Sports

How One Artist Champions Female Diversity In Sports—And You Can Too

by Kate Ryan

August 15, 2016
Credit: Wendy Fox

There is no one ideal form for a successful female athlete. Illustrator Wendy Fox set out to prove as much.

Back in 2012, Fox had the idea to draw all the female gold medalists from the London Olympics in an effort to raise awareness of the great diversity among athletic bodies. This spectrum may look surprising if you take what’s covered on television at face value.

While women’s beach volleyball and gymnastics enjoy a fair amount of coverage, those who compete in more “masculine” sports like judo and shot put do not. (Though with the recent victory of American shot putter Michelle Carter, that may be changing fast.) Using basic information about gold medal athletes found on the London Olympics website, Fox was able to sketch the body shapes and put together a comprehensive portrait of female athleticism.

This year, she’s hoping to repeat the process with Rio’s gold-medal winning women.

Credit: Wendy Fox

“It’s interesting,” Fox says of her illustration project, “because my first idea was [that] I would have access to each athlete and photograph them.” But when that idea quickly proved impossible to pull off, she thought to illustrate every winning female’s body -- not necessarily to draw attention to the individuals, but rather to the vast differences in body shape and size from sport to sport.

It’s going to take a cultural shift if we want to foster the mentality that girls should pursue whichever sport they please regardless of their body type. The problem with most sports coverage is that “a lot of it is appealing to 18- to 30-year-old men,” says Fox. With female athletes, it too often has less to do with their ability than their outward appearance. This presents an issue when trying to get both boys and girls tuning in to major sporting events, 

“It’s this kind of horrible vicious cycle of, well, ‘We’ll support the women that look good and we’ll cover them,’” Fox says. “You know, Anna Kournikova is the most Googled athlete of all time and she’s never won a [singles title].” 

Credit: Wendy Fox

When speaking of the different criteria female athletes face, Fox points to the popular “Cover the Athlete” clip. This video reveals how ridiculous it would seem if male athletes were asked the same questions regularly posed to female athletes. “It’s completely distracting,” says Fox, “from them doing what they have to do.”

The way female athletes are portrayed in the media affects everything from the sponsorships they’re able to secure to the limits placed on a young girl’s aspirations. Even the potential of current elite female athletes has yet to be realized.

“Men get these incredible sponsorship deals so they can have a team of people around them helping them train,” Fox says, “which just elevates the level of athleticism in men’s sports.” On the flipside, women have to keep working to support themselves and train during their free time, putting immense pressure on their ability to perform.

Even when women do get sponsorship deals, they have to double as models. So amid training for national championships, some female athletes are expected to diet to look more appealing for a magazine cover, hindering their ability to compete. While there’s nothing wrong with being feminine, it’s the pressure to fit a specific mold that becomes problematic, particularly when men aren’t dealt the same expectations.

Fox launched a Kickstarter campaign to fund another inspiring poster for the 2016 Olympic athletes as well as a book of illustrations – and the response has been overwhelmingly positive. “Kickstarter has been really lovely,” Fox says, “Right away, they gave it one of their ‘projects we love’ and put it on their front page.” The attention received so far has surprised Fox, considering “it’s a combination of women’s sports which people don’t like to cover mixed with design.” That being said, it raises some deep issues sports lovers around the world have yet to confront.

Which is why it’s so important to support projects like Fox’s that aim to celebrate female athleticism and level the playing field. Keep in mind the books and posters will only be funded if at least $50,000 AUD (that’s $37,339 American dollars) is pledged by Thursday, August 25. As Fox says, “It’s great to tweet that you’re backing it, but if you want it to happen you actually need to back it.”

You know what to do, sports fans.

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