Faster, higher, and stronger – but no less sexist

From the “emailed to me by my sister with the subject line ‘I can’t believe this is even being discussed’” files…

Australian swimmer Leisel Jones qualified for her first Olympics when she was fourteen years old. Fourteen. She was in ninth grade. She was a phenom, a prodigy, and she won two silver medals at those Games. She now has three Olympic golds, four Olympic silvers, and a bronze medal just for funsies.

She also owns a few world records. Now, at twenty-six, she’s qualified for her fourth Olympics, the most of any Australian swimmer in Olympic history. She’s arguably one of the best women breaststrokers the world has ever seen.


Sure, we could talk about her London medal chances, or about how much she’s matured since she was thrust into the limelight when most girls her age were busy picking their favourite Backstreet Boy. We could talk about how hard the life of an Olympic swimmer is, and what an enormous level of commitment it takes to qualify for the Olympics a record four times. Instead, we’re talking about her weight, thanks to Melbourne’s Herald Sun, which decided to publish “then and now” photos suggesting that Jones has gained weight.

Luckily, lots of her teammates have come to her defence, saying that her weight is unchanged, or that it’s fine just the way it is. And people outside the swimming community – other athletes, feminists, mental health advocates, and so on – are rightfully pissed at the Herald Sun’s move.

The Olympics are such a remarkable time for so many reasons. They’re remarkable because for a few short weeks, we put aside politics, or at least pretend to while we express our political animosities and anxieties in different ways. They’re remarkable because every Games, something happens to inspire and awe us: Kerri Strug, Eric Moussambani, the 1988 Jamaican bobsled team. And they’re remarkable because they give us moments like this: powerful reminders that sexism doesn’t suddenly evaporate because we’re all feeling warm and fuzzy and inspired and united by the spirit of competition and all that jazz.

What’s happening to Leisel Jones right now is an important reminder that no matter how accomplished a woman is, no matter how talented, how skilled, how strong, how tenacious, how gutsy, she is not exempt from the rules of modern femininity. Not even during the Olympic Games. She has to be skinny and beautiful before she can be recognized for being any of those other things, and if she isn’t skinny and beautiful, we’ll ignore her guts and tenacity and talent and dedication and waste our time debating whether or not she’s gained weight during the twelve years she’s been in the public eye.

What I’m saying is, the Olympic Games are a remarkable period during which we like to tell ourselves  it is not business as usual. And in some  ways, I suppose, it isn’t. But this is not one of them. If you’re a woman Olympian, it is entirely business as usual: you’re a sexual object first, and an athlete second. Thanks to the Herald Sun for reminding us of that before any of us gets too swept up in Olympic fever and imagines for a moment that we can suspend sexism for a few short weeks in August.


h/t Claire, the aforementioned sister tipster, herself a gutsy and tenacious swimmer

New York, NY

Chloe Angyal is a journalist and scholar of popular culture from Sydney, Australia. She joined the Feministing team in 2009. Her writing about politics and popular culture has been published in The Atlantic, The Guardian, New York magazine, Reuters, The LA Times and many other outlets in the US, Australia, UK, and France. She makes regular appearances on radio and television in the US and Australia. She has an AB in Sociology from Princeton University and a PhD in Arts and Media from the University of New South Wales. Her academic work focuses on Hollywood romantic comedies; her doctoral thesis was about how the genre depicts gender, sex, and power, and grew out of a series she wrote for Feministing, the Feministing Rom Com Review. Chloe is a Senior Facilitator at The OpEd Project and a Senior Advisor to The Harry Potter Alliance. You can read more of her writing at

Chloe Angyal is a journalist and scholar of popular culture from Sydney, Australia.

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  • Stella

    I think this whole things is very interesting. If a person can qualify for Olympic swimming, that person is clearly “fit.” So Herald’s ruse that this is about “fitness” is very clearly just that — a ruse. And an obvious one at that.

    I think that person who came up with the original article critiquing Ms. Jones is dealing with their own issues — whether that person has anxiety about a woman being in her late 20s and still a successful professional athlete (that’s when you need to have babies, dress in dowdy clothing and stop being sexual and earning money), whether that person does not like seeing a clearly strong woman who could kick their butt (women are meant to be physically weak and not take up too much space) , I’m not sure.

    Maybe the problem with the Herald author is that in our society we have so moralized thinness — if you eat right and exercise (don’t have desires, punish yourself physically in you do happen to indulge in any), you are a GOOD GIRL who gets to be pretty and loved by men. And since this woman clearly exercises ALOT, but yet still does not have a body shape that is the approved one for ladies in the year 2012, this is causing cognitive dissonance?

  • Brüno

    Athletes are subject to scrutinity all the time, like when the fattiness of Ronaldo was pointed out in the actual real world cup of 2006. Or the condition of athletes in general. To be fair, a football player makes a lot more of change to get over it.

  • Lindsay

    Wow. Honestly, this does not surprise me–women are constantly being judged on how they look and we are always going to be compared to the Beauty Myth. It’s just so sad. This woman is an Olympian swimmer–why are they not focused on that?

    • Brüno

      Because few people care about the technical side of competitive swimming, or competitive swimming.

  • gabrielle

    “She also owns a few world records.” This is not true. Leisel is the former world record holder in the 100m and 200m breaststroke, but she owns no current world records. The current women’s world record holder in both events is the amazing Rebecca Soni of the United States!

    As a major fan of this site AND sports, if you would hear me out, I’d like to offer some constructive criticism in suggesting that perhaps Feministing could use a sports editor… as a proudly rabid sports fan, I can’t count the # of time I’ve just had to shake my head at the misinformation I’ve seen in the sports-related segments! It seems that almost every sports article contains some sort of misinformation, but recent examples include (but aren’t limited to) the statement that Sarah Robles was the “strongest person in America”, that correction about the World’s in boxing, and the misunderstanding of the rules of ski jumping and tennis. There is no need to exaggerate the accomplishments of these amazing women for their stories to be valid and newsworthy- we often complain about the lack of promotion and success in women’s sports, assigning external blame, but it seems that WE fail to support these insanely talented athletes as widely, rabidly, and tenaciously as true fans of the men’s sports do!

    The 2012 Olympics begin tomorrow. This is the perfect opportunity to get into it and step up our game!

    • Maya

      Yep, I corrected the headline of the Robles post. Thanks for the heads-up on that. Point taken re: a sports editor. We do actually have some sports fans among the Feministing crew–myself included. I think we could just generally benefit from more time to edit and fact-check across the board. We’ll do our best as the Olympics get going, and if you’re interested in doing a guest-post, send me an email!

      • gabrielle

        Truly all of you do such an amazing job! Besides, I think of myself as definitely more of a reader than a writer; case in point, I just looked back at what I’ve written and for the most part it’s scattered, overly harsh, and critical… with an appalling grasp of HTML! Thank you!

  • gabrielle

    I should also point out that although this particular criticism of Leisel Jones unambiguously and problematically occurs within the cultural framework of the pressures put upon modern women and girls, she is not alone; Australian swimmer, Grant Hackett, 3 time men’s Olympic gold medalist was subject to similar criticisms, rejecting his claim that his “bloated look” was due to carb loading.

    Donovan McNabb, Ronaldo, Maradona, Baron Davis, JaMarcus Russell, Albert Haynesworth, John Daly, and Andre Smith are all FAMOUS examples of male athletes who have been widely criticized for being fat and out of shape, but as we all know, it IS different.

  • gabrielle

    I should also point out that although this particular criticism of Leisel Jones unambiguously and problematically occurs within the cultural framework of the pressures put upon modern women and girls, she is not alone; Australian swimmer, Grant Hackett, 3 time men’s Olympic gold medalist was subject to similar criticisms, rejecting his claim that his “bloated look” was due to carb loading.

    Donovan McNabb, Ronaldo, Maradona, Baron Davis, JaMarcus Russell, Albert Haynesworth, John Daly, and Andre Smith are all FAMOUS examples of male athletes who have been widely criticized for being fat and out of shape, but as we all know, it IS different.

    • gabrielle


      I had meant to say, “…was subject to similar criticisms, with this major Aussie newspaper going so far as including photos, innuendo, and medical “experts” rejecting his claim that his “bloated look” was due to carb loading…”.

      Anyway, it’s all just ridiculous. I guess this is what sells newspapers and attracts page views.

      Whatever. I hope Liesel really sticks it to them! I’ll be watching!

  • Julia

    A good example of this is the recent American weightlifting champion, Sarah Robles, who lifts more than any other American, male or female. She naturally does not represent the current model of femininity. There are numbers of articles recently lamenting her lack of sponsorship (she was getting by on $400 a month until her story went national). Lolo Jones got sponsorship–rightly so–but she’s a more beautiful (and pure?) candidate. What about Robles?!

    • gabrielle

      If you go to the fitness center all the time like I do and pay attention to what people are lifting, you’ll quickly realize when you look at the amounts that Sarah lifts that there are, indeed, VAST numbers of men in the U.S.A who lift far more than Sarah does. In fact, Sarah lifts about as much as a very good 150 lb. male high school competitive weightlifter does.

      This doesn’t make your point any less valid, though! Sarah Robles IS the strongest woman in America, and will represent the U.S.A. well!

      • Joshua

        Thank you Gabrielle. I am a big fan of women’s tennis and am constantly asked how, say, Serena Williams would fare against Roger Federer. The answer is not very well. Melanie Oudin (who admittedly isn’t even a Top 100 player) admitted during her run to the US Open Quarterfinal that her boyfriend, who played on his high school team, routinely bet her 6-0 6-0.

        Comparing male to female athletes in virtually every sport is a pointless exercise. People who hate women’s sports use it as evidence of how “bad” the women are. People who love women’s sports want to believe their heroes could beat the men just like Billie Jean (who was the No. 1 woman in the world and more than 20 years younger than Bobby Riggs) did.

        We should celebrate these great athletes for what they do, without a need to be defensive about how they stack up against the men. Robles and Williams are great athletes (Ms. Williams’s performance over the last two months has been so dominate that it’s just breathtaking to watch) who do amazing things with their bodies. What the men can do is also awesome. Comparing the two does no credit to either side.

    • a male

      Are you reading gabrielle’s comments in this article, and the Robles article? Robles is NOT the strongest person in America, nor does she lift the most. A male competitor who weighs 90 lbs less, can lift over 200 lbs more. Placing higher in her weight class, in the women’s division, does not mean she “beat” “every” other American male or female, or that she lifted more than competitors who did not place as well in their own weight class, or that she is stronger than every other American, and I don’t know how anyone can have this impression — other than taking at face value the misconception in the title and articles, that is. I like Feministing, but the so called “critical thinking” catch phrase so often thrown about these days should be applied to its material as well. As gabrielle points out, this is not the first example regarding sports, and I see other examples in other areas, like regarding economics. More fact checking, and corrections including to headlines after corrections are pointed out, are in order.

    • a male

      Please look at the results at the 2012 US Weightlifting Senior Nationals and the results of the women’s Olympic trials.

      You will see Sarah Robles lifted 258 kg, 3 kg or 1.2% more than the next highest female competitor. She weighs 275 lbs of muscle. Now look at the men’s results. Caleb Williams, a man under 152 lbs, lifted more than Robles. Robles would be tied for 8th in the 169 lb men’s division. In the 187 lb men’s division, she would be 13th. At a higher weight class, Robles would not place at all. In fact, the men’s best was 374 kg, 116 kg/255 lbs heavier than what Robles lifted.

      Now if you really want to apply critical thinking skills, ask if the results of a single event or a single competition (note how Olympic or world records can be set even prior to the finals, and not matched later for a medal), determines who is really “strongest” or best in a country of 330 million people. Note the number two in the women’s division could clean and jerk more than Robles. Holley Mangold could not snatch 115 kg, but she only would have needed 113 to match Robles. Who can say if she would not have made it, if she tried a lower weight in the end, or lifted a higher weight in earlier attempts. I wish Robles well. She deserves better than living on food stamps or being ignored by sponsors and the public.

  • Jen

    On a related note, did anyone read the piece about Sarah Robles, the weightlifter with a very good shot at the gold, who was living on food stamps because she’s “too big” (said with the most exaggerated airquotes possible) to get lucrative endorsement deals? Being at the top of your sport, if you’re female, doesn’t save you from the ridiculous demands for all women to fit the same model of physical attractiveness.

  • anyadnight

    I thought this was a cool reference that demonstrates body diversity in top athletes.
    It’s on an art blog, but I think it’s also a good way to remind all people that there are many different sorts of bodies in the world and that’s a good thing. Maybe these people worrying about the fatness of athletes ought to check it out.

    I second feministing using a sports editor!

  • Nemo

    This Olympics has been full of things that have shaken up my preconceived notions of fitness and physiology as well as forced me to confront the fact that I may have been misinformed or outright lied to by the people who taught me about human anatomy, health, and fitness.

    First it was Sarah Robles, who managed to first leave me in a daze since she does not look like a solid mass of muscle and yet she is a very accomplished lifter. Now this. Makes me wonder how I’m going to find a source of information to clear all of my confusion up, since most of what I’ve found still confirms what I was told as a child by culture and in the education system that Sarah Robles should not be as good at what she does due to the amount of excess, non-musculature weight. >_<

    And now I've learned I have to confront some of my own demons now because rather than seeing her Leisel Jones as fat, I'm instead a little bit disappointed since none of the images of her really transmit the feeling of power that I assume must go with an Olympic-level body, either from this year or when she was younger. Even the weight-lifters like Zoe Smith who I keep expecting to look muscular or at least somewhat toned rather than being so… normal looking. :/

    • Amy

      I am so impressed that you didn’t look at the material you’re seeing and just put blinders on so that you could continue to believe what you’ve been taught without acknowledging that there are some things that might be different than what you know. It takes a special kind of gutsiness to allow one’s beliefs to be challenged.

      I would suggest that you take a look at HAES stands for “Health at Every Size,” and is a movement that points out the fallacy of weight-based health assessments. There are healthy fat people and unhealthy thin people and weight is only one of many, many factors that determine or affect health. Other factors include (but are not limited to) stress, genetics, environment, economics, activity, food intake, self-esteem, self-care, medication, and others. I wish you well in searching out the truth for yourself. :)