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Four weeks ago, a New York Times newsletter landed in my inbox. It was the morning after Jessie Diggins won a bronze medal in the women’s freestyle sprint at the Winter Olympics in Beijing, and I was excited to read more about her historic feat. Not only was Diggins the first American woman to win an individual Olympic medal in cross-country skiing, but she also became the first American to win multiple Olympic medals in the sport. (She added a third medal to her tally later in the Games.)
“In a sport that has so many women with massive shoulders and thighs, Diggins looks like a sprite in her racing suit,” wrote sports journalist Matthew Futterman. “And it’s not clear exactly where she gets her power.”
Wait, what? In one sentence, the writer managed to undermine Diggins’s achievement and insult a large swath of women, both those who have “massive shoulders and thighs” and those who don’t. The commentary about Diggins’s body was especially eyebrow raising because she has been outspoken about disordered eating in sport and her own experience with an eating disorder. The article sparked immediate backlash. Readers were quick to categorize this as the latest example of an insidious double standard in which media outlets reporting on sports focus on the athletic achievements of men, yet persistently objectify the bodies of women. Others found the commentary simply boring—could he not come up with a more interesting analysis of the race?
In a message to nordic-ski blog FasterSkier, The New York Times responded to the criticism by saying, “We aim in our sports coverage to cover male and female athletes accurately, equally and fairly. We believe sometimes their physiques are relevant to their performance. In this case, our description of cross country skier Jessie Diggins’s noticeably different physical attributes in contrast to others in her sport were an important and relevant detail.”
Of course, Futterman isn’t the first to comment on the bodies of women athletes, and he won’t be the last. Ironically, after Diggins won a 10K race last year, a reporter hypothesized that she skied faster because she was bigger and heavier than her competition. For two years running, commentators at the NCAA track and field championships called out steeplechase champion Allie Ostrander’s appearance, dubbing her “the baby-faced assassin” one year and repeatedly announcing her height and weight (incorrectly, to boot) the following. Olympic champion and five-time world champion surfer Carissa Moore was criticized by internet trolls for her figure, despite her progressive surfing and dominance in the lineup.
Athletes are public figures, and their bodies are foundational to their jobs. It’s easy to home in on aesthetics in order to make sense of how athletes do what they do. But while body composition certainly plays a role, it’s just one of many physical factors. Aerobic capacity, power, strength, muscular endurance, biomechanics, strategy, tenacity, and good genes—none of which are necessarily visible to the human eye—all determine an athlete’s ability. And yet, especially with women athletes, appearance often becomes the sole focus, even when it has nothing to do with performance. This overemphasis on what athletes look like is damaging on both an individual and a cultural level, and it’s time to reconsider how we talk about their bodies.
When media outlets claim they are just reporting the facts when it comes to sports coverage, they ignore the reality that the body is never neutral ground. Speculating whether an athlete is too fat, too thin, or has a body appropriate for their sport betrays some of our worst societal tendencies—like an overwhelming preference for bodies that are lean and white. By calling out someone’s body type and marking it as divergent, regardless of whether it’s a good or a bad difference, we’re constructing a proverbial “right body” for activity. Within this environment, athletes chase specific silhouettes as if they’re the only determinant of success and future performance, making athletics a ripe setting for eating disorders and body dysmorphia.
In 2021, a study in the British Journal of Sports Medicine found that comments about an athlete’s body and diet, even seemingly innocuous ones, can lay the foundation for disordered eating and eating disorders. Up to 45 percent of women athletes, primarily in sports that emphasize a lean physique, suffer from eating disorders and disordered eating, which have some of the highest mortality rates among all mental illnesses. Not eating enough can lead to systemic health issues that can profoundly influence long-term health and well-being. Men aren’t immune: disordered eating behaviors are as common in men as in women, and one-third of people with eating disorders are men. But since men tend to be diagnosed later than women, they may suffer worse physical and mental health outcomes.
Focusing on athletes’ appearance impacts more than the mental and physical health of one individual: it reinforces implicit gatekeeping. This narrow-mindedness has harmed, and continues to harm, generations of active and athletic people at all levels of sport. Weeding out those who don’t fit the perceived norm—whether that’s size, gender, skin color, or another signifier—creates a powerful confirmation bias. If you don’t see your body type represented in a sport or are told, implicitly or explicitly, that you’re not fit to play, odds are high that you’ll doubt your abilities, choose to drop out, or not take up an activity in the first place. If you don’t fit into the definitive binary categories of sex and gender, and what those categories are supposed to look like, it calls into question your very existence and right to play. Plus, whether a person has the “right body” is heavily influenced by external circumstances, like opportunities to train and compete and access to quality facilities and staff, all of which are profoundly shaped by sociocultural factors.
But who decides what’s the norm? Who gets to decide what an athlete’s body should look like? Spectators and self-appointed social media experts will always have their opinions, but conversations about weight, body composition, and diet should be left to an athlete and qualified professionals.
When it comes to media, the tenets of ethical journalism require that journalists report fairly, accurately, and not cause additional harm. Seemingly offhand comments about appearances only serve to reinforce the same old narratives and devalue a woman’s skills, training, and years of hard work. We miss the bigger story. It’s why we need diverse voices in newsrooms and more coverage of women’s sports.
More than anything, these instances point out the need to rethink how all of us talk about women’s sports and women athletes. We need to stop distilling athletes’ potential and performance to their appearance. We need to commit to the idea that any body has the potential to achieve, full stop.