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Hard at Work: “Diverse Bodies” and the Olympics

The celebration of bodies—specifically of women’s bodies—in the Olympics, has not necessarily been progressive or benign.

Throughout this year’s Olympic Games, we have seen media coverage—from short plugs to robust interactives—that claims to celebrate “diverse bodies.” Many of these pieces, sometimes unwittingly, put aesthetics first in a competition that is primarily about performance. And even if the aesthetics in question aren’t themselves normative—brawny woman swimmers, round shot-putters, top-heavy weightlifters—journalists and commentators often uphold the status quo in the way they celebrate them.

In the essay “Seeing What My Muscles Can Do,” New York Times Magazine contributing writer Elizabeth Weil discusses her difficulties in accepting the way her body packs on muscle. Ultimately, she is encouraged by the brawn of Olympic swimmers like Katinka Hosszu and Missy Franklin, and also by her daughter who, also inspired, goes off to do handstand push-ups during an Olympic Games commercial break. Weil writes:

Each body is a testament not to an idea but to a life lived, an unapologetic commitment to work, winning, confidence, excellence and ambition. There is nothing fawning, specious or wishy-washy about the bodies. The bodies are not theoretical. The bodies are facts.

But while it’s easy to assume a liberating sentiment in this kind of statement, it’s not actually there. Weil asserts that these bodies are “facts,” suggesting that weaker or less prominent bodies are not. She says that these bodies are efficient—they do what they appear they will do, perform a task at the highest level, and have been built for that purpose. But approaching performance from the lens of appearance is less about the athletes and more about us: Not only does it allow us to appeal to our own vanity and insecurity as we analyze gymnasts’ size and shape ahead of their technique and execution, but it also encourages racism, allowing commentators to emphasize black women’s muscular physiques, and postulate that those physiques give them a fundamental advantage. When Simone Manuel won her gold medal in the 100-free, a BBC announcer couldn’t help but marvel at her body before actually discussing the performance that landed her on the podium saying, “I hope we have more black people start swimming because they are so strong and powerful.” In NBC’s coverage, Penny Oleksiak, who tied Manuel for gold, and is thinner and white, was singled out, by contrast, for her youth and hard work.

Furthermore, Weil’s piece and others compound an obsession with an appearance-to-performance pipeline into a narrative that makes it clear exactly what it is about “diverse bodies”—whether they are muscular, fat, or stocky—that we’re happy to celebrate: their efficiency. When I read a piece like Weil’s or the tweets catalogued in this one from the Independent, I can’t help but feel like I’m being jolted into a Lean-in Feminism that posits “hard work” as a validator of difference. Non-normative bodies that do not (or cannot) do hard work—in this case, impressive athletics—are effectively undermined by this particular body positivity framework.

This is not to mention that the ability to perform at the level of Hosszu, Manuel, Simone Biles, Katie Ledecky, or women’s shot-put gold medalist Michelle Carter is not only predicated upon hard work, but also access to resources, circumstance, and the ability to integrate into the Olympics. By which I mean, the Olympic Games, while allowing for a variety of body types, requires a standard for these bodies, notably that they are “able” bodies: that they have full use of each limb, do not include prosthetics, and have no intellectual disability such as autism or down syndrome. The Paralympic Games, on the other hand, allow athletes with disability to compete, and while this organizational separation may be necessary, a comparative one is not always. I’m curious to see whether the journalists who have been impressed by the performances of the various body types in the Olympics will consider the performances in the Paralympics as worthy of the same adoration. More troublingly, international sports organizations and even Olympic officials conduct gender-testing, an invasive process that often excludes intersex women and women with higher levels of testosterone from competing. After winning the 800 meter race in the 2009 African Junior Championships, Caster Semenya, now an Olympic gold medalist in the 800, was forced to undergo gender-testing. The kind of “diverse range of bodies” celebration we’ve seen of other Olympians is less likely for Semenya, who undergoes constant criticism from her fellow competitors who often deny that she is a woman.

Of course, it is well and good for Weil and anyone else to celebrate and find inspiration in the bodies of Olympic athletes. But it doesn’t make sense to frame these kinds of revelations as inherently progressive or entirely non-normative. They too often depend on a status quo, and valorize appearance—and where appearance begets hard work and efficiency—rather than difference.

Header image by Getty.

Cassie da Costa is a writer who focuses on moving image and performance. She's based in Brooklyn and works as a member of The New Yorker's editorial staff while also producing the magazine's video podcast, The Front Row, featuring film critic Richard Brody.

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