Women in Sports: Visibility in 2015 and Beyond

When I was a scrawny 12-year-old with bad knees, my grandmother paid for my tennis lessons. I wasn’t too bad at it–even with my old-lady joints–so when I started high school I went out for the team and made third-string singles. I dove into tennis. I got Smash magazine. I was on a weekend USTA team. I did private clinics to improve my serve, and I adored Rafael Nadal.

Rafa burst onto the scene at the same time I did. His arrival was hailed with cries of “Boy Wonder” and swooning women, and my arrival was mostly hailed by kindly suburban moms who gave me snacks. Rafa was exciting, with his physical style of play. I wanted to be the lady version of him. But how people spoke about players like Nadal and how they spoke about female tennis players seemed worlds apart. Announcers and fans would often mention women’s looks. Venus and Serena were attacked for having bodies that were “too manly.” I would hear people pick apart the bodies of female tennis players. I became self-conscious on the court, wondering how I looked in my short-skirted uniform. I wondered if I should have worn a different top that made me look curvier, and made sure to wear makeup on match days. I had learned that being a lady tennis player meant being critiqued for your looks. So I tried to prepare myself.

Women in sports have always faced discrimination, although 2015 was a banner year for for female athletes (not only because it was rumored that Sporty Spice would be back on stage singing with her ladies). The US women’s soccer team won the Women’s World Cup, taking home the championship in the most-watched soccer match in US history. We watched Serena Williams almost complete a calendar-year Grand Slam. Ronda Rousey and her smack talk captured our ears and hearts, as did the smackdown she received from Holly Holm. It suddenly seemed that women in sports were all over the media.

What did all of these ladies have in common, other than their amazing athletic ability? People wanted to talk about their bodies in sexist and degrading terms! Williams and Rousey were slammed for not having “feminine” bodies. And even young athletes like Mo’Ne Davis, the amazingly talented Little League pitcher, faced a sexist slur. Let me repeat, a LITTLE LEAGUE pitcher who was THIRTEEN was called a nasty, sexist term by an adult male for having the audacity to be an athlete and also having a Disney movie made about her. One wonders why said adult male had so much righteous anger stored up over Disney films. I would love to ask his opinion on Mulan.

But a few sexist comments are nothing to complain about, right? It happens to us all. At this point, it’s just a fun club that all of us ladies (and many men) get to join. I have random men creep on me while I’m standing in line at the mechanic; famous women have random men creep on them when they make headline news. Samesies! The fact that a female tennis player in high school already felt pressure over her body image isn’t news to anyone. Both guys and girls deal with that, although women get the brunt of the judgments and remarks.

By the time I was an adult–and far more aware of subtle sexism–I had let my tennis career die. I no longer had to worry about how I looked while playing tennis, but now I worried about being harassed while walking down the street, as shouts and comments became part of my usual commute. Everyday sexism was normal, and in my face, and also sometimes touching me, and that was super creepy.

But female athletes face a bit more than just some sexist comments. Women get paid significantly less than men. Super significantly. Many fans argue that it’s simple biology and capitalism; women just don’t have that testosterone to do really cool things that keep us all shelling out dollars.  One author argues that if women’s sports had the same media support and production value as men’s, the fans would come. The media hype around the women’s World Cup seemed to prove that point– both male and female fans were excited to watch the match.

After I left tennis and went to college, I started traveling. I’ve lived in four countries now, and have seen sexism in its many forms. I have tried my best to become invisible. No one notice this foreign lady. Just let me blend in. No, please don’t shout at me, sir. No, that’s annoying. No, I will not date you. No, I will not marry your neighbor. I’m sorry, no.

I saw girls–minors!–married to men they barely knew. I saw girls made to do all the work while their brothers sat around. I saw women facing abuse with no legal recourse. And I started to connect the dots. The little dots of remarks from sports announcers, and street harassers, and the bigger dots of child marriage and violence towards women, all connected and making up a world that slowly constricts until sometimes, a woman would rather just be invisible.

At some point I started watching tennis again. Specifically, I started watching Serena Williams. Nadal no longer held me in thrall; it was Serena. Serena, who is brashly and fully present. Who wears bright crop tops and diamond rings on the court because she wants to. Serena with the “wrong” kind of female body. Her body is a finely tuned machine that dominates on the court, and she doesn’t give a damn what anyone says about her. She would never try to be invisible. I cried when she won Sports Illustrated Sportsperson of the Year. As a woman of color in a predominantly white sport, and as a woman in general who has a strong body, Williams has run the gamut of judgment. I’m no Serena, but maybe I can be visible too.

Representation in places of power matter. What we see on the Big Screen can inspire us or hold us down. Hollywood is powerful because it tells stories that help us define and interpret culture. Sports are powerful for the same reason, for bringing us together during the Super Bowl or the Olympics. I want to see women celebrated for having strong bodies that they use to win, not for what their bodies look like. I want to see female athletes treated the same way male athletes are treated.  If we are ever to reach true equality in society, women need to be welcome on an equal playing field in every realm of society, and in all of the bastions of power. In tech, in Hollywood, in politics, and in sports.

Will the hype of 2015 continue? Most sports commentators seem to think that things are improving, but slowly. I just think women should have equal opportunity. Talk about their abilities, not their looks. Try giving them the airtime, the production value, the media hype, and at least see if it will turn a profit for the networks. Give female athletes a fighting chance. The sports world can only be better for it. I know I’m already better because I’ve seen women getting the coverage they deserve. Let’s give them all a chance to be visible.

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Mary Ellen Dingley is a travel writer and a veteran of the George Washington University creative writing department. You should check out her work at Go Abroad and follow her on Twitter.