Last August, the Chicago Red Stars professional women's soccer team held a "Sarah Spain Bobblehead Night," and a bunch of my friends came with me to the game to celebrate. I got to do the coin toss and sign autographs at halftime, and we all had a blast watching the Red Stars battle the Portland Thorns.
When I got home, I posted a photo of myself to social media surrounded by a gaggle of young soccer fans I'd met, all of whom were probably about 7 years old. I loved that they were able to go see professional women's soccer players in action and that they were excited to meet me and talk about my job as a sports reporter.
One of the first comments someone on Twitter made responding to the photo was "Your boobs" next to three smiling emojis with hearts for eyes. It was childish, idiotic and not all that uncommon for me, as I get inappropriate comments about my chest all the time. But this time I snapped. It was a photo of me in a soccer jersey up to my neck, surrounded by young girls. What was wrong with this guy? How could that possibly be his takeaway?
I ended up in an hourlong Twitter conversation, trying to explain why the comment was creepy and rude. It wasn't just that he felt it necessary to send that comment. I was also bothered by the fact that he was even thinking it. If I'm being honest, I didn't like that I wasn't in charge of my own sexuality. Rather, it was being projected on me by this stranger -- in response to a photo that captured such pure, innocent happiness.
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This might sound naive to many, but I didn't understand just how commonly and flagrantly women are objectified or reduced to a body until I became a public figure on social media. Of course, men make comments to me in person, but the sheer volume of references to body parts or sex acts, lewd photos or comments I get on social media -- no matter the context, what I'm wearing, saying or doing -- has changed how I look at things. I now walk through the world understanding that no matter how I present myself and no matter my intentions or actions, I can't always control how I'm seen.
I don't speak for all women, but for some of us, it can be a very uncomfortable feeling to be sexualized when you're not seeking out that kind of attention or intending in any way to project sexuality.
As a society, we struggle to separate women from their bodies and their sexuality, whether we're obsessed with the arm muscles of Princeton and Harvard Law grad Michelle Obama or breaking down the fashion choices of international human rights lawyer Amal Clooney. You might remember back in 2015 that women scientists pushed back on sexist, reductionist comments by posting decidedly unsexy photos of themselves on the job using the hashtag #DistractinglySexy.
For female sports reporters, who work in a male-dominated space with a majority male audience, too often social media interactions amount to being attacked or being reduced to an object. The issue of online harassment in the form of insults and cruelties is a topic I've tackled plenty in the past, particularly with the "More Than Mean" PSA. It's easy for all to understand the hurt caused by put-downs. Trying to get people to understand that being sexualized is also a damaging form of harassment is a bit more difficult.
For starters, you can't win, whether you "play the game" of beauty expectation or not. Either you're beautiful and you're assumed not to know what you're talking about, or you're too ugly and you shouldn't be given a job on television. If you try to look your best, you're "asking for it" and prioritizing the look instead of the work, but if you have so much as a hair out of place or you're wearing a baggy shirt, you're "unprofessional" or not trying.
I'm absolutely certain that I've lost out on jobs and assignments because I'm not traditionally TV beautiful -- not skinny enough, not pretty enough, not concerned enough with wearing the right shoes or trendy clothes. The worst part is I'm not trying to make a statement about beauty expectations being unrealistic and unrelated to job performance. I just can't live up to the ideals so many hold up as requirements. But I want to stick around, so I'm doing my darndest to try to keep up in ways I never could have imagined just a few years ago.
I remember laughing while reading Mindy Kaling's book "Why Not Me?" in which she details all the tricks famous people use to get TV-ready. "You will never see anyone on TV sporting their own God-given hair," she wrote, "unless it's on, like, a sad miniseries about factory workers in East Germany." I think there was also mention of spray tanning, fake eyelashes and a robot that fixes her acne. I'm not quite to acne-fixing robot yet, but it's just a couple years later, and I've got fake hair, fake lashes and a fake tan. I'm not ashamed to admit it. That's the game.
"The real trick to having gorgeous hair is quantity," Kaling wisely wrote. "Piles of thick, cascading, My Little Pony-style hair signifies youth, so if you don't have that, you are basically announcing that you are old and dying."
Because of the hyper-focus on appearance, women like me struggle to figure out how to dress in a way that's both professional and on trend, appropriate and attractive, true to them and true to expectations for them. And once they've decided and they're out there to be judged, they have to deal with how their physical appearance dictates how they're viewed, commented upon, spoken to and treated.
I gathered a few noteworthy women reporters for my podcast, "That's What She Said," and asked them whether they struggle with what to wear, whether their bosses have ever demanded changes to their appearance and how the comments they get online affect their jobs and personal lives. I also asked if there's any reason to hope that things might get better.
"If there were simply more of us, and it became much more normal to turn on a show or turn on the radio, and the presence of women there is expected and not surprising, I think that would change the way that we're viewed," ESPN writer, radio host and TV personality Mina Kimes said. "And it would result, I think, in men evaluating us more on our ideas."
Kate Fagan, writer and TV personality for ESPN, believes society's difficulty separating women from their sexuality makes it tough to imagine any real change in our industry any time soon. "I don't know that it matters how frequently we have the conversation in the sports industry," she said. "Ninety-nine percent of our audience is people who are just parachuting in to watch something, and they're not privy to different posts or magazine articles or even podcasts like this one where we might be trying to talk about it and understand it more."
SportsCenter anchor Elle Duncan believes the onus is on men to change their behavior and hold each other accountable. "Why do we have to figure it out alone?" she asked. "This is a question men need to be asking themselves. What will it take for you to stop viewing us in this way? What will it take for you to start figuring out that we deserve equitable pay? What's your solution to this because you're the ones that view us in this way?"
ESPN writer and TV personality Jemele Hill said those in power positions need to avoid perpetuating the problems in their hiring practices and demands of female reporters, and that the reporters themselves must fight to not fall prey to those damaging expectations. She also believes that being honest about our experiences and forcing the discussion will help. "I think it's OK to keep having these conversations -- even to the point of making some men uncomfortable -- about what the fascination and fixation with [our appearance] feels like. ... As I've had one-on-one conversations with men over the years, they seem to get it."
There might be many days that require patience, thick skin and the occasional clapback. There might be battles lost with those who won't ever be convinced to see beyond a body to the work. But if male reporters aren't compared to porn stars, criticized for their clothing, sent lewd photos or repeatedly objectified, then what female reporters have to deal with isn't "part of the job" -- it's part of the job for women. We must never give up the fight for true equality of opportunity and equitable treatment. Addressing these issues head-on, listening to the experiences of women in the workplace and online, and urging men to be better and demand better from others is the only way to make progress.