Rebecca Kamm

Poking a stick at ladies' issues, pop culture, and other cutting-edge curiosities.

Rebecca Kamm: The shaming of Olympian Leisel Jones

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Australian swimmer Leisel Jones will use the comments about her weight as motivation.
Photo / AP
Australian swimmer Leisel Jones will use the comments about her weight as motivation. Photo / AP

Imagine if the female form was celebrated purely for its awe-inspiring functionality, rather than judged in terms of weight. If it were to happen anywhere, the Olympic Games would surely be it. You might even expect it.

But you might be disappointed.

Australian swimmer Leisel Jones was picked apart last week by Australia's Herald Sun newspaper, which published "then and now" photos suggesting she had put on weight. Readers were then asked to decide if Jones was fit enough to swim.

In other words, does she look like a swimmer should look? Not: does she swim like a swimmer should swim?

Jones has made history as the first Australian swimmer to compete at four Olympic Games.

She has won eight Olympic medals, including three golds. She was an Olympic medalist at age 14. She's one of the best female breaststrokers the world has ever seen.

But never mind all that, LET'S TALK ABOUT HER THIGHS. Because the focus on Jones has now swapped from where it clearly should be - her incredible career - and lies squarely on her body shape. Which is a sad and infuriating thing. As put by former Olympic swimming champion, Giaan Rooney:

"Anyone commenting on Leisel's weight three days out from the Olympics should be ashamed .... She's done the work to get here and she deserves the same right as everyone else to be judged on her performance and her performance alone."

Mirrored by media commentator Melinda Tankard Reist, who tweeted: "There's a 'HOT BABES OF THE OLYMPICS' narrative. If you don't conform to the narrative, you will be shamed."

And retired Australian swimmer Alice Tait, who tweeted: "The questioning over Leisel Jones' fitness due to an unflattering photo is exactly [why] many girls have body image issues! Makes me so angry!"

There's a lot of interesting discourse to be had around Jones, and weight isn't one of them. I want to know what it takes, emotionally and physically, to get to where she's got; how hard it is to reach Olympian heights, and the psychology behind that climb; what it feels like seconds before she jumps, and how she prepares mentally for that moment.

That, for me, is the kind of grit worth knowing. It's not the grit that gets instant attention, though - the sexualisation of women in sport makes sure of that. Tighter uniforms, insinuative photos and one-dimensional coverage are a damaging default position that ensures female athletes are athletes only after they are females.

Jones has demonstrated massive grace under fire. In reply to the talk of her weight, she has simply thanked her critics for making her all the more determined:

"I couldn't ask for anything more. I'm one of those people who if you put me under pressure, I'll show you what I can do. I did one of my best sessions ever after I read the comments."

Still, the scrutiny of her body shape is one perfectly formed example of a galling truth: women are, first and foremost, judged on how they fit aesthetic moulds. It simply doesn't matter how talented, strong or tenacious they are: such judgement calls will surface at some point in the game.

P.S. On a brighter note - did you know this is the first ever Olympic Games with women from every competing country? And there are more than 200 competing countries, including Brunei, Qatar and Saudi Arabia - none of which had ever previously fielded female athletes. Right at the last minute, Saudi Arabia allowed two women to compete - one in judo and the other as an 800-metre runner. Also, for the first time, the US has sent more female athletes than male. Winner!

Follow Rebecca Kamm on Twitter.

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