Bikini (Over)kill: or Why Everyone Should Shut Up About Beach Volleyball Outfits

Image by @Brixtonite

Great news! London 2012 is the first Olympic games to see every participating country send women to compete! The two medals Team GB have scored so far were won by Rebecca Adlington and Lizzie Armitstead! Women’s boxing is being allowed for the first time! And our politicians and media are busy cracking Carry On style “jokes” about ogling beach volleyball players’ bodies because they wear bikinis! Oh, wait.

On the day that Lizzie Armitstead spoke out against “overwhelming sexism in sport”, in his Telegraph column, Boris Johnson belittled the women’s beach volleyball team:

As I write these words there are semi-naked women playing beach volleyball in the middle of the Horse Guards Parade immortalised by Canaletto. They are glistening like wet otters and the water is splashing off the brims of the spectators’ sou’westers. The whole thing is magnificent and bonkers.

Let’s ignore the fact that Boris is comparing the players to “wet otters” (no one needs to delve into Boris’s psyche this early in the week. Or indeed ever) and collectively sigh that that the mayor of London deems the fact that women athletes are scantily clad more worthy of comment than any aspect of the sport.

The BBC called them “babes in bikinis” and one minute into a press conference with the women’s beach volleyball team, a Sun reporter asked Britain’s athletes to “make a promise today, that whatever the weather” they would wear bikinis rather than the leggings or tops that are sometimes donned in colder weather. Obviously, the titillation of onlookers is more important than athletes being comfortable enough to fulfil their potential. Meanwhile, Betfair have decided to advertise on the women’s arses. When asked about their decision, Betfair responded:

“As far as we’re aware, this is the first time QR codes have been used in in-play sports advertising, and what better way to test its effectiveness than by putting them on one of the places that is likely to get photographed the most?”

Know your place, ladies. You’re there to have your arse snapped, not to aim for a few medals and represent your country.

The coverage of beach volleyball has the tone of a Carry On film, all camp leering and grubby titillation, while every article on the subject seems to be illustrated not with an action shot, but a close up of a woman’s bikini bottoms. An exasperated Lucy Boulton said:

“OK, we wear a bikini. I don’t think there’s anything wrong with that. It’s most practical and I think we look good. The athletes basically wear big knickers and crop tops, so what’s the difference? It’s not like it’s pornographic. People get very excited, but if you go to the beach that’s what they wear. Even less.”

She’s right – the beach setting, and slightly scantier kit has rendered beach volleyball a total perve-magnet. Beach volleyball is particularly prone to this, but it’s indicative of the way women’s bodies are often dealt with in sport. In the run up to the Olympics, countless double page spreads were laid out with women athletes in saucy underwear, with headlines helpfully explaining that one could be both feminine and sporty. Heaven forbid a successful woman at the top of her field not be feminine.

Feministing helpfully analysed the coverage of athletes’ bodies in the ESPN “bodies” edition. Their findings weren’t surprising, but were disappointing:

78% of the photos of men depict an active pose, while only 52% of women’s do.
90% of the male athletes had at least least one active pose in the slideshow.
46% of female athletes had at least one active pose in the slideshow.

The message is that women’s bodies when they’re strong, are threatening. Beach volleyball is (incorrectly) seen as a lay person’s sport, the kind of game that’s played by amateurs at the seaside, rather than one which requires discipline, extensive training and, whisper it, muscle. Paula Radcliffe’s kit is only slightly more modest, yet politicians and commentators don’t joke about going to ogle marathon runners’ rears. This isn’t just about bikini bottoms: it’s about finding strength in women a bit terrifying.



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About author
Dawn is a Welsh exile living in London. She writes about politics, cycling and culture, and is obsessed with Greece and foxes.
19 total comments on this postSubmit yours
  1. Where do you get “threatening” and “terrifying”?

  2. I don’t really agree.

    “The message is that women’s bodies when they’re strong, are threatening.”

    Or that ESPN’s predominantly male readership tend to find women’s bodies attractive.

    Did you see Twitter when the men’s swimming was on? Objectification all over the shop.

    Yes, female athletes get it a bit worse. Beach volleyball players still more so – both male and female. But then, given the level of participation in beach volleyball, it being taken less seriously as a sport than others seems understandable, if not heartening.

    It’s unfortunate, but let’s not get it out of proportion. And I really don’t think it’s about what’s ‘threatening’.

    • “Or that ESPN’s predominantly male readership tend to find women’s bodies attractive.”
      So why do they only find them attractive if they’re reclining, in non-threatening poses, rather than in active poses? And why do magazines and papers routinely photoshop out athletes muscles, as they did to Victoria Pendleton: http://frugivoremag.com/2012/07/the-cure-for-not-being-good-enough-pretty-can-be-purchased-but-beauty-cannot-be-bought/

      I don’t think comparing reaction on Twitter to the widespread media coverage is particularly accurate, either. All the media coverage I’ve seen of Tom Daly and Mark Cavendish for instance, focusses on their achievements, whereas any excuse to get Victoria Pendleton in a basque and ask about how she dresses when she’s off duty is lapped up.

      • “I don’t think comparing reaction on Twitter to the widespread media coverage is particularly accurate, either.”

        Well, take this, from the Baltimore Sun:

        http://www.baltimoresun.com/features/baltimore-insider-blog/bal-michael-phelps-isnt-medaling-in-sexy-20120610,0,7072503.story

        (thanks to @MrPooni for finding)

        As I say, there’s less of it, but it’s a question of degree rather than type.

        With regard to the active/not thing: I would argue that this plays into established societal norms of sexuality. Those norms are regrettable, certainly, but sports media is the outcome rather than the cause. Women freely admit they find muscly men attractive; for men, the reverse is true. I find the notion of it being about ‘threat’ a huge leap.

      • And why did Fatima Whitbread get such howls of derision when she was one of the most successful British athletes of all time? To this day if you put her name into Google, you don’t get Fatima Whitbread Olympic medal, you get Fatima Whitbread, man/hermaphrodite. Ha ha, she doesn’t look like a model and she’s got muscles, she must be a man…

        This shit has been going on for years. Female athletes are expected to look pretty as well as kicking ass or they are ignored by advertisers and mocked.

        Yes, a lot of people were looking at Tom Daley and Pete Waterfield in their speedos earlier but no one I saw was completely disinterested in their achievements and no one expected to wear kit or perform in way that could harm their medal chances. I’ve keep hearing about women’s Beach volleyball. It was even on a report on PM tonight about sexism. But I haven’t heard anything about the rankings of any of the teams in it. I know everyone’s wearing a bikini and listening to Benny fucking Hill music on Horse Guards Parade but i’m got no idea if Burundi beat Mongolia or if Britain are winning hands down, because all the reports only mention their scanties.

    • I think it’s hard to argue that the objectification of men and women comes out at an even keel at an event where we have to celebrate the fact that every country is even sending women to compete. Not to mention the fact that women will not receive the funding, backing, or financial packages that male athletes receive–before and after the Olympics–Japan and Australia didn’t think it was worth upgrading their female competitors into the same class as the male on their flights.

  3. Again, in your reply above, you imply that women are “threatening” in certain contexts. Please can you clarify how you reach to this conclusion?

    Also, you write that the media routinely Photoshop out athlete’s muscles. Do you have a source for this? I see that you link to one case, but a much wider review is needed to establish that it happens “routinely”.

    • Hi Darien,

      My name is Doctor Professor Quincy de Hugetrousers, holder of the Richard Hammond Chair of Scientific Research Methods here at the Mensa Institute of Advanced Thinking. For some time now, we’ve been looking for someone to head up our research program into “Wimmins Issues n that”. Watching you at work here, cutting through the nonsense, has convinced me that you’re the man for the job. I’m afraid there’s no salary as such, but we can offer you all kinds of fringe benefits, including a “Senior Researcher” badge, a “Senior Researcher” hat, a “Senior Researcher” mug and a totally ass-raping poncho with “Senior Researcher” written on the back in glitter.

      Dr.Prof Q. de Hugetrousers PhD BSc (Chairman)

  4. - Did you see Twitter when the men’s swimming was on? Objectification all over the shop.

    - 78% of the photos of men depict an active pose, while only 52% of women’s do.
    90% of the male athletes had at least least one active pose in the slideshow.
    46% of female athletes had at least one active pose in the slideshow.

    I think there’s a difference between people going “phwoar” on Twitter and consistent difference in representation in the media.

    A bit worse? Has anyone noticed all the mentions in the press today about how Team GB’s ladies football team met David Beckham yesterday? Who cares? In terms of ability and impact on the sport the headline should be ‘David Beckham gets to meet Kelly Smith’, but instead it all gets presented as a privilege for a bunch of girls to meet a male hero when, in Olympic terms, what’s actually happening is a bunch of Olympic athletes are meeting a plucky trier who just wasn’t good enough to make it.

    That vexed me.

  5. You may be interested in this, too:

    http://itsjustahobby.wordpress.com/2012/07/30/a-quick-one-of-the-wrist/

    Holly: I take the point, but it’s worth noting that David Beckham IS a far, far more famous figure than any of those female players, for a range of reasons. Men’s football is a much more competitive sport, and in his time he really was probably a much better player – but the media and sponsorship situation means that this is a self-fulfilling prophecy.

    Nevertheless, because of his past prominence on the world’s biggest stage, he has become an international celebrity – meeting him would be considered a privilege (if you care about such things) simply because of his fame. So would meeting Oprah, or indeed Victoria Beckham – thought neither of them are distinguished footballers.

    • It’s not particularly interesting no, just a lot of false equivalence. Here’s an Olympic weightlifter describing the kind of abuse she’s received from men for having the temerity to have muscles, though:

      • Not particularly interesting…I must apologize for my writing style. Here was me thinking objectification was wrong, no matter who was at the receiving end, but clearly its only women who are allowed to object to it. Point me to the false equivalence though, preferably without the jargon, which part of presenting a make 16 year old child as a sexual object are you ok with? Id it the fact he is a child, or that he is male?

        Sometimes points might be listened to if people took a wider view, is the attitude towards the beach volleyball appalling? Yes. Would fighting for the idea of seeing individuals as people rather than objects (unless that is their consensual kink) help things? Undoubtedly. Sometimes you need to stop banging the drum and listen.

        • Did I say objectification was fine at any point? No. Nice try projecting views onto me though. It’s “false equivalence” (which isn’t't jargon, btw, it’s simple words) because it ignores power structures and history. Just as when people claim a white person experiencing a “racist” comment is the same – it really isn’t. As previously stated, comments on Twitter aren”‘t the same as the entire media belittling your sport. Then you somehow leap from some women making comments on Twitter (many men did too FYI) and claim this causes a massive epidemic of u der-reporting of male rape, which there isn’t a shred of evidence for.

          Also, Tom Daly’s 18. Not 16.

  6. http://www.guardian.co.uk/commentisfree/2010/mar/17/stern-review-male-rape

    The picture was taken when he was 16, which is why I highlighted the age.. Would still like to know when the entire media belittled any sport, or why you dismiss “a few comments on twitter” (actually it was hundreds) when they are aimed at a a man.

    Unlike you I do not think men or women are more worthy, all sexual objectification is wrong, however I shall leave you to your desire for victimhood. The fact it sets the cause of women gaining equality back clearly matters less than looking squarely at the problems our culture faces.

    • Unlike you I do not think men or women are more worthy

      Again, with the pretending I hold views I don’t. I get tired of people like you who, whenever women express views against sexism, demand that women then come out and speak against objectification of men too, as a means of silencing them. This “what about the men?” tactic is a typical aspect of derailing, and it’s boring and tiresome. I didn’t deny male rape didn’t exist, but it is nowhere near as endemic as male-on-female violence and my point still stands, it isn’t caused by pictures of Tom Daly, is it?

      • If you’re just going to dismiss views that challenge your own as “derailing” then why enable comments in the first place?

        By the way, you still haven’t answered my question about why you think men find women playing sports “threatening”.

        • I don’t know why men find sporting bodies “threatening” because I’m not a man or a psychologist, but as mentioned in the piece, women’s muscles are often photoshopped out, or they’re made to sit suppine so their muscles aren’t prominent, and they’re posed in underwear and frocks a lot, whilst men are usually in sporting gear. This makes them less “threatening” and more feminine.

          I bring up the concept of “derailing” because trying to turn a conversation about the treatment of women in the media into a discussion purely about comments about one man on Twitter is the very definition of derailing.

  7. Having been to a Beach Volleyball match earlier in the week, I was struck how different it was to what is projected.

    For the 15 000 or so people in the crowd, only the front rows are going to get anything like the view that would allow them to be in anyway titillated by the players. The rest of the crowd (myself included) saw some exciting sport, but that the players were in bikinis, or the gents were in shorts and whatever else, mattered not a jot.

    Yet, up in the ‘cheap seats’, there were still those who had shelled about because PHWOAR, it was some girls in bikinis. These ‘lads’, full of ‘banter’ and expensive pints at 830am tried ever so hard to sleaze their way through the match, aided by the dancers who appeared at points during the game, but from so far away they ended up just drinking more and more, and once the 2 women’s matches had finished, departed. They laughed their way out, telling everyone that ‘we won’t be back for the mens, we’re off to the bar’.

    I hadn’t the heart to tell them that women in bikinis were available on the internet or in magazines (presumably not, to them, in real life), and that pints were much cheaper outside of the venue. I am delighted that they were seemingly a minority at the match, if not in the press.

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