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Women, Sports and Looks

I happened to catch part of a phone in on Radio Five Live yesterday morning as I drove to a major supermarket to do my family’s weekly food shop. I don’t watch it myself, but friends had told me of a public meltdown by double Olympic gold medallist Rebecca Adlington, a contestant on the latest edition of I’m A Celebrity, Get Me Out Of Here!, now showing on ITV.

Before eventually dissolving into tears, the sports star – whose looks were viciously insulted by comedian Frankie Boyle a few years ago – had admitted that she was feeling insecure about her body shape in the jungle when in the presence of fellow contestant Amy Willerton, the reigning Miss Universe Great Britain.

The subject of the phone-in was ‘Did Looks Matter – Indeed, Should they Matter?’

In the wake of Britain’s Olympic-mania over London 2012, there has been a concerted media thrust to promote women’s sport, both at the elite and general participation levels. There has even been controversy as to whether the desired momentum on this aspect of the much-heralded Olympic ‘legacy’ is being maintained or not. But it has also thrown up other female issues over peer pressure, body image and the reasons why – as successive surveys demonstrate – many girls tend to lose interest in sport during their teenage years.

moranThe tyranny of looks has been a constant within women’s sport, even before Gussie Moran donned her spectacular frilly knickers at Wimbledon in 1949. Sticking with tennis, it is a sad fact of life that ‘lookers’ such as Gabriela Sabatini, Maria Sharapova and – the example to top them all – Anna Kournikova have amassed fortunes of a size beyond anything that their tennis abilities alone could have brought them. In Kournikova’s case, she never won a major tournament and yet regularly posted annual earnings far greater than those who did.

The Adlington/Willerton issue was a stark reminder of the problem. Never mind the issue of whether women’s often negative attitudes towards sport stem from concerns over the effect that its demands, not least prolonged training, have upon the aesthetic  look of the female body, Adlington’s outburst highlighted something just as worrying.

It is that – given the choice – it seems that perhaps even elite female athletes would rather be attractive than successful at their sport.

Perhaps an overwhelming need to be liked and admired is an instinctive female trait.

Shortly after I tuned to the phone-in, presenter host Nicky Campbell remarked that he was surprised, given the subject, that the number of men ringing in to contribute was far greater than the number of women. Why was this, he wondered aloud.

The next but one caller, a man, supplied a possible answer. He suggested that – as a species – women were simply super bitchy and competitive.

Campbell challenged him – what was the caller’s standing, that he felt able to expound such outrageous and misogynistic views?

“Easy …” replied the caller, “…. I was the owner of a hairdresser’s business for twenty years”.

He went on to say that anyone who sat in a hairdresser’s salon for a day would be stunned by how critical of each other, and other female, women could be. He’d witnessed stand-up rows and cat-fights on a regular basis.

This got me thinking.

bechamsaleThis week David and Victoria Beckham put a mountain of personal clothing on sale to the public at the Red Cross shop in Chelsea, with the proceeds going to help victims of Typhoon Haiyan in the Philippines.

My historical attitude to Victoria has been consistently negative.

As Posh Spice, she was the vacuous one who couldn’t sing or act. She then had the good fortune to marry David Beckham and, on the back of that reflected glory, forged herself a variety of hobby career interests – and ultimately wide but undeserved acclaim as a world famous clothes designer. Al this while, I viewed her as simply a perfect example of someone who had worked hard to make her (non-existent) talent go a long way. Her every move was calculated towards the advancement of ‘Brand Beckham’ – including the recent rumours that David might be knighted in the forthcoming New Year’s Honours List.

I had even dismissed to myself the Beckhams’ apparently warm-hearted gesture towards the victims of Typhoon Haiyan as a deliberate marketing ploy.

After all, if they were really interested in helping the victims of that horrendous disaster, why did they not simply write a cheque for £2 million, without seeking publicity for doing so, and be done with it? Given their combined personal fortune, that sort of donation would surely be no more than loose change to them?

Was it all a ploy to drive home the thrust/expectation that David would be receiving the tap on the shoulder from the Queen and the “Arise, Sir David” command?

My self-disgust at even harbouring such thoughts, let alone expressing them in public, dissipated somewhat after I had fought tooth and nail with thousands of others to reach the front of the queue at the Beckham charity sell-off yesterday afternoon.

Largely because, having gone to that much trouble, I was presented with the challenge of trying to squeeze my size 16 body into some of La Beckham’s size 4 dresses and my size 7 feet into her size 4.5  Jimmy Choo shoes.





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About Jane Shillingford

Jane spent the bulk of her career working on women’s magazines. Now retired and living on the south coast, she has no regrets and 'would do it all again'. More Posts