Sunisa Lee took gymnastics and the media by storm after winning gold in the Tokyo 2020 Olympics.
The image of female gymnastics as an athletic event has long been associated with grace, power, and strength. But in recent years, the sport has faced increasing scrutiny as commentators, media outlets, and fans have increasingly sexualized the athletes.
The prevalence of hypersexualization in gymnastics has been evident for some time. At the 2016 Olympic Games, an 18-year-old Romanian gymnast, Larisa Lordache, was photographed wearing a low-cut leotard and received a barrage of comments from people who sexualized her. There was an outcry from the public, with some arguing that Iordache was being unfairly sexualized due to her age and the context of the event.
This trend has not just been limited to individual gymnasts; it has also spread to the marketing of the sport. At the 2018 World Championships, a “sexy” calendar was released featuring female gymnasts posing provocatively in the hopes of generating interest and sales.
In a more recent scandal, SafeSport, an organization dedicated to protecting athletes revealed that athletes felt coaches “created an environment at [their] gym that had little positive enforcement and made minor[-aged] gymnasts constantly feel scared, degraded and humiliated.”
To gain a better understanding of how gymnasts are sexualized or objectified, it is important to first look at why it occurs. Examples of objectification, or the use of athletes as objects and objects of pleasure, have been around for a long time in all sports, including gymnastics.
From coaches to media outlets, many people within the sport have been found to take part in this practice. This can take the form of the selection of a more “marketable” athlete instead of the most talented, or the presentation of gymnasts with age-inappropriate clothing.
Perhaps one of the most visible examples of what objectification looks like within the sport is the frequent use of flattering photoshoots with female gymnasts, as well as the common belief that they must look a certain way to perform well.
The hypersexualization of gymnasts, in many cases, is done by those who are ultimately in charge of their success or failure. Coaches, parents, and officials in the sport can often be guilty of creating an environment that is highly sexualized and focused on physical appearance rather than skills and ability.
These pressures and expectations can lead to diminished self-worth, eating disorders, and other psychological distress in athletes. There is an argument to be made that sexualization can be used to an athlete’s advantage. In a world where looks have traditionally been used to sell products, it is not surprising that some athletes might choose to use their appearance to boost their popularity and gain more attention for the sport.
While this can be beneficial to the athlete and the sport, it is important to note that it should never come at the expense of an individual's well-being. Fortunately, there is some hope for those who might be uncomfortable with the hypersexualization of gymnasts.
There have been efforts to change the narrative around the sport and to raise awareness of the dangers of objectifying athletes. Organizations, such as the Women’s Sports Foundation, are striving to create a level playing field for athletes and to help foster an environment that embraces both hard work and healthy bodies.
While the hypersexualization of gymnasts is still a problem that needs to be addressed, it is encouraging to see that there are people who are working to make changes to the current narrative. With this growing support, we can make important strides in ensuring the safety of the athletes and building a healthier, more considerate approach to the sport.