When the Olympics turns the spotlight on athletes, audiences see some competitors who have far-from-average physiques. But. Just as not all lean and/or visibly muscular people are athletes, not all athletes are lean and/or visibly muscular.
As previously discussed, an Australian paper mocked the body of (three-time gold medalist!) swimmer Leisel Jones — and was the target of intense backlash. Fellow swimmer Melanie Schlanger expressed her deep embarassment for the Aussie media, and tweeted: "U can't judge fitness from looks anyway and how about we don't criticize at all." In a column for the Vancouver Sun, Christie Blatchford writes:
First, much as the temptation at these events is always to long for the sentimental result, Jones would not be swimming to gold on behalf of all the wounded fat little children of the world or those who once were. That's because she ain't fat: She weighs about 150 pounds, or about what the average woman in the U.K. and the U.S. weighs.
Secondly, calling someone fat isn't criticism, not in any meaningful sense. It's small and unnecessary, period. You want to criticize a world-class athlete, talk about her sport, her technique or her training - not her makeup (synchronized swimming excepted, of course).
Thirdly, the appearance insult (ask any woman on television what sort of mail she gets compared with her male colleagues) is the insult of first and last resort with women.
But the incident is indicative of our culture's persistent fatphobia. When we see fat, we don't see a person. We don't see potential, possibilities, options. We only see fat. And what we think it means: Lazy. Inactive. Unhealthy. Decoupling fat and health is a struggle.
In a post that went up yesterday on Feministe, blogger Zuzu declares:
I am fat. I'm not as fat as I was when I started writing for Feministe, but I'm fatter than I was this time last year (yay, pre-menopause! That was a fun birthday present). So, still fat.
I am also an athlete.
Zuzu points out that the strongest women in America — weightlifters Sarah Robles and Holley Mangold — don't get sponsorships like other (thin, lean) female athletes. Media coverage almost always mentions their weight and/or body type, before noting how much they can lift. It's as though their size renders all other accomplishments moot.
Why do we insist on believing we can look at someone and know what their health and fitness levels are? Because we live in a society that fetishizes thinness, inundates us with images of svelte female bodies and brainwashes us into believing that thin is The Best Way To Be. Models and celebrities are rewarded for thinness with magazine covers and muti-million-dollar ad campaigns; it doesn't matter if they smoke or have an eating disorder or have truly odious personalities. Thinness trumps all, tricking us into equating it with health and worth, just as fatness trumps all, conning us into believing its presence is a sign of ill health and unworthiness.
Zuzu knows just how hard it is to uncouple and detangle weight and athleticism, because she's had to do it to herself:
A few weeks ago, I met with a Chi Running coach who's an ultramarathoner. It's hard not to feel lazy next to someone who can and will run 50 to 100 miles at a stretch. I made some comment about not being very fit, and she said sternly, "You're fit. You just did 9 miles."
I am an athlete. [Feministe]
NO RESPECT! Athletes, advocates defend ‘fat' Olympic-champion swimmer Leisel Jones [NYDN]
Fat Leisel? Try Fast Leisel [Vancouver Sun]