At the Olympic beach volleyball venue at Horse Guards Parade, two American champions — Kerri Walsh and Misty May-Treanor — were gearing up to win their third consecutive gold medal. Outside the stadium, a group of middle-aged bankers were waiting to watch them do it. They didn’t know any of the competitors’ names, and they had been fans of the sport for “about an hour,” they said.
So why were they there? “When I found out there was a women’s event that involved girls in bikinis, I thought, that’s what my friends would like to see,” said Simon, who procured the tickets for the group.
London 2012’s Olympic beach volleyball tournament — with its barely-there uniforms and resident shimmying dance troupe — hasn’t necessarily brought out the best in spectators. But despite all the ogling, experts say the Games in general send an overwhelmingly positive message: elite women come in more shapes than just “Barbie doll,” and what matters is not their bodies’ shapes, but rather their abilities.
It’s certainly a shift from the image of women usually presented to the public. “The fashion industry and the media in general only prioritizes the feminine veneer,” says Caryn Franklin, former fashion editor of i-D Magazine and co-founder of advocacy group All Walks Beyond the Catwalk. That means glossy hair, flawless makeup and no sweat. And unlike Olympic athletes, many female celebrities won’t admit it takes lots of effort (and retouching) to look that way. “There is an honesty about these athletes. It’s very obvious that it takes them hours and hours of dedication and discipline to look the way they do,” says Jo Swinson, a British Member of Parliament and founding member of the U.K. Campaign for Body Confidence. With celebrities, by contrast, there’s often “the pretense that they woke up out of bed and look like that.” Instead, for two weeks, spectators around the world get to look at real faces and real bodies. “It’s one of the times we actually get to see women without makeup on on television,” says Swinson.
Women not only appear without makeup, but they also appear in different sizes and shapes — from slight gymnasts to strong-thighed cyclists. “The Olympics are fantastic for celebrating a diversity of body shapes,” says Debra Bourne, who worked as a brand consultant to Jean Paul Gaultier and Swatch before helping start All Walks Beyond the Catwalk. Researchers say that this sort of physical diversity is not only refreshing — it’s also good for our psychological well-being. “You can see that a fit and healthy body can look different on different people,” says Phillippa Diedrichs, a senior research fellow at the Centre for Appearance Research at the University of the West of England, Bristol. “It doesn’t only look one way.”
Yet for all the attention on Olympians’ bodies, body-image activists say the best thing about the Olympics is its focus on what women can achieve, rather than how they look. “It’s about, how high can I get over this high jump bar? How fast can I row?” says Swinson. “Not about a visual aesthetic.”
This doesn’t mean, however, that the Olympics is free from superficiality. Even top Olympic performers have been bullied about their weight and shape, particularly on social networking sites. Among them is British swimmer and four-time Olympic medalist Rebecca Adlington, who retweeted a Twitter message sent to her in early June that said, “You belong in that pool you f—— whale.” In late July, an Australian newspaper suggested swimmer Leisel Jones, who has bagged eight gold medals for the country, had let her figure slide since the 2008 Games. On July 26, the Brazilian women’s soccer team was described as “a bit heavy” by the coach of Cameroon’s team after they trounced the African country 5-0. British weightlifter Zoe Smith attracted attention around the same time by fighting back against Twitter attacks that she looked like a “bloke.” In May, it came out that gold medal-winning British heptathlete Jessica Ennis had been called “fat” by a UK Athletics official. “There’s still a sort of pressure to be perfect in the Olympics,” says Liz Jenkinson, a doctor of health psychology at the University of the West of England, Bristol. “And it’s often the more conventional looking sports men and women and those in the skimpiest outfits that get the most media coverage.”
That’s nowhere more true than in the world of endorsements. “It becomes very much about [athletes’] bodies and their appearance and their being shown to be attractive as opposed to what their bodies can do,” says Diedrichs. British cycling star Victoria Pendleton, who won a gold medal in sprint cycling at this year’s Olympic Games, is one star who has traded on her looks as well as her talent. She appears in Pantene Pro-V ads with long, glistening locks and a flawless face. “They just become very similar to the images you see of everybody else.”
Despite the creeping influence of beauty stereotypes, many women seem to be taking home a healthy message. They haven’t swapped Olympians for stick-thin models as unattainable ideals. Instead, they’re inspired by what female athletes have achieved. Standing with friends outside the beach volleyball venue, Reagan Kiser, an American living in London, said her young daughter was “considering becoming more serious about running” after watching the Games. Her friend, Rosalba Mooves, said it was the Olympians “dedication and achievement, not their bodies” that she admires. Another woman in the group, Australian Amanda Saxon, agrees. “To be honest, I don’t aspire to have their bodies,” she says. “They’re elite athletes. We don’t need to look like them.”