Manly Athletes and Sporting Beauties – Karo Heckemeyer

As we all know, sports – and especially competitive sports – were for a long time an exclusively male preserve. Men played, performed and competed while women cheered and applauded. In other words, sports and manhood were inextricably linked, whereas sports and womanhood were considered to be irreconcilable and contradictory. This has clearly changed in the last decades. Today it goes without saying that girls and women also participate widely in sports. Statistics show that, for example in Germany, 48% of all sports club members are girls and women[1] and they don’t do sports only to maintain a young and slim body. They also strive for national and international success, for Olympic Medals and World Championship Titles. Moreover women have entered traditional male sports such as ice-hockey and soccer, weight-lifting and wrestling – sporting practices that include elements of fighting and aggressive body contact, which were long considered utterly unsuitable for females.

In this article I argue that the conspicuous changes in women’s sport in the last century went (and still go) along with changes in public communication about female athletes, their physical performance and bodily appearance. As I will show, public discourse[2] and especially media discourse on women’s sport shifted from an openly misogynous and sexist framework to a discourse that offers recognition and acknowledgment to female athletes – at least at first glance. A closer look into today’s media broadcasts and newspaper coverage reveals that sexist assumptions about female sporting bodies are still alive, though they operate in a more subtle manner. In what follows I will briefly outline the discursive lines which marked women’s sport in the early 20th century and can be considered as a reaction to women’s growing presence and visibility in competitive sports. I will then explain how they have shifted over the years and how they still shape the public gaze on women athletes and their physical appearance.

Even though it is difficult to pinpoint the moment when women entered the sporting sphere, there is no doubt that their involvement in the Olympic Games at the beginning of the 20th century marked a new era in women’s sport. In 1912, female athletes competed in three different disciplines: swimming, tennis and golf; a few years later in 1928, they took part in track and field competitions.[3] It was at this time of women’s growing presence in international championships when male physicians, officials, journalists and athletes openly spoke out against women’s inclusion into the realm of sports. In 1926, Mr. Darwin-Herne stated in the monthly newspaper of the German Track and Field Association that a “real female” was not made for the demands and challenges of fight and physical performance. Women would never achieve the heroic strength of men and should hence be excluded from any kind of athletic competition. Likewise, a gynecologist called Stephan Westmann argued that competitive sports teach women unhealthy ambitions and endanger the female body and mind. Thus, instead of being concerned with physical performance, women should conform to their natural duty: motherhood. In addition to this allegedly medical and biological rationale, male protagonists of national and international sports organizations also invoked aesthetic and moral arguments against competitive sports for women. They especially emphasized the risk of masculinization through regular training. Competition and athletic workouts would render the female body too muscular, resulting in its loss of feminine dignity and beauty. In order to endorse these arguments, pictures of exhausted female athletes, who after a running competition collapsed behind the finish line, were printed in magazines and shown at conferences. In a 1926 issue of a magazine entitled Leibesübungen (Physical Exercise), Walter Kühn claimed that “Women should take a look in the mirror to understand that athletic engagement will destroy what men like most about women: their femininity and beauty.”[4]

What becomes clear in such comments and statements is not only the openly sexist and misogynous atmosphere around women sports at the time, but also the types of arguments that were established to keep women out of the sporting sphere. As I mentioned above, one can particularly point out two major lines of discourse which resulted from women’s intrusion into the field of competitive sport. One of these two refers to a medical and biological reasoning, according to which female bodies are by nature unsuitable for physical performance; the other one draws on norms of feminine beauty and bodily appearance, as well as on what can be called the masculinizing potential of sport. In what follows I argue that these two discursive threads reoccur in public discourse on female athletes, their bodies and abilities throughout the history of women’s sport.

Looking at the biological deficit discourse, which alludes to women’s supposedly inferior physical ability, we can see that sexist assumptions about the female body shaped and still shape the structures of competitive sport. This is not only apparent in the fundamental gender segregation which is characteristic of competitive sports, but also in gender-specific rules and regulations that were implemented, changed, abolished and/or maintained over time. An interesting example in this context is the development of (and changes within) women’s soccer in Germany. In 1955, the German Soccer Association prohibited women’s soccer clubs due to “fundamental and aesthetic objections.” Any men’s club or team that would allow women to play on their field risked a fine and/or exclusion from the men’s league. As a consequence of frequent protests by women players and the reinvigorated feminist movement of the 1960s, the German Soccer Association finally lifted the ban on women’s soccer in October 1970. But despite the permission to play being granted, specific regulations were imposed on the women’s game that left no doubt about the inferior status of female bodies (and the women’s game itself). These rules dictated that women had to play on a smaller pitch and with a smaller ball than men. Moreover their games were limited to only 60 instead of 90 minutes and were canceled in case of bad weather. On top of that the players weren’t allowed to wear cleats in order to reduce their risk of injury.[5] Fortunately these ridiculous rules that clearly relate to a deficit-perception of women’s bodies are a thing of the past. Today’s female soccer players wear cleats and play 90 minutes in all kinds of weather. In other sports, however, one can still observe gender-specific rules which refer to a biological deficit perspective on the female body. For example in sports like cross-country skiing and biathlon, swimming and track and field, competition distances and certain events differ for men and women. It goes without saying that women run or swim shorter distances than men, accomplish a heptathlon while men do a decathlon, etc.

Such regulations cannot be regarded solely as relics of a past discourse. On the contrary, one finds specific rules that apply to women that have only been established within the last two decades. The implementation of these rules is clearly linked to a perception of women’s bodies as less strong, more fragile and more vulnerable than men’s bodies. One example is the body-check rule in women’s ice hockey. It is important to note that this rule has advocates among female hockey players and fans. Though many people (including myself) would agree with those who plead for a less aggressive and injury- prone style of hockey, it is impossible not to see the body-check rule as a marker for difference between the genders. By following the media discourse on hockey, it becomes obvious that it is again the women’s sport which is marked as the other, the variation, while men’s hockey is considered to be the real.

Interestingly the (structural) differences between men’s and women’s sport aren’t publicly mentioned and negotiated anymore. While at the beginning of women’s sport, the inferior physical abilities of female bodies were openly discussed among physicians and sport managers and were communicated in newspaper articles, today pejorative remarks about women athletes’ performance can hardly be found. The public discourse about women in sports is – at least in Germany – dominated by discussions of women’s athletic success and ability. From my perspective, this is not only due to the improvement of women’s sport, but also due to norms of political correctness. The media especially represent and reiterate these norms in order to avoid the risk of offending their readers and viewers by trespassing the unwritten rules.

Furthermore it is likely that gender differences in sports, such as the regulations and rules mentioned above, aren’t questioned/discussed/negotiated because they are perceived as a normal or even “natural” consequence of bodily differences between men and women. When male and fe-male athletes enter the sports arena, it seems to be obvious that men are stronger and faster than women. They surpass women’s physical performance, competition results and records. In other words, gender differences become apparent and observable in competitive sports. These apparent differences help to elide all the efforts that are made on a structural level to make men and women appear as two naturally separated species with different bodies and physical abilities. Consequently, the gender segregation in sports – as well as gender-specific rules such as shorter distances, lower weights and smaller sizes for women’s sports equipment – are considered to be based on natural differences between the two genders. Thus, they are not viewed as sexist practices which express discriminating assumptions about female bodies, but rather as justified distinctions which give women the possibility to participate successfully in sports. Only when women compete against each other and not against men, do they have a chance to win, and only if sports are adapted to their physical abilities, are they able to perform, compete and win, and hence be perceived as successful athletes.[6]

I would now like to draw your attention to the second discursive threat I mentioned above: the perception of female sporting bodies as manly. As for the German context, I argue that the former discourse on manliness and masculinization of women athletes was – especially since the 1990s – replaced by a discourse on sporting beauties. The first significant change in this way of talking and communicating about female athletes can be detected in the 1970s and 1980s. While before that, at the very beginning of women’s sport, women athletes were frequently described as manly, ugly and unattractive, journalists gradually shifted to a minimizing, dismissive vocabulary when reporting about women’s sport. Marie-Luise Klein, now sport sociologist and economist at Bochum University, Germany, published a media broadcast analysis in 1980 dealing with this development. Her analysis of newspaper articles from Germany’s top boulevard magazine BildZeitung shows that female athletes were at the time referred to as “young gymnast chickens,” Golden Girls or running kittens. Furthermore Klein states that journalists far more often commented on women’s physical appearance while neglecting or downplaying their athletic performance. In other words, instead of being described as manly and/or unattractive females, women athletes were now ridiculed, feminized and sexualized and thus not taken seriously as sportswomen.

This has again changed in the last ten to twenty years. There is no doubt that female athletes and their success in national and international competitions are more valued and became more visible than in the 1970s and 1980s. However, women’s sport is clearly underrepresented in today’s media coverage. As a study by Ilse Hartmann-Tews and Bettina Rulofs (both sport-sociologists at the German Sport University Cologne) shows, women’s sport still accounts for only 15% of the entire sports coverage in German daily newspapers.[7] Moreover, the two researchers point out that photographs frequently show sportswomen in passive and/or sexualized postures,[8] while men are depicted in action and exclusively as athletes. Considering these research findings, it is striking that on the level of language/speech, one can rarely find openly sexist remarks and/or pejorative comments on women’s sport, female athletes and their bodies. On the contrary it seems – at least at first sight – that today women’s athletic performance, skill and success are at the centre of interest and that their bodies are neither described as manly nor ridiculed or belittled, but are cherished/esteemed for their beauty and attractiveness. Put another way, women athletes’ bodies are still commented on, but instead of referring to them in pejorative or derogatory terms, they are marked as aesthetic and to-be-looked-at. The link drawn between athletic success and feminine beauty particularly shows up in descriptions of athletes as “athletic, successful and sexy” or “successful but still feminine”. For example in August 2008, Playboy published interviews with five Olympic athletes under the title “We Just Want to Play”. According to the author, all five women were not only successful but also incredibly beautiful – despite all prejudices against hard-working athletes. Their bodies neither looked like “vigorous muscle-mountains” nor “unfeminine, muscular amazons”. The author’s comments were endorsed by the interviewed athletes. For example Nicole Reinhardt, the beautiful Hessian,[9] points out that in contrast to some of her female canoe-sport colleagues she does not need big, muscular arms to be successful. The linkage between athletic success and feminine beauty also becomes clear in headlines like “Beautiful Julia Rohde Fights Against the Beasts” or “Athletic and Photogenic”.

Based on these examples, I aim to point out two features which are characteristic of today’s public discourse – especially today’s media discourse – on women athletes and their bodies. First, it clearly shows that despite the growing attention toward women’s physical performance and athletic success, the physical appearance of female athletes is still of interest. Sportswomen are still looked at in terms of feminine beauty. However, it is remarkable that they are valued for combining feminine beauty and athletic success. It seems particularly important to me that this recent change in the way of talking about women athletes’ bodies provides a potential for social recognition and acknowledgment. In other words, while for a long time the public discourse on women’s sport and female athletes only entailed pejorative and derogatory references, it now offers social recognition and positive forms of identification.

Second, I would like to draw attention to the specific rhetoric which is used to create the image of the sporting beauty. Formulations like “despite all prejudice,” “against all expectations” or “athletic but still beautiful” indicate that attractiveness and beauty are still considered to be in opposition to a normal female sporting body. As these examples show, the idea of a manly, masculinized female sporting body serves as a foil or contrast to the depiction of women athletes as sporting beauties. This also becomes apparent when athletes like the young German weightlifter Julia Rohde is described as a beauty among beasts. Athletes like Rohde – including canoeist Reinhardt who, as mentioned above, does not need muscular arms to be a successful athlete – appear as exceptions, as particularly beautiful women among all the rest who are muscular and manly.

Considering the way in which women athletes and their bodies are described and talked about in today’s media broadcasts it becomes clear that there have been some significant changes in public discourse. Interestingly, on the surface, these changes would appear to be positive and supportive. As previously outlined, the former deficit discourse about women athletes, which depicted their bodies as unsuitable for physical exercise and competition, is now understood as fair and reasonable because it seems to be based on natural differences between the two genders. Instead of being perceived as a sexist practice, the implementation of gender-specific rules is thus seen as positive for enabling women to participate in sports. Second, as explained above, the discursive line concerned with the masculinizing potential of sport has mutated into a narrative about sporting beauties, which now offers female athletes the possibility for social recognition and acknowledgment. According to this newly established discourse, the exceptional female athlete possesses not only athletic skill and ability but also physical attractiveness and feminine beauty.

Underlying these apparently positive shifts in public discourse, however, remain the sexist assumptions that originate in early discourses about women in sport. Female athletes are still considered as physically less strong and more fragile than men and their bodies need to be preserved from harm. In addition, it is especially interesting to me that the pejorative image of the “manly and muscular woman athlete” persists today as a foil for, or inverse of, the sporting beauty. In other words, it no longer operates as a tool to actually diminish female sporting bodies but as a threatening anti-image (or even an anti-subject) that no woman should aspire to. Moreover, the above mentioned examples show that this anti-image and thus the discourse about female athletes’ appearance link in particular manliness and musculature. Understood within a heternormative social context (or matrix of heterosexuality) highly developed muscles connote masculinity which by extension implies lesbianism in muscular women. In this way we can begin to see how the public discourse surrounding women athletes’ bodies is linked not only to gender but also to sexuality.

Image source:

Olympic swimmers [1912],


[1] See…

[2] Here, I do not use the term discourse in line with Foucault’s concept, but in a broader sense. The notion of discourse then stands for an ensemble of communicative acts dealing with one or several linked topics. Thus for me, writing about the public discourse on women athletes and their bodies means to explore and analyze the way in which female sporting bodies are publicly talked and written about. Sites for this specific public discourse I am interested in include, in the first place, popular media: television, newspapers, internet. As you will see, throughout the text I refer to media broadcasts and especially to newspaper coverage on women’s sport, as well as representations of female athletes in magazines like Playboy or GQ. Because my work on sport and gender, sexism and homophobia is closely linked to the cultural context I live in, much of the public discourse I outline and refer to is German. However, I assume that the discursive shifts and changes I describe are familiar to readers from other cultural contexts.

[3] See

[4] See Pfister, Gertrud (1980). Frau und Sport. Frankfurt am Main: Fischer Verlag.

[5] See Hoffmann, Eduard/Nendza, Jürgen (2005). Verlacht, verboten und gefeiert – zur Geschichte des Frauenfußball in Deutschland. Weilerswist: Landpresse.

[6] Departing from this thought, one could discuss whether besides gender other distinguishing features are conceivable as performance categories in sport (see Marion Müller (2007). Frauen, Männer, Leistungsklasse: Geschlecht und funktionale Differenzierung im Hochleistungssport. In: Hartmann-Tews/Dahmen. Sportwissenschaftliche Geschlechterforschung im Spannungsfeld von Theorie, Politik und Praxis. Hamburg: Czwalina Verlag, S.15-24)

[7] Hartmann-Tews/Rulofs (2004). “Die Konstruktion von Geschlecht im Rahmen der visuellen Sportkommunikation.” In T. Schierl (ed.), Die Visualisierung des Sports in der medialen Vermittlung von Sport, pp. 111-134.

[8] Hartmann-Tews/Rulofs consider pictures as sexualized when they are taken from an angle which, for example, allows readers to see tennis players’ underwear, gymnasts’ spread legs, etc.

[9] Nicole Reinhardt comes from Hessen, which is a federal state in Germany.

Karo Heckemeyer likes to do sport but also to think, talk, read and write about it. As a sport-sociologist, she is especially interested in the social meaning of sport in (post-)modern societies as well as in theoretical reflections on the sporting body. Her PhD project explores the link between gender, sexuality and sports, focusing on women athletes’ body constructions. She currently lives in Freiburg, Germany where she works at the Institute for Sociology.