In September, the International Federation of Sport Climbing (IFSC), the governing body of competitive climbing, issued its second apology of the season to 23-year-old Austrian climber Johanna Farber. During the World Championships in Moscow, Russia, on September 18, the IFSC live stream on Youtube included a close-up, lingering shot of her butt. The incident followed the first apology IFSC issued after broadcasting similar footage of the athlete during the World Cup in Innsbruck, Austria, on June 26.
“The video is disrespectful but even worse is the part afterwards. Everyone has something to say about this, and not for my climbing,” Farber told me. She received social media comments suggesting that if she was upset by the coverage, she should wear more modest clothing and not “ask” for attention to her body in the posts on Instagram.
These messages were coming from strangers who read about the story as it unfolded in The New York Post, CNN, and The Daily Mail. “I feel like every message I received was about what women shouldn’t do,” said Farber.
Before Instagram suspended her account, which Farber speculates was due to users reporting her photos, she called the situation disrespectful and upsetting. “I’m an athlete and here to show my best performance,” she wrote in a post. “To be honest, I do feel so embarrassed to know that thousands of people saw this. We need to stop sexualizing women in sports and start to appreciate their performance.”
Unfortunately, the Farber incidents are not isolated. They’re two examples of an undeniable pattern of objectification and sexualization of women athletes across all sports.
Elite women athletes are repeatedly analyzed for our appearance, sexuality, dating life, and demeanor instead of our performance.
Women’s participation in sports has grown exponentially since the ratification of Title IX of the Education Amendment in 1972, which ensured equal opportunity for all American citizens to pursue education and activity. Girls’ early participation in sports leads to higher self-esteem, academic success, and likelihood of graduating high school, according to a study by the Women’s Sports Foundation. (I sit on the board, and the foundation funds research, advocacy, and community-based programs to empower girls and women through increased access and equality in sports.) But elite women athletes are repeatedly analyzed for our appearance, sexuality, dating life, and demeanor instead of our performance.
I’ve experienced this first-hand. I’m a professional climber with a world championship title and over 30 noteworthy first and first female ascents. Yet I’m often fielding questions in interviews and on social media about my weight, what I wear, and the fact that I like pink. “Are you single?” and “Who are you dating?” are common questions I sometimes receive at the end of interviews, or in my messages on social media. I rarely see men asked about their love life, but myself and my fellow woman athletes get these questions regularly.
Luge athlete and Olympic gold medalist Arianne Jones recalls an announcer at a World Cup race describing her as a “cutie of the circuit.” “The announcement focused on the trivialities of my looks rather than my accomplishments in the sport,” she told me. “The men’s commentary at the start in contrast, was, ‘He came in sixth last week and is a strong contender today.’”
The biggest issue in women’s sports right now is a visibility one: both a lack of it and how women are portrayed, according to Hilary Knight, a professional hockey player and a part of the Women’s Sports Foundation. When you see a photo of a male athlete, it’s often an action shot of him performing his sport. But when you see a photo of a woman athlete, it’s often a glamour shot.
A study by the Cambridge University Press evaluated the language used to describe men and women athletes across sports media, including written articles and commentary during broadcasts. Researchers found a real disconnect between how men and women are portrayed. Some of the most common words used to describe women athletes were “aged,” “older,” “pregnant,” and “married” or “unmarried.” Meanwhile, words depicting male athletes included “fastest,” “strong,” “big,” and “great.” The study also found a disproportionate focus on women’s appearance, clothing, and personal lives.
“It focused on the trivialities of my looks rather than my accomplishments in the sport.”
Portraying women athletes in the media in a positive way will help inspire younger athletes. “A lot of times you need to see something if you want to go out there and do it,” said Knight. “These young girls need to see professionals.”
Athletes themselves are starting to lead the conversation. During the Tokyo 2020 Summer Olympics, women openly called out sexism. The Norwegian women’s beach handball team fought for less-revealing uniforms than the required bikini bottoms, which they were fined $175 per player for refusing to wear. The German gymnastics team chose full-body unitards instead of the traditional high-cut ones as a statement that their talent, not their appearance, should be judged.
As women, we must be afforded the agency to choose when, if, and how we want to display our sexuality. If a woman wants to showcase her hard-earned body in swimsuit shoots, for magazine covers, or in marketing campaigns, that’s her choice. When I participated in the 2020 Agent Provocateur ad, it was about empowerment and the idea that strength is part and parcel of femininity, rather than exclusive of it. The issue isn’t with women expressing their own sexuality—it’s that often, this is the only way public-facing women are perceived or discussed, without their consent.
“On social media, I can choose what I post. For example, I do like to post pictures in a bikini. I feel like this is empowering, and I love to see other women proud of their bodies, too. But in the professional capacity—on the mats, when I’m doing my job—I don’t want this,” said Farber. “That is a point that people just don’t get. It’s something totally different.”