Athleticism in women has generated social unease going back at least as far as the Greek myth of Atalanta, the princess who refused to marry a man who couldn’t beat her in a footrace and was finally conquered by a “hero” who beats her by cheating. Women in sports flout the feminine not only by being competitive, but by using their bodies for an end other than sex and child-bearing.
Since they first started competing in 1900, female Olympians have faced pressure to relieve sexist anxieties by turning up the girliness, even if doing so hurts their performance. In the past, the need to distinguish female from male athletes—and thus preserve their femininity—has led the International Olympic Committee (IOC) to enforce silly uniform requirements like bikinis for beach volleyball and skirts for tennis.
Social ideals about femininity have also guided which female sports get the most attention: It tends to be those that highlight beauty and grace, such as gymnastics or figure skating. Note also that these sports tend to produce the pre-pubescent look, which has led to widespread eating disorders, such as the one that ended ice skater Jenny Kirk’s career. Pressure to be cute and tiny on gymnasts got so out of control that the Olympics finally set a minimum age requirement of 16.
This Olympics, however, feels like a step forward. Don’t get me wrong; there have been plenty of sexist incidents. Despite being one of the strongest women in the world, weightlifter Sarah Robles had a hard time attracting sponsors because of her size. Australian swimmer Leisel Jones was shamed by the press for weighing 150 pounds (Michael Phelps in his fighting-est form only weighed 30 pounds more). Despite these incidents, female athletes have felt free to shake off sexist expectations during this year’s games—and they’re getting surprisingly little blowback for it.
The change is apparent from the top. This year, beach volleyball players have the option of wearing more clothes than the regulation bikini required in the past (which has led to players wearing long-sleeved shirts to stave off the London chill), and the IOC struck down proposed rules that would have mandated skirts for female badminton and boxing competitors. This was also the first year that every country participating has female athletes on their teams, challenging notions of what women are capable of even in some of the most conservative countries on earth.
But the shift is most visible in the way that female athletes conduct themselves in public. Male athletics has always been a zone for bad-boy behavior; outside of requirements that athletes show good sportsmanship on the field, male athletes have plenty of room to be aggressive, party hard, and even to display a lack of humility that would be more off-putting if they weren’t as great as they say they are. From hockey players brawling to Derek Jeter’s womanizing and Muhammed Ali’s braggadocio—it’s hard to imagine what men’s sports would even look like without a hefty share of roughness, pride, and, of course, partying.
Now, more women are embracing the same bad-boy attitude; it’s become alright to be a tomboy. Hope Solo, the keeper for the U.S. women’s soccer team, has a reputation for being a loudmouth, which she’s earned with stunts like running down fellow soccer player Brandi Chastain on Twitter for criticizing the team’s defensive strategy. In a highly circulated story about all the partying that goes on in the Olympic Village, Solo openly bragged about sexual conquests, saying, “I may have snuck a celebrity back to my room without anybody knowing, and snuck him back out.” The press has for the most part reported this straightforwardly, without a hint of the hand-wringing that accompanied other incidents of female athletes acting like their male counterparts—remember the wall-to-wall tut-tutting Chastain received for stripping off her jersey at the 1999 World Cup?
Solo is in good company. Megan Rapinoe, who was one of the stand-out players during the last World Cup, officially came out as a lesbian this year. The news coverage of this has been perfunctory to the point that one might forget that coming out was unthinkable even a few years back—and still is to a large degree for male athletes. The team captain Abby Wambach identifies as straight, but she’s not particularly interested in being girly, either. After getting punched in the face by Colombia’s Lady Andrade, Wambach tweeted pictures of her shiner, complete with jokes mocking how unladylike it is: “#reversesmokeyeye #notcool.”
Women aren’t just playing rough; they’re owning their bodies, shaking off the pressure to attend to their attractiveness before their athleticism. Zoe Smith, a weightlifter from Great Britain, decided to go online and let her critics know that she didn’t “give a toss” if they think strong, muscular women are unfeminine and unattractive, adding that she preferred to be with men who were open-minded about female strength. Another weightlifter, 350-pound Holley Mangold, smacked down Conan O’Brien’s mockery of her weight and strength by tweeting, “#dontactlikeyournotimpressed.” He should be; she’s only been training since 2008 and now she’s in the Olympics.
Even if the media wanted to maintain an image of the demure, petite female Olympian, the women themselves clearly won’t be having it. For no other reason than pure competition, women from all sorts of backgrounds have been redefining what’s acceptable.