This year marks the first time that the Olympics will feature women’s boxing, news that heartens feminists and strikes fear in the hearts of men made in the mold of Jennifer Lopez’s (fictional) abusive husband in Enough. One would think that female competition in a blood sport like boxing would mean that we’d gotten a smidge closer to the elusive equality of the sexes—and in some ways, we have—but the recent controversy over what women should wear while boxing shows we’re not quite there yet.
Late last year, the Amateur International Boxing Association (AIBA), the sport’s governing body, recommended that female boxers wear skirts in the ring in order to distinguish them from their male counterparts. Because upper body toning exercises (like, for example, repeatedly punching something) make an athletic woman’s breasts smaller, the AIBA felt something needed to be done to alert the world to the fact that the fiercely sparring athletes in the ring were ladies. Hence the skirts.
Thankfully, the almost-farcical sexism of the AIBA has not taken hold at the Olympic level. When women step into the ring in London, they can do so in shorts, or in a skirt, according to their own wishes. But boxing’s Skirtgate simply brings a question back to the fore that has existed as long as women have played sports: How comfortable are we watching women play “men’s sports”?
The true measure of the Olympic athlete is a love of pain. This admirable insanity is no better personified within any single sport than it is in boxing, one of the original competitions at the ancient games, done bare-knuckled back them, often while the competitors grasped iron nails in their fists for extra effect. The visual buffet of a fighter’s sinuous flesh and hammer-throttle thighs is innate to our vision of the ideal male athlete—brute force, brawn, and wild-eyed abandon. When addressing women’s sports, on the other hand, we emphasize the grace of the human form, we speak of the artfulness of the gymnast’s tumble, and the gazelle-like stride of the sprinter. The aesthetic ideal of a female athlete is clean-lined elegance.
The media feeds this ideal—open any women’s magazine feature on the 2012 Olympians and you’re likely to see a rotation of athletes from a small selection of sports. Swimmers are foremost among this group. That’s because the sport doesn’t involve running into one’s competitors (if you do it correctly); it’s a largely solo pursuit, where the only havoc wreaked is on the chlorinated water as furious legs churn through it. It also—as opposed to boxing—produces a long, lean physique, hewn by the work of silky water, not clashing fists or iron. Swimming’s stars have become media darlings—like Natalie Coughlin, who posed for Sports Illustrated wearing only body paint. Glamour magazine featured a swimmer, a runner, a gymnast, and an archer. Vogue, to its credit, featured a female boxer, wearing a striking evening gown, in one of its latest issues; Marlen Esparza is a powerhouse in the sport, but as a flyweight (she weighs 112 pounds at the most), she fits nicely into the magazine’s narrow vision of what female athletes should look like.
The fact remains that we’re uncomfortable with the sight of women scrumming on a rugby pitch, or huffing and wheezing as they dead lift hundreds of pounds. That’s what men do to prove their strength. The running jokes about lesbianism in sports like crew, boxing, and rugby speak to a discomfort with the brute power required by these physical pursuits—the body a woman needs to propel a 65-foot boat through the water, or to hurl herself through a mass of people towards a ball, is not a body to be trifled with. While the raw power of a diminutive gymnast should not be ignored, it’s undeniably less threatening because of its use in the pursuit of grace. Women might admire the style and the fitness of the Williams sisters, but most of us have heard things said about the duo by men, alluding to the pair as grotesquely muscular. Muscular means off-putting, of course.
The appearance of female boxers at this year’s Games, skirts be damned, is an undeniable step forward. Gender perception, on the other hand, is a slippery metric. Only time will tell if we can move past the “graceful ghetto” of women’s athletics and into a world with less gold lamé and more golden gloves.