Matthew Keegan
May 11, 2023

‘Women must wear bikini bottoms’; the paradigm shift needed to ‘change the angle’ towards female athletes

Sports broadcasting is often justified by the commercial logic of “sex sells,” hiding behind the implicit assumption that the only way to consume sports is through the male gaze. But some brands are challenging this deeply misogynistic narrative, starting long-overdue conversations about the brazen objectification of women in sports.

Sexism is a pervasive issue in women sports as well as sports broadcast.
Sexism is a pervasive issue in women sports as well as sports broadcast.

Sadly, sexism is still alive and well in sports broadcast. Worse still, at times, it's even enforced.

As recently as 2021, the Norwegian women's beach volleyball team was fined for refusing to compete with bikini bottoms during a match in the sport's Euro championship. The European Handball Association's Disciplinary Commission announced that the squad was fined 1,500 euros for "improper clothing."

While men are permitted to play in tank tops and shorts, The International Handball Federation requires women to wear bikini bottoms “with a close fit and cut on an upward angle toward the top of the leg.”

Change the angle

It's this kind of brazen sexism that beauty brand Lux has chosen to tackle with a bold campaign made by Wunderman Thompson Singapore. Titled 'Change The Angle', the campaign calls for sports media to focus on sportswomen's achievements and not their physical attributes.

To launch the campaign, Lux teamed up with Volleyball SA (South Africa) and sports broadcaster SABC to hack a live volleyball game. Volleyball players wore QR codes printed on their sports bras and bikini bottoms—the same areas that sport broadcasters tend to focus onat the Durban Open live Volleyball game earlier this year, broadcast live by SABC, reaching an estimated audience of 19.7 million in South Africa.

When scanned, the QR code redirected the viewer to a film made by Lux, where leading sportswomen call on broadcasters and cameras to 'Change The Angle' of how female athletes are portrayed—by focusing on their strengths and aiming the lens at their sporting prowess, rather than their physical attributes.

Severine Vauleon, global brand president of Lux, says their mission as a leading global beauty brand is to lead industry transformation and change the status quo by confronting uncomfortable conversations.

"Sexism in media coverage of women athletes is too normalised," says Vauleon. "Broadcasters sometimes abuse the situation, for their own benefit by objectifying and sexualising women's bodies and overlooking the beauty of their achievements. And this is an uncomfortable conversation that we wanted to initiate, and change the status quo."

Vauleon adds that there has been a history of media coverage that emphasises the physical appearance of female athletes over their athletic abilities.

"We need to collectively work towards creating a society where the focus shifts from appealing to the ‘male gaze’ to the actual achievement and performance by women, just like it is for men sportspersons."

Elevator eyes

Even today, female athletes are more susceptible to visual objectification, or "elevator eyes"—looking a person up and down—than male athletes. According to research by Lux, women in sports are 10 times more likely to be objectified by camera angles that focus on certain body parts than their male counterparts. 

But why does the brazen objectification of sportswomen continue?

"The objectification continues because of the mistaken assumption that sex sells subscriptions, clicks and engagement more than pure athleticism and competitive performance," says Thayer Lavielle, executive vice president at The Collective, the women's division of Wasserman, a sports marketing and talent management company.

But Lavielle believes that sports media needs to raise its game and revise these regressive practices.

"The fact is that the growth of women's sports is generated by a fan base that see them as people and exceptional sports figures," says Lavielle. "Media would be wise to audit their approach with outside parties – perhaps even with real fan focus groups and academics – to determine how pervasive the problem is, and how they need to change their practices to illustrate what really matters to viewers."

Would the issue be improved if more women were in leadership positions within a historically male-dominated industry?

"While the lack of women in leadership positions in the sports industry may contribute to this problem, it is not the sole cause. Women have long been objectified and sexualised in various contexts, from advertising and entertainment to politics and everyday life," says Vauleon. "Sexualising women athletes has become a means to attract viewership by media houses because that is what 'works.' And this is why behaviour change needs to happen, not just with broadcasters but as a society as well.

Could brands and sponsors do more to tackle the sexualisation of women in sports?

Rebecca Sowden is the founder of Team Heroine, a women's sport marketing and sponsorship consultancy, and says that although many sponsors (along with the general public) are actually unaware of the bias which can often be unconscious within and around women's sport, change is occurring.

"Fortunately, many women's sport sponsors are actually having a profound and positive impact on issues that continue to hold women's sport back via campaigns that not only raise awareness of various issues but actually work to change them," says Sowden.

"Correct the Internet , which I am a founding partner of, is a prime example of a global campaign and has garnered support from media, organisations and brands, raises awareness of the bias that occurs against sportswomen on the internet, plus we're working to fix it with a simple feedback tool that any person can use to send feedback to search engines," adds Sowden. "Others like Getty Images have created a guide for use around women's sport imagery and we're seeing brands like Lu create dedicated communications to counter sexism in sport."

In fact, many brands now have policies in place that prohibit the use of sexualised or objectifying imagery in their advertising campaigns. The International Olympic Committee's (IOC) Rule 40 prohibits athletes and their sponsors from using sexualised or objectifying imagery in their promotional materials during the Olympic Games.

"We believe that it is important for brands and sponsors to make a positive impact on society. While sponsorship does not necessarily equal complicity, it does provide an opportunity for brands to use their influence to challenge harmful stereotypes and promote gender equality," says Vauleon. "At Lux we are committed to partnering with organisations that combat gender inequality in sports and beyond and are proud to stand alongside those who strive for equity/equality."

And Lavielle believes that brands and rights holders can do more to tackle sexualisation of women in sport by insisting on the accurate portrayal of women – as fans, consumers, athletes, and beyond.

"Where brands and sponsors can step in is not only to make media accountable, in active discussions about policy change, but they can also start to directly support women creators and content experts who will focus the story where it belongs.

A new era for women's sport

"Serena doesn’t, and won’t conform to the western notions of femininity that govern sports."

Despite an increase in the number of women working in journalism, directing, and other broadcasting positions, there is still an unconscious bias present in society that influences how women are portrayed in sports.

However, one of the good things about the landscape today is that athletes, particularly sportswomen, have become less dependent on 'traditional' media to gain coverage as social media has allowed them to become their own media platforms where they can control the narrative and this is often where many brand partners are happy to capitalise.

 "The quality of women's sport has entered a new era and we have seen record after record broken, showing there is an appetite to watch and engage with women's sport based on merit alone," says Sowden.

And Lavielle of sports marketing and talent management company Wasserman, says that with more and more conversation about the rising value and merit of women’s sports, more men can change their awareness and perceptions.

"We all have to see the behaviours and practices in question before we can discuss them constructively," says Lavielle. "In a changing culture where more sexism is being identified and corrected outright, hopefully we're raising a generation of young sports fans who appreciate athletes on their competitiveness and not solely on their bodies."

Campaign Asia

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