May 7, 2016
Sex & the Marketability of the Female CrossFitter
November 4, 2015
Recently, the CrossFit Games Facebook page posted an article by Hilary Achauer titled, “Frailty, Thy Name is Woman?”. Within it, Achauer documents how CrossFit is helping to destroy the idea that women are the weaker sex, listing evidence that shows that female athletes, pound for pound, can be just as strong as men—if not stronger in some instances. Achauer also discussed how female and male athletes are perceived in CrossFit and at the Games, pointing out that the equal air time and prize money that both sexes receive is indicative of a sport that is rare in its fair treatment of its athletes. However, when it comes to securing endorsements Achauer notes that “our culture’s emphasis on a woman’s appearance—even when she is competing as an elite athlete—is insidious.”
To articulate this point further, we hear from five-times Games athlete Elisabeth Akinwale, who, just like any other athlete at the CrossFit Games, relies on sponsorships for part of her income:
“I share sponsors with some women who have never done anything athletically. They train … and they post a lot of videos of their cleavage and stuff, and the camera angle going up toward their butt, but they are not successful athletes. …
So, while I understand it, it’s sort of frustrating. … Are there any men (in CrossFit) who are sponsored who are just basically hot? I can’t think of any.”
To Akinwale’s point, professional female athletes face an uphill battle to receive the same economic rewards as their male counterparts, largely because they apparently need to be seen as a skilled sportswoman as well as attractive. A recent article from the Washington Post shows the disparity in tournament winnings between men and women:
Ok, so if female athletes are receiving considerably less prize money than men, it makes sense that they need to find other sources of income, which is why many women market themselves and receive endorsements based on their appearance.
Anna Kournikova is a former professional Tennis player who was once ranked number 8 in the world—despite never winning a singles title. However, her appearance has made her one of the most recognizable tennis players worldwide, enabling her to now gain an income as a model and reality television star. Alex Morgan is a star for the World Champion USA women’s soccer team, but she is also estimated to earn well over $1 million through endorsements. Why? Fellow US soccer star (recently retired) Abby Wombach put it best:
“She’ll have more of the mainstream popularity of being the pretty girl and being able to cross over to 15- and 25-year-old men—the Mia Hamm-like qualities that touch millions. But she’s not just a pretty face. So much attention on women in sports is based on looks, but Alex backs that up with even stronger athleticism. I’d absolutely compare her to David Beckham in terms of her appeal.”
Now, some of you may not think that female CrossFit athletes look to market themselves as they receive the same prize money as men. But as Akinwale points out, that isn’t the case at all.
“I want to be marketable, and I know these are the things that get likes, and I know that sponsors want that,” she said.
So what’s the best vehicle for doing that? Social media. Hence why Akinwale “treads the line” when she shares certain photos of herself. But her issue arises when she (and other Games athletes) must battle for a share of the endorsement pie with less successful athletes (some of whom haven’t even made it to the Games) that post more provocative pictures on Facebook and Instagram.
One could argue that CrossFit Media is guilty of this too. There have been plenty of pictures and videos on social media with blatant sexual overtones for female athletes (centering on their chest, crotch or butt). And before you start raising your torches and pitchforks arguing that the imagery of athletic flesh is part and parcel of this sport, ask yourself when the last time was you saw the camera zoom in on a male athlete’s groin—or ass for that matter.
Even Achauer’s article was reposted on Facebook three days after the original posting along with Akinwale’s comment—presumably with the intent of garnishing more views and interest.
I've been called a bitch, an ape, a nigger, a spoiled brat. I've been criticized for my hips, my breasts, my legs, my intellect, my femininity. None of that is particularly surprising in our culture, the internet, and realities of being a black female athlete. Though not surprising, it's the type of treatment that could easily make a person retreat and abandon any hope of having fun and making positive connections with people, which is what I try to do through social media. A few weeks ago I was contacted by a CrossFit Journal writer who's work I've read and respect. She asked if I had any interest in talking with her about the role CrossFit has played in deconstructing the myth of female frailty. Part of what I discussed in the interview is that there are elements of competitive CrossFit where women are on a very equal playing field (prize money, broadcast time). However there are certain aspects of elite CrossFit where women are valued based on qualities other than performance–more so than men are. Although CrossFit may have advanced the ball in some respects, the more mainstream the sport goes the more it is permeated by mainstream values. The article was posted about 5 days ago and I think was generally well-received– no particular controversy. Then 3 days later the CrossFit Games reposts the article with a quote from the piece that, viewed out of context, could be seen as inflammatory. Predictably, the article then garnered more attention. I think many people understood the point I was trying (perhaps ineffectively?) to make, and some didn't. In typical internet fashion the comments went crazy. People were hurt (ironically it became an attack on multiple women) and I've even seen some ridiculous off shoot click bait articles. The opportunity to discuss real issues that can play a role in continuing to make the CrossFit community the special, empowering place it can be for women is squandered.
Clearly, Akinwale was/is trying to make the point that female athletes face different challenges than men when it comes to gaining economic rewards through sport. In response to her comment, Regional competitor Andrea Ager had this to say:
“Man, this is a hard one. Money and advertising revolve around marketability. Sex sells because we live in a broken world. I too, notice which of my posts get the most likes. However, many people (at any level) are inspiring to the general public to get moving and work hard. Striving to lose 100lbs or striving to GET to a podium is sometimes just as impactful as the athletes that actually get to hold the trophies.
Integrity is not dead to a lot of role models. Youth watches closely, copying our every move and we have to remember body image is a deep wound for most. Fortunately, women can look beautiful without being provocative. There’s still hope.”
So while some athletes may choose to share images of themselves that focus on their stomachs, legs, breasts or butt in an effort to gain attention from potential sponsors, Akinwale still wants to adhere to her core values and continue to inspire women through her performances and attitude in training and competition. But when it comes to economic rewards, the hard truth still remains: sex sells.
Photo credit: ©2015 CrossFit Inc. Used with permission from CrossFit Inc