I’ve heard critiques about both the uniforms of the beach volleyball players at this year’s Olympics in London (i.e., bikinis) and the photographic coverage of the athletes (i.e., “butt shots”). Then yesterday eight readers — Tom Megginson, Cheryl S., Cerberus Xt, Richard D., Anna G., @sphericalfruit, @bfwriter, and @HaphazardSoc — sent us a link to a story that asked the question: “What if every Olympic sport was photographed like beach volleyball?” More on that later.
First, I wanted to see if the rumors were true, so I googled beach vollyball and three other sports: track, diving, and gymnastics. All involve relatively skimpy uniforms, but beach volleyball certainly stood out. The top results included five photographs of just butts in bikini bottoms and four “cheesecake” pictures in which women are posed to look like pin-ups and volleyball is not part of the picture (all images can be clicked to get a closer view).
That may not seem like a lot but, in contrast, none of the top photos for the other three sports included butt shots or pin-up poses (with the exception of one butt shot for track, but it was of a fully-clothed man and used as a photographic device, not a source of titillation).
There’s an interesting lesson here that goes beyond the sexual objectification of women and asks “which women? and why? (because the sport is associated with the beach?) and in response to whose rules? (who is in charge of uniforms?) and to whose benefit? (the photographers, the Olympics, their corporate and media sponsors?).”
Lisa Wade, PhD is an Associate Professor at Tulane University. She is the author of American Hookup, a book about college sexual culture; a textbook about gender; and a forthcoming introductory text: Terrible Magnificent Sociology. You can follow her on Twitter and Instagram.
Michelle — August 2, 2012
LOL the men's photos were just hilarious. It really shows the tinted lens for women's sports.
Loth — August 2, 2012
Yeah - after the "what if" started circling, a friend found this: http://i.imgur.com/VZTD2.png honestly, it's the tag that I find most insulting here - do you really expect me to look at that picture and believe it's supposed to just be of the match ball?
I've also been a bit insulted with some of the comments I've seen in response to the beach volleyball images - quite a few people have said that it's the women's fault - they can wear less revealing gear if they want. First off, this is actually the first year they can (and good thing - 11pm in london is not so toasty right now). Second - are you really saying the equivalent of "she wanted it"?
Guest — August 2, 2012
Actually a simple search with "beach volleyball" gives "almost" a 100% of pictures of "women in sports bikini", considering there is also a masculine competition who should, between men and women (or my own option: both), be complaining for this obviously sexist photo coverage? ;-)
Paige — August 2, 2012
I haven't paid much attention, but I saw some links yesterday to photos of the field hockey team from the Netherlands. A seriously good looking team - and reasonably sexy outfits - with a lot of the 'cheesecake' shots you're talking about.
It's also worth pointing out that 'womens' gymnastics is largely made up of minors, so there are probably less sexualizing shots to avoid awkward accusations.
My favorite part about the beach volleyball silliness? The American team are in their 30s! Obviously they're very fit and look great in bikinis AND the outfits with more coverage that they've been favoring in London. But it does make me giggle that people are all worked up about the 'sex factor' of a sport that has some of the oldest competitors when compared to the other sports NBC is giving prime coverage. I don't have the numbers or anything, but most of the other sports featured in the US seem to feature athletes MUCH younger than 30 - swimming, diving, gymnastics, basketball.
In case my tone isn't clear enough I just want to clarify that I could care less how old the American beach volleyball players are, they're clearly tremendous athletes. And - not that it matters - but they can certainly 'get away with' wearing those bikinis, they look great. I'm a little tired of all the hoopla about beach volleyball and all the primetime coverage, particularly when it seems to be motivated by guys excited about babes in bikinis.
I do have to wonder though, all the games I've seen them play in London they've been pretty covered up. I know this is partially weather, but their opponents are often wearing less. Are these women deciding they prefer the more modest uniforms that are allowed? Could this be because of age? At least one of them is a mom of fairly young kids, is she glad to be covering her tummy? (I know my mom was always super self-conscious of her C-section scar and wore one piece swimsuits as a result.) The American team seems to be dominant - at least they've been doing well in pool play - will they be around in 4 years and pushing 40? Will beach volleyball be 'sexy' then? (Not that women over 30 can't be sexy! Just saying that the media hardly seems to think so.)
Umlud — August 2, 2012
To take a stab at the question of "who is in charge of uniforms?" I found the 2004 Athens Olympics rules for beach volleyball:
as well as the 2009-2012 "Official BEACH VOLLEYBALL Rules" from the FIVB:
Under uniform rules, the Athens Olympics rules state:
The design requirements seem about as arbitrary and capricious as what had been a long-standing requirement that all tennis players wear white and that women wear skirts. Indeed, under a search for "beach volleyball uniform controversy", I found the following (http://uniforms.lovetoknow.com/club-sports-uniforms/beach-volleyball-uniform-controversy )
Happily (perhaps), the FIVB 2009-2012 requirements don't have any diagrams for what men's and women's uniforms should look like nor measurements for how much cloth should be at the hip; merely this statement:
However, at the bottom of that very page, there are photos of women's bottoms...
Garrick — August 2, 2012
I generally agree but it should also be noted that several shots of Tom Daley are either already highly homoerotic or are progressively being made that way by creative editing. In one instance the score bar on one telivision broadcast covered the only portion of him that was clothed, giving the impression that he was naked while showering after a dive (http://lavishtma.ca/2012/07/31/hot-unintentional-censorship-tom-daley/unintentional-censorship-tom-daley-07/).
HENNESSY YOUNGMAN — August 2, 2012
LET'S ALL JUST MASTURBATE AND STOP TYPING SO MUCH
Andrew — August 3, 2012
The Olympics photo spreads that reach me must be coming through a very different set of filters, as the number of highly eroticized presentations of male bodies (such as Tom Daley, as mentioned below) that I've seen outnumbers those of the women.
But either way, I kind of take this with a shrug and a "why not?" It would be truly absurd for respectable news sources to publish photo spreads detailing the body parts of public intellectuals, world leaders, and so forth, as their contribution to public life has ostensibly nothing to do with their body types.
The Olympics, on the other hand, are absolutely about the body. Like no other major international event, they are a demonstration of how far people will go to advance and transcend physical ideals; with every new world record, we see a human body reaching a supposedly unprecedented degree of perfection, at least in relation to the task at hand. It's not altogether inappropriate for these bodies to be objectified by viewers; really, they're even more seriously objectified by their very owners, who have spent untold hours sculpting them into the best tools they possibly can.
Yes, it's perfectly fair to say that reducing the hard work and ambition of any individual to a gratuitous butt shot is degrading. But really, if what is being degraded and devalued here is the job of hitting a ball back and forth over a net...well, cry me a river. Strip away all of the money and spectacle being lavished on sporting events and reduce them to what they actually are, and it's really the most insignificant thing imaginable. A game, with about as much service to humanity as those rounds of Angry Birds you knocked out on the iPhone while waiting in line at the DMV.
What exactly are we supposed to be taking seriously?
WG — August 3, 2012
GIS = scientific?
Quickies 08/03/2012 - Queereka — August 3, 2012
[...] Olympic Beat Volleyball coverage—look at how the women are depicted in coverage of this event versus others. [...]
Rin Khole — August 3, 2012
Its called freedom of motion. You try and play and be more than crazy serious about any of these sports wearing more clothing or less revealing clothing. Your knees hit sagging shorts it will impair you from doing your job as an athlete. "Who is in charge of the unifroms?" Smart people who understand fit athletes needs. Just because you want to find sexual objectification in everything is why you find these things. Ya of course some photographer is going to go for the sexy shot or the cute girls. That's what people want to see. The photographer taking horrible pictures of athletes in their full warm up gear or them in regular clothes will not get as much money as a photographer taking the athletic movement shots. IM SORRY EVERYONE HAS A PENIS TITS OR ASS AND IT WILL BE IN A SHOT WHERE ATHLETIC EVENTS OCCUR. Get over it.
Sakurabean — August 3, 2012
I watched an incredible match between Canada and Russia last night. The Russians did look amazing in their pink little hot pant and Canada looked just as awesome in their full length black leggings and red crop tops. As with all feminist opinions, mine is based in choice. If they want to wear the little bikinis that's fine, if the want to go for more coverage that's fine too. Whatever athletic clothing they feel works to their advantage is fine with me. Fact is they both looked strong, beautiful, and awesome because watching them in their element was amazing. But I agree that the photo stills are entirely sexualized. Last night I saw 4 strong, inspiring athletes and their photos are reduced to playboy poses and crotch shots? Awful...and I can't believe that they were only allowed to choose this year! If they want to force women into bikinis, how come the male beach volleyball teams get to wear shirts and looser shorts as opposed to speedos? The Olympic officials do need to look at outfits and, if possible, allow Rome for the athletes to choose what they are comfortable with. And they definitely shouldn't try to legislate completely sexist choices, like asking whether or not they should change the women's wrestling uniform so that it was a skirt so that it would look "prettier".
William Angel — August 4, 2012
You might also check out another site. Here is a link that will run a query to locate beach volleyball images at flickr, with the results ordered by how interesting viewers think the images are.
The selection of images that viewers have rated to be most interesting at flickr is not simply a collection of butt shots.
Joseph — August 4, 2012
I think the athlete's know exactly how they want to project themselves...and I like girls butts better.
hhotelconsult — August 5, 2012
It's a uniform, they feel comfortable, so what? Apparently women's water polo are racy, but it is WATER POLO. They pull everything... and not just the suit. That sport is brutal. I don't think these people should be defined by our social propensity to reframe personal decisions. There's a difference between what they actively choose to wear, and how the society around them responds and filters it.
EVERYBODY in the olympics is wearing skimpy clothes, some are about being aerodynamic, some are about not getting snagged or free range of motion, etc. swimmers, water polo, gymnasts, etc. I think it's not over-sexualizing anything, because it simply isn't something *I* even think about. And I am a sir.
I think what it is showing is that the human body is an amazing, powerful, beautiful thing that can be made to do wonderful feats. I think it teaches positivity, health, fitness, and to be proud of what our anatomy can do. This isn't a kardashian in a bikini... these are perfectly honed machines, both male and female.
I am not sure why there is a negative reaction to a slightly positive role model demonstrating what it is like to be healthy and fit?
Patrick — August 5, 2012
It would appear that the majority of butt shots don't merely show a woman's backside, but also her hands, which are actively calling a play. At the moment the cameraman was looking at her butt, so were all of her teammates.
Don’t worry, the Olympics aren’t changing much for women | Gwen Emmons — August 5, 2012
[...] Women’s beach volleyball has generated a lot of conversation the past few weeks over the bikini-like uniforms worn by many of the female athletes. Even though these uniforms are worn for the comfort of the athletes and to aid performance, wearing something like a bikini apparently gives serious sports journalists an open invitation to photograph these athletes as if they’re centerfolds, not world-class ath... [...]
» Periler, Kalçalar, ve “Eril” Bakış… kalemzen — August 5, 2012
[...] 2 Lisa Wade’in orijinal blog postu: http://thesocietypages.org/socimages/2012/08/02/photographic-coverage-of-olympic-beach-volleyball/ [...]
olympic fan — August 6, 2012
The comment: "I've also been a bit insulted with some of the comments I've seen in response to the beach volleyball images - quite a few people have said that it's the women's fault - they can wear less revealing gear if they want. First off, this is actually the first year they can" is not correct. Not that you are insulted, but about this being the first year. 2008 China, the womens team had the choice to wear a conservative 1piece suit over the bikini.
AmyD — August 6, 2012
Again, mostly the male commenters are not listening, it's not about the uniforms, it's about the photographic coverage of the sport! Its obvious there is a double standard at work. I agree that the uniforms should be the least restrictive but if that means bikinis are the least restrictive, why are the men's beach volleyball players wearing baggy tanks and baggy shorts? What gives there?
PinkWithIndignation — August 6, 2012
The intellectual in me says, "Objectification is degrading for everyone." The teenager in me says, "AOOOOOOOOGAH! *pant pant* Hominahominahomina *cat call*! Heads are overrated! Can we just make all pictures of men in the media butt, chest, and crotch shots?" Than the opportunist in me thinks maybe if we drag men down with us into Objectification land, they'll see it sucks. And the pessimist says that plan is too good to be true, we'd all just end up in the appearance-obsessed gutter.
Julia Scott Cavanagh — August 7, 2012
I love the photos by Metro New York. What a fabulous way to make a point!
Olympic Athletes, Body Image, and the Impact on Kids: Fit vs Fiction — August 7, 2012
[...] in our appearance-based culture of sexualization (see Sociological Images great post on the photographic coverage of Olympic beach volleyball) it’s also important to spotlight the progress (e.g. it was great to see Olympic rules changed [...]
Weekly Awesome 8.8 | This Is A Woman — August 8, 2012
[...] be objectified and that is extremely uncool, if you ask me. Furthermore, it has been noticed that photographers tend to photograph beach volleyball differently than other sports. Ugh. ~More Olympic drama. This time it’s [...]
[link] Photographic Coverage of Olympic Beach Volleyball « slendermeans — August 9, 2012
[...] Sociological Images I’ve heard critiques about both the uniforms of the beach volleyball players at this year’s [...]
Sex and gender at the Olympics « Memoirs of a SLACer — August 9, 2012
[...] limited to May-Treanor and Walsh Jennings. Lisa Wade over at Sociological Images took a look at the photographs of a few different Olympic sports and found that those focusing on beach volleyball players were conspicuously [...]
The Double-Edged Sword of Women’s Visibility in the Olympics « scATX: Speaker's Corner in the ATX — August 10, 2012
[...] On the other side: more discussions about beach volleyball bikinis (and pictures about said bikinis). [...]
Best of The Interwebs! | Scarlet Apple — August 17, 2012
[...] Photographic Coverage of Olympic Beach Volleyball. Lisa Wade. During the olympics, when teams were only in their bikinis, and not a warmer outfit, my daughter asked why the olympics made the girls wear these skimpy bikinis with their bums poking out as a uniform… I had no answer. [...]
The Double-Edged Sword of Women’s Visibility in the Olympics | Power Forward — April 13, 2013
[...] On the other side: more discussions about beach volleyball bikinis (and pictures about said bikinis). [...]
The Double-Edged Sword of Women's Visibility in the Olympics - Jessica W. Luther — January 2, 2014
[…] On the other side: more discussions about beach volleyball bikinis (and pictures about said bikinis). […]
quick hit: Photographic Coverage of Olympic Beach Volleyball — January 5, 2014
[…] First, I wanted to see if the rumors were true, so I googled beach vollyball and three other sports: track, diving, and gymnastics. All involve relatively skimpy uniforms, but beach volleyball certainly stood out. The top results included five photographs of just butts in bikini bottoms and four “cheesecake” pictures in which women are posed to look like pin-ups and volleyball is not part of the picture (all images can be clicked to get a closer view). [Images on link.] […]