Watching Misty May-Treanor and Kerri Walsh Jennings win their third consecutive gold medal in beach volleyball the other night, I noticed something interesting about their uniforms (no, it was not related to their asses – I’ll get to their asses in a second). The backs of their uniforms only displayed their maiden names (as you can see on May-Treanor above). Women taking their husbands’ names personally while keeping their maiden names professionally is nothing new (the two of them even demonstrate two sides of the “to hyphenate or not to hyphenate” decision), but the announcers never used just their maiden names (they did, however, sometimes use just their first names). It would be interesting to know how these decisions were made, though they might have had more to do with the small space available on their uniforms than statements about gender. Hell, maybe they’re just superstitious.
Gender is certainly involved, however, in the fact that I had to work fairly hard to find a picture of one of their backs that did not also show their asses. This phenomenon is not 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 different:
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.
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).
Wade doesn’t suggest any reasons for this phenomenon but I suspect that it comes down to some combination of age and the motions involved in the sport. Like beach volleyball players, female gymnasts wear clothing that is similar to a swimsuit but they are typically younger (see this graphic for a breakdown of men’s and women’s age ranges by sport) than beach volleyball players, making their usage as sex symbols taboo. Female divers actually wear swimsuits but their age range also includes those in their mid-teens. Finally, female track athletes are both older than gymnasts and divers and sometimes wear uniforms that are similar to the bikini-style uniforms worn by female beach volleyball players. Running, however, does not lend itself to titillating photos in the same way as a sport involving bending at the waist and diving face-first into the sand does. Off the track, however, female runners are still commonly depicted as sex objects, as the recent debate over the coverage of Lolo Jones in the New York Times demonstrates. Jones also demonstrates the challenge that athletes face to earn as much notoriety and endorsement money as possible when and their sports only gain the general public’s attention every four years.