competitors looked the most “athletic.” It is interesting to think about the way we aim towards a certain body type, but that can be changed by what societal pressure are around you. When I played tennis, I had pressure to “bulk” up and strengthen my thighs and biceps. Ali writes, “To be a gymnast also meant being “beautiful” in a particular way that existed at the intersection of societal body norms, ballet body standards, and concepts of “athleticism.” I think this applies to all sports and not just gymnastics. When trying to excel at a sport, there’s different expectations for your body than normal societal pressures.

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  3. Oh boy, and you mention the body-shaming that exists in ballet as well. I did ballet from when I was 6 to 8th grade, when my teacher finally told me I may have to quit soon as I had grown up and just “no longer had the body anymore.” It is interesting to wonder at idea that despite a female athlete can do the exact same moves as another, the woman that more neatly fits into the established ideas of what a woman performing that sport should look like will be perceived as superior. Part of me has pondered whether it relates to the idea of food and presentation, in which many studies have shown the exact same food presented in different ways will taste better or worse to the consumer. In the case of ballet, the consumers are the audience- is their experience diminished when they go to a ballet in which the ballerina is not as svelt and thin as a stick? I am also reminded of an episode of Gilmore Girls (a “feminist” show) in which Rory gives a scathing review to a “hippo” ballerina and saw fit to mention the line of fat around the ballerina’s bra-strap as a slight on her performance. Rory was applauded for speaking her mind in the episode, something even a young me felt hurt over as I watched my body grow of typical “ballerina size”. These ideals are so pervasive that even a woman-centered show perpetuates them with acclaim.

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  4. As a past gymnast, so much of this really resonates with me! I have been really fascinated with following Gabby and Simone’s success throughout the years as they grapple with being absolutely outstanding gymnasts, but also how they deal with the criticism that comes with being a black woman in the United States that is in the public eye. During the last Olympics, everybody kept commenting extremely negatively on Gabby’s “attitude,” saying she seemed annoyed, especially when she didn’t put her hand over her heart during the National Anthem. Things like this are so interesting to me– in general how sports in the United States often valorize people of color (basketball, football, now gymnastics, etc.), and those people are held up to the highest regard. Yet then once their career is over, or they do something that is not of incredible success, they are just another person of color on the public stage in the United States, and often receive a great deal of harassment from the public about the ways in which they present their bodies.

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  5. I wish I had read this post before I made my post ( https://beautyandrace2017.wordpress.com/2017/06/01/why-me-nancy-kerrigan-white-innocence/ ) about the Nancy Kerrigan/Tonya Harding scandal at the 1994 Olympics!! (but, alas, I did not). Harding and Kerrigan are both white (and, actually, come to think of it, I can’t think of any famous professional figure skaters that are black – I’m far from an expert on professional figure skating so I could be wrong, but I am inclined to wonder whether it’s a body type thing like in ballet – I’m not sure, and also this is not what I intended to write this comment about), so the judgment of their bodies and personalities was and is very different from that of athletes of color. I do still think that the idea of bodily and performance expectations surrounding female athletes applies well to both Douglass and Kerrigan and Harding. I am particularly interested in the differences in rhetoric between sports like gymnastics and ice skating, which are known for being “feminine,” and the more mainstream, “masculine” sports, in which female athletes generally get less attention. For example, how does the judgment of Gabby Douglass’ body compare to the judgment of Serena Williams’ body? Also, to tie it into what emilyperlman wrote above about how the US often valorizes athletes of color in particular sports: there is definitely something interesting about the fact that the sports in which people of color are valorized are usually the /un/feminine ones (basketball, football). What does it mean for Douglass and Biles to be valorized in a similar fashion as women of color in this feminine sport?

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