Failing to look like Lily Cole? Why not fail to look like Jessica Ennis instead?

Last night my partner and I were watching the BBC coverage of Day 13 of the Olympics, and were struck by one thing, and one thing only: Amir Khan, 2004 boxing silver medalist, is really, obscenely attractive. Honestly, he’s lush. He’s definitely been added to both our lists of pre-approved infidelities (got it, Khan? You’re in there!). Wouldn’t it be great if all young men aspired to look like him? After all, he’s a sportsman, which makes him a healthy role model. And demanding that all young men model themselves on Khan is no more unrealistic than asking young girls to aspire to look like Jessica Ennis.

If London 2012 encourages more young girls to take up sport, then that’s great. If, on the other hand, the hype surrounding successful female athletes simply creates yet another set of unrealistic body image standards, then it’s not so great. Right now I can’t help thinking that these two things are being merged together, offering a new, more socially acceptable way in which to bully young women regarding their shape and size. When we’re promoting fitness, do we mean fit as in physically healthy or fit as in fuckable? It seems we mean both. What we definitely don’t mean is fit as in mentally strong, with the confidence to tell the fashion and beauty industries to fuck right off.

In the Guardian, Tanya Gold frets about the girls who lose interest in physical activity, “lacking female athletes as role models and considering sport ‘unfeminine’ because it does not conform to the necrophilic tendencies of fashion advertising – which only wants women to stop eating”. This is all very well, but to assume that unlike models, lean world-class athletes are immune from eating disorders seems to me wishful thinking in the extreme. Nonetheless, Gold is writing in favour of girls being active rather than ornamental, which is a significant step up from the position adopted by Donata Huggins in the Telegraph. Clearly having being commissioned to write something on “why perving at volleyball players’ arses is a feminist act”, Huggins takes the “well, at least they’re not at death’s door” line and runs with it:

[…] all this leering  has pleased me. Every “phwoar! Jessica Ennis” and “Laura Trott – I would!” makes me smile because the ladies’ bodies featured in the papers are strong and healthy. There’s not a borderline anorexic in sight. And better still, their breasts are in proportion to their bodies, not artificially inflated or pushed up using the latest Wonderbra.

Way-hey! Now that’s equality in action! Except it sodding well isn’t, since where are all the articles telling young men that “hey, you don’t have to look like a member of One Direction – try looking like Tom Daley instead!”?

I’m all for celebrating female athletes and promoting women’s sport (albeit from the comfort of my own sofa). Even so, why do we still have to be linking sport to female attractiveness? Why should we have to be reassuring girls “hey, it’s okay – Victoria Pendleton doesn’t ming – she positively shines as a woman”? At what point will we be able to say “do sport – it’s healthy – and stop giving a shit about the size of your thighs  – that’s even healthier”? Will this ever happen? Because it doesn’t seem to be happening now.


4 thoughts on “Failing to look like Lily Cole? Why not fail to look like Jessica Ennis instead?

  1. Thank you so much for this. I’ve been trying to write an article on it all week and getting so frustrated I just wasn’t articulate.

    It’s just a different side of the same coin that says there’s a right way to have a body as a woman as if just having a woman’s body isn’t enough. And it drives me to howl at the moon in frustration. Having an ED took up all my time. Being an elite athlete is also all encompassing. I want it to be ok to be me and having time for non body related activity like reading a book or having a bath or gardening or writing poetry. You know, like a well rounded human being…

  2. I think striving to be anything too extreme from yourself is unhealthy – change, if you crave it, isn’t an overnight process. Anyone should work within their own boundaries – instead of thinking “I want to be as pretty as her”, which many of us do. I try to swap that for better thoughts. I look at why I think she’s pretty. Eyes? Maybe experiment with my make up to try a new look. Size? A reshuffle in the wardrobe can change how you present your figure to the outside world.

    I adore the way our athletes are working so hard for our country, but I also adore having endulgence every once in a while. Just because, when faced with a choice between ice cream and a nectarine last night, I chose the fruit over the sweet doesn’t mean I always will. Many athletes are skinny, muscle dominant and rather flat chested – for good reason, of course, but if being skinny means I lose my figure (which isn’t small, I’m 5ft 2 and 12 and a half stone, I “should” be around 10 stone by BMI standards) then pass me the ice cream.

    I look at photos of myself at 8 stone when I was 16 and I look awful! I prefer how I am now – I am looking to get under 11, but never under 10 stone. It doesn’t suit me, and that’s a decision I’ve come to myself. I just wish I wasn’t in the minority in that – I wish more women could really look at themselves and see what suits them, no one else. Because I can guarentee many of us won’t suit skinny. It doesn’t work for me.

    Good blog, by the way. I love a healthy rant.

  3. You seem to have put my exact thoughts into words. We can’t all look like models, and nor can we all look like athletes. And more importantly, the fact that the athletes look good is really neither here nor there. Watching Jessica Ennis do her thing and thinking ‘she looks amazing’ is alright, but if that’s all you’re thinking then you’re missing the point.

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