How Postmodern Beauty Standards Impact Athletes
For those outside the community, competitive swimming is not something that is given much thought beyond of the two-week, quadrennial celebration that is the summer Olympics. This lack of mainstream acknowledgment does not just color what we choose to talk about at the water cooler or what events ESPN decides to broadcast, but also bleeds over into what sports receive attention from academics. Excluding physiological studies, there is very little analysis of swimming, especially from socio-cultural or socio-historical points of view. One prominent exception to this rule would be Jeff Witlse’s Contested Waters: A Social History of Swimming Pools. As Wiltse shows, the history of public pools can offer insight into gender, race, and class relations over the past century, as they facilitated spaces where bare bodies were in close proximity for extended times, and how social relations evolved as a result. As he wrote, pools were places where
Americans came into intimate and prolonged contact with one another. People who might not otherwise come in no closer contact than passing on the street, now waited in line together, undressed next to one another, and shared the same water.
This created, as Wiltse put it, a unique kind of “sexually charged public space.” And in fact, the irony is that the sexualization of this space was unintentionally initiated by a female swimmer, Annette Kellerman. Kellerman achieved notoriety during her career in competitive and synchronized swimming, where she famously wore a formfitting one-piece suit that became widely adopted by women in lieu of the heavy pantaloons popular at the time that were meant to “cover, conceal, and obscure the body.” Through the 1920’s and 1930’s, these suits further evolved into the more traditional two-piece bikinis we see today. As a result, pools became temples to celebrate and show off the human body. But as foundational as Wiltse’s book is, it is still part of a relatively shallow pool of scholarship (no pun intended). Little analysis exists of why, for example, for such sexually charged spaces, those women that spend the most time there are exempt from it. Because of that lack of academic investigation into the topic, this article, while using Susan Bordo’s Unbearable Weight as theoretical foundation from which to build, will also draw heavily on personal experiences and articles that may not be generally associated with the humanities or social sciences.
The original research here will take the form of interviews with female college swimmers, regarding their awareness of societal beauty standards and how the swimmer’s body tends to violate that, as well as how that knowledge manifests itself in their actions. The swimmers interviewed are all past teammates of mine, making this article an autoethnography. Autoethnography has become accepted as a valuable type of research in certain academic circles over the past three or so decades. It can be defined as “an approach to research and writing that seeks to describe and systematically analyze (graphy) personal experience (auto) in order to understand cultural experience (ethno).” So in this case, my personal experiences and those of my teammates will be used to examine the wider cultural phenomena surrounding the deviant bodies of female swimmers.
Autoethnographies can benefit from the ability to be “self-consciously value-centered as opposed to pretending to be value-free.” This type of work also recognizes that it is a fallacy to believe any researcher can truly be impartial. Try as we might, our humanity and the experiences that come along with that are baggage that can never be totally expunged from our work. So ethnography is a style of research that “acknowledges and accommodates subjectivity, emotionality, and the researcher’s influence on research, rather than hiding from these matters or assuming they don’t exist.”
Acknowledging these benefits, there are certain pitfalls to be aware of when doing autoethnographical work. Chiefly, we must be extremely careful when making the leap from anecdote to generalization. Ellis et al. suggest that autoethnography puts the onus on the reader to discern the level of generalizability of any conclusions drawn by comparing it to their own life. Additional concerns exist surrounding accuracy, noting that memory is a fickle thing, and there is no way to totally accurately recall events and feelings once they have passed. Interviewing multiple people will be my way of attempting to circumvent this issue. Finally, the previous existing relationship between researcher and subject will invariably color the conversation between the two, and so it “must be kept uppermost in [the researchers’] minds throughout the research and writing process.”
It is the theories that accompany these personal accounts that give the latter validity. For this paper, the theory starts with feminist philosopher Susan Bordo. She opens her book Unbearable Weight with a quote from feminist author and activist Charlotte Bunch, who said, “There is no private domain in a person’s life that is not political and there is no political issue that is not ultimately personal.” Bordo expands on this idea throughout her book, illustrating how, though the ‘body’ may be in some ways the most personal aspect of one’s existence, it simultaneously is extensively shaped and colored by the culture in which it exists. And while these cultural pressures do not eliminate human agency, they design the topography across which that agency navigates.
Bordo argues that part of what these cultural forces do is impress upon the populace a powerful image of what an ideal body looks like. She painstakingly describes many of the ways in which these messages are transmitted in the media, especially in advertising. Regardless of the source of these messages, their impact on both women and men is readily apparent, maybe not in an easily measurable way but in the social pressures we feel and in the way social rewards and punishments are doled out to people of different body types. This is covered in the book as well, as Bordo describes how anorexia and bulimia are not just biological disorders but logical reactions to the bodily pressures that people are put under. As she writes, “the anorectic does not “misperceive” her body; rather, she has learned all too well the dominant cultural standards of how to perceive.” There are pressures within society that make it such that it is entirely conceivable for someone to believe that the ill effects of anorexia or bulimia are a fair tradeoff for the positive social benefits of possessing a culturally ‘ideal’ body. This overlaps with the observations of Foucault, whom Bordo references quite often. He wrote that bodies were constantly “in the grip” of society, shaped and molded by it, and that there is in fact no “natural” form of the body at all.
Bordo refines this point by drawing contrasts between the ‘experienced’ body and the physical body itself. That is to say, culture helps inscribe on the body certain messages and meanings that were not there to begin with, but nonetheless impact our lives as we navigate society. She notes, “Social practice changed people’s experience of their bodies and their possibilities.”
Now, neither of the works are written in the context of today’s society. Foucault’s History of Sexuality Part I was released in 1976, and Bordo published the bulk of her work in 1993 (it was updated with a 10th Anniversary Edition in 2003). The image of what the ideal body is has shifted from his time to hers, and from her time to now. The ‘ideal’ body is no longer the hyper-thin, so-called ‘heroin chic’ of the 1990s that Bordo knew, but the pressures that people feel to conform have not changed. It is not easy to articulate exactly what is meant by the ‘ideal body’ in today’s postmodern society, but there is a unified understanding about what is meant. As Rich and Cash wrote, “Although intrasocietal standards change over time, there is usually a consensus as to what is in vogue. Observers’ ratings of attractiveness are quite reliable.” This holds true even across great distances in Western society. Mozer suggested that “Whatever geographic variability in beauty standards may have existed in earlier times, the rise of mass media in the 20th century, including the use of still and motion pictures, seems to have imposed more uniform standards of both beauty and fashion on Europe and U.S. than existed previously.” And that was written in 1986, thirty years ago, before the Communication Revolution of the past two decades even got underway. Since then, it would follow that standards of beauty have become even more uniform than they were in the world in which he was writing. There as just as much social capital to be gained from conforming to the standards of postmodern beauty, with its unreasonable expectations about breast, butt, and stomach sizes causing spikes in the number of plastic surgeries performed. Today, these messages cut right through the efforts of many pop feminists and social justice types to empower people to reclaim their bodies. Nowhere, perhaps, is this new dynamic calcified more clearly than in the recent article on Clickhole, a satirical website that lampoons this type of online writing, titled “7 Ways You Already Have The Perfect Body As Long As You Ignore The Lingerie Ads On This Post.”
Though athletes must understand more than anyone the importance of the body as a functional tool and not just as a vessel to design and alter as you wish, they are still not immune to the cultural pressures that tell us some body shapes are more desirable than others. Specifically, these pressures are highest in sports like volleyball, gymnastics, and swimming, where uniforms are both form-fitting and quite revealing. This was shown by Krane et al. in a survey of athletes where bagginess of the uniform was the independent variable, and higher average levels of stress as well as higher rates of bulimia were found in athletes with tight uniforms. A few articles look specifically at swimming, such as one study that examined the high attrition rates in youth swimming. Of the many dozens of reasons examined for a swimmer to possibly quit the sport, the only one with a significant difference between boys and girls was “I did not like the pressure”, which girls rated as a much more important reason for quitting than boys did. While there is no discussion about the source of this unnamed ‘pressure,’ Reel and Gill delve in further, examining weight pressures in swimming. Their study shows weight pressure comes not just from the misguided belief that lower weight would increase performance, but also from the suits themselves. For competitions, teams will buy expensive compression suits that have very real functional benefits in creating a “streamlining effect” for the body, but also can make the swimmers very conscious of their body sizes.
It is not hard to read these reports in a way that suggests that female swimmers feel an inordinate amount of body pressure relative to their male counterparts. Bordo’s non-sport-centric cultural analysis, while acknowledging pressures on men may be growing, seem to suggest the same thing. But all of the attention (for what little attention there has been), has been paid to pressures associated with weight, when swimmers (and other athletes) commonly undergo other bodily changes as well. Specifically, as one morphological study notes, elite swimmers tend to be “narrower in the hips, and broader in the shoulder.” While it could certainly be argued the sport simply weeds out people who do not match this description at higher levels, the training native to the sport exacerbates these traits as well. This means the body will deviate strongly from the postmodern beauty society prescribes. Wide, muscular shoulders and broad backs are not exactly the path to social capital for women. This does not go unnoticed by female swimmers either. The suits used in meets are designed to make their bodies look as androgynous as possible, erasing any semblance of breast or butt, while silicon caps cover their hair. One swimmer commented how past teammates of hers would “position their boobs in the suit to try and not be so flat.” This desexualization of the body has also given rise to what in the swimming community are colloquially referred to as “finals hoes.” These were described in interviews as being female swimmers that failed to qualify for finals at night, but would come back wearing revealing shorts, with hair and makeup done. Swimmers said these people were “looked down on” for dressing like that at the meet, but noted some of that feeling may have been rooted in an ironic jealousy. Swimmers also admitted to being jealous of other athletic teams, such as the women’s soccer team, which tend to look much more “put together” when seen on campus. However, none suggested feelings of regret about choosing the sport over another.
If you were to hang around a pool deck or weight room for any length of time, you’ll invariably hear the same repeated comments from female swimmers about “looking like a man.” The interviews have shown that female swimmers are acutely aware of how their bodies are deviating from the desired norm. Asked if they have intentionally lifted less than they are able to in order to prevent adding more muscle, no one admitted to doing so, but all swimmers stated they knew of teammates that would. Specifically, they would avoid lifts that would add shoulder and arm muscle, but still max out on things like squats. When asked how much she thought it affected overall team performance, one added, “I think there’s really a division. The top swimmers, they kind of make a choice, make a commitment to swimming. So because they’re [the most important swimmers on] the team, not too much.” But I would argue that even if individual teams do not suffer, the sport overall does, thanks to this drain on the talent pool. These athletes on the other side of the division, in effect, are actively sacrificing athletic success because they fear the social and cultural consequences of deviating too far from the current ideal.
There seem to be grassroots efforts to reclaim the female body in the swimming community, even if the efforts are not seen as such. Interviewed swimmers spoke about looking forward to swimming outside during training trips because they were able to wear their two-piece Jolyn suits, and “show off our stomachs.” There seemed to be a certain level of resignation among the swimmers about what sorts of clothes they would be able to fit in and how they would look for the duration of their college years, but no real bitterness or anger seemed present. One swimmer noted that for some, a more stressful issue than body shape was actually body hair, where many teams require their women to stop shaving their legs for several months at a time.
In The Second Sex, Simone de Beauvoir wrote that women and men are not simply seen as opposites, as yin and yang. Rather, women are only defined in how they relate to men. He is neutral, and she deviates. “He is the Subject, he is the Absolute-she is the Other.” But this Otherness is not binary; it exists on a multi-axis plain. That is how a female swimmer’s body can exist in a culture that values fitness and being in shape so highly, but still be seen as undesirable because it is the ‘wrong kind’ of fitness. One woman’s Otherness is not another’s, which is how athletes that play sports which develop the body in a way that aligns with ideals of postmodern beauty.
If it has not been clear up to this point, this paper is not intended to argue that the bodies of female swimmers should be exploited in the same way that female bodies are in many other parts of society. Rather, the point is to simply bring awareness to the hypocrisy of the situation. We must be aware that these body pressures affect more than the obvious targets. It is not just the most conspicuous ones, those women who are overweight, or those with a flat chest or any other natural deviation, that can struggle because of these widely held societal beauty standards. It can also be those that are in shape, with that put in hours of training every day to be able to compete at the top levels of sport that are punished. Female swimmers that deviate from modern conceptions of beauty are stripped of their agency to celebrate their bodies if they so wish. This cannot be chalked up to swimming being a ‘niche sport.’ Male swimmers are prominently featured flaunting their muscles during high points in the Olympiad, while female swimmers are shown, at best, as asexual beings. Females are taught throughout life that certain bodies are more desirable than others while the pressures of sport require them to deviate from that image in order to succeed. When push comes to shove, one of those messages must be heeded over the other, but even for those able to overcome the social pressures and commit to the sport, there will always be that one extra mental hurdle to surpass that male swimmers do not have to address.