Men and women aren't actually equally objectified in coverage of Olympics

Photo by Al Bello/Getty Images

Conor Dwyer (center) competes against Gabriele Detti (left) and Mack Horton (right) in the final of the men's 400-meter freestyle on the first day of the Olympics.

I have a confession: I'm in love with Conor Dwyer.

It's a wholly irrational love, entirely unrequited, based largely on Dwyer's visible ab muscles.

Oh, sure, he won a team gold in the 4x200-meter freestyle relay, in addition to an individual bronze in the 200m freestyle -- but have you seen him rock a pair of jammers? Now that's a skill.

Of course, I'm not the only one creeping on the stunning men competing in Rio. (I'm not even the only one creeping on Dwyer; we are all Leslie Jones.) But the bevy of Twitter declarations, "Hottest Hunks" lists and gratuitously suggestive photos of divers in their skivvies (and, of course, the coverage of Tonga's oiled-up flag-bearer) have caused many people to call out a perceived double standard in the objectification of male and female athletes.

It's not hard to see why many find this confusing. Read any one of those posts linked above, or even the opening paragraphs to this column, in the voice of a man discussing female athletes, and it might make you cringe. The narrative in Rio is built largely around the acceptance of drooling over male Olympians, and four years ago in London, there was much outrage over the sexualization of women, particularly Lolo Jones. So what's different now?

If I'm being completely honest, my initial reaction might be to react the same way to the objectification of men and women. I might otherwise get upset when my male friends make winking comments about beach volleyball players, but I'd probably keep my mouth shut because I'm making similar statements about the likes of Dwyer and Marvin Bracy.

And yet, the double standard of objectification hinges on the double standard of the treatment of men's and women's sports. When mostly male fans and commentators sexualize female athletes, it's most often in the service of undermining the legitimacy of women's sports -- to which they only pay attention when given the proper amount of eye candy. Coverage of female Olympians praises their sexuality over their athleticism, and even uses their athleticism to enforce unfair beauty standards. The most dominant tennis player of our lifetime still faces criticism that she's too muscular, while other women's players actually resist building muscle mass in order to maintain their sex appeal and marketability, even at the expense of their tennis game.

Even in this year's Olympics, Mexican gymnast Alexa Moreno was dismissed as a "pseudo-athlete" and body-shamed for supposedly being overweight (she weighs 99 pounds) instead of celebrated for being the best gymnast from her country.

On the other hand, the sexual capital of male athletes banks largely on their athletic success -- for them, sex appeal and winning go hand in hand. When we celebrate male Olympians for being beautiful, it doesn't come with the implied understanding that that's the only reason we're watching them compete. And unlike female competitors, men who aren't conventionally attractive aren't dismissed as having no value as athletes.

When we celebrate male Olympians for being beautiful, it doesn't come with the implied understanding that that's the only reason we're watching them compete.
Kavitha Davidson

Part of the reason these dynamics are heightened during the Olympics is the outsized coverage given to these athletes -- particularly the increased attention given to women's sports. With the sheer number of television and streaming hours broadcasters have to fill, there's plenty of opportunity to showcase all that's wrong with the media's treatment of female athletes, from saying Katie Ledecky "swims like a man" to crediting Katinka Hosszú's accomplishments to her husband and coach.

Even still, the Olympics offer a rare opportunity for women athletes to receive the attention they deserve. Once every four years, patriotism bordering on jingoism leads fans who spend most of the time complaining about the WNBA's smaller ball to cheer on Team USA with full force.

Women's sports are devalued whenever they're not benefiting from the exaggerated connection to country, or the targeted marketing of a female athlete's sexuality, or, as we see in the Olympics, a combination of the two.

That simply isn't the case with men's sports. I'll apologize for objectifying male athletes when their earning potential depends largely on their ability to cash in on their sex appeal -- when their sexuality offers the primary road to professional success simply because the athletic avenues have been blocked. As the Guardian's Lindy West notes, I'll apologize when the objectification of male athletes -- of men in general -- carries the same implications for their physical safety as it does for women, who see our sexuality constantly used as both a marker of our worth and a weapon against our humanity.

When it comes down to it, the fundamental question here isn't about the morality of objectification in itself. I think that's what often trips up fans and commentators confused about what they perceive to be inconsistencies in a feminist stance.

I don't speak for all feminists, and there's certainly disagreement among feminists on this point, but all things being equal, I see nothing wrong with celebrating beautiful, healthy, athletic bodies that have been cultivated to achieve superhuman feats. That's the philosophy behind ESPN the Magazine's Body Issue, which features male and female athletes equally in all their toned glory.

On the other hand, even the Body Issue highlights how far we have to go to achieve that even playing field in objectification. The issue is forward-thinking in its treatment of bodies as the means to an end -- winning -- and in celebrating every muscle and curve and sinew, not just for their aesthetic beauty, but also their athletic function. In that, we see a remarkable diversity in body types, many of which don't conform to typical notions of femininity or even our ideas of what an athlete should look like.

Prince Fielder appeared on the cover in 2014, which was a huge step toward challenging the aesthetic we expect from a professional athlete's body. Michelle Carter posed in 2009, and she went on to win shot put gold this year. That's progress.

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