Tuesday, October 18, 2011

Is Strong Sexy?

I was asked recently what I thought about men watching women’s sports for the eye candy. Did I think it was bad, the interviewer asked? My immediate thought was, yes, of course. I don’t want men watching women athletes for the turn-on, I want men to be watching for the strength and grace and prowess of the players; because the women are just as good athletes as their male counterparts. When I thought further about the question though, my feelings about the issue got more complicated. In thinking of World Cup soccer, a sport where the women are fierce, fast, strong and covered in mud…well, if men find that sexy, how much better that is than the media-generated ideal of fragile bunny beauty, a mere willow wisp, toppling over from the weight of her surgically enhanced breasts.

ESPN seems to think that strong women are sexy, or at least their magazine’s 2011 Bodies We Want issue capitalizes on this new direction in women’s sex appeal, with its photo spread of modestly posed nude photos of top ranked athletes, women and men, showing off just how rippling a woman’s abs can be.

The bodies on display are, indeed, beautiful. And if we women are killing ourselves trying to live up to some mythical beauty ideal, wouldn’t it be nicer if the ideal were not quite so mythical, and instead something real. I feel certain that Hope Solo is not photo-enhanced for television while she is playing soccer matches. And though I will never play World Cup soccer, I can aspire to be my strongest self. The only thing stopping me from my own rippling set of abs is the sit-ups I don’t do (okay, and maybe chocolate cake). Not only is the strong, tough, active woman ideal far more attainable than anything we see in Playboy or Vogue, because it is less constricted in its definition, the strong ideal is healthier, physically and mentally.

When I say healthier, I really mean it. The beauty ideal propagated in our society is ruining girls. Beauty and sexuality have become so completely intertwined as to be indistinguishable. A Report of the APA Task Force on the Sexualization of Girls found that the increased sexualization in magazines, marketing, television shows, movies and song lyrics harmed girls’ interpersonal relationships, fostered greater body dissatisfaction (as if that issue needs more kindling), and its companion—eating disorders, increased depression, generally affected physical health, and even led to diminished cognitive skills (apparently they posed math problems to girls trying on sweaters and girls trying on bathing suits, and those trying on sweaters scored much higher).

The Disney princess effect is sucking the life out of girls, leaving them on the front stoop, waiting for Prince Charming, instead of outside running around in the fresh air, where they might not look pretty-in-pink every moment and their tiara might fall off. The Women’s Sports Foundation reports that girls drop out of sports at a rate of 6:1 versus boys. And a Girl Scout study showed that many girls between 11-17 years old don’t play sports because they think their bodies don’t look good.

And even if girls do think their bodies look good, there are a lot of messages out there that we shouldn’t be using our bodies for sports anyway. Passing through Times Square subway station these last weeks I’ve been struck by the new Levi’s ad, which shows boys skateboarding and doing tricks on bikes wearing their jeans, whereas the girl’s jeans are down around her ankles (she’s ostensibly pulling them on, after what, who knows, since she’s standing beside an SUV in the middle of nowhere), flashing us a good look at her lacy panties. The tagline is about creating our legacy. So…boys’ legacies lie in extreme sports and girls’ in their undergarments.

I think that’s enough bad news for now. And lest it’s not obvious, when I advocate for a new beauty or sexy ideal, I’m not advocating for sexually provocative sports uniforms. Scantily clad beach volleyball players do not advance the cause. The Lingerie Football League is not part of the healthy new ideal I’d love to see. Leveraging what Catherine Hakim calls our Erotic Capital (i.e. our sex appeal) in her book of the same name, will not, in my opinion empower us, as Julie Ruvolo suggests in Forbes blog post, “If You’ve Got It, Charge For It”: The Feminism 2.0 Manifesto. Instead it sets women up against each other, in that eternally unhealthy competition for men’s attention, and ensures that aging will continue to be seen as the end of our power and worth—Ruvolo sets that age at 35, so I’m way out of time anyway.

What we want is to redefine sexy completely. There’s hope. The ESPN body issue is a slight breeze, perhaps portending bigger winds of change. And there’s The Kicking Queen, Brianna Amat, who recently became Homecoming Queen and kicked a winning field goal for her football team (all male, except her) on the same day.

One question is whether men will still find the eye candy soccer player (or football player or runner) sexy when they have to deal with the actual strong woman behind the shin guards.

Another question—should that even matter?