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UK female swimmers trolled for "small bums and boobs" - Why do we need body positivity?

Failing to meet society's norms of the 'feminine' earned Tokyo-bound swimmers Kate and Izzy much negativity and showcased the need for body positivity.

Kate Shortman Izzy Thorpe Team GB Tokyo Olympics

Artistic swimmers Kate Shortman and Isabelle Thorpe for The Bristol Magazine 



Updated: 2021-07-14T11:02:23+05:30

Remember the last time you doubly checked yourself in front of the mirror and asked - 'Is this alright to wear?' - not too long ago, was it? Our mind has been conditioned to a certain set of 'expectations' of 'standardised beauty' and general 'appropriateness' which time and again provoke these questions.

For two young female swimmers of the Great Britain Artistic Swimming team, Kate Shortman, 19 and Izzy Thorpe, 20 - a large span of their lives have been spent battling body image issues with critics hitting out at them for being "too manly" or "too muscular", left, right and centre.

According to a story done by the BBC, these swimmers, Kate and Izzy, who are headed to compete at the upcoming Tokyo Olympics have so ingrained their apparent 'body image' that they now describe themselves as having "big shoulders, small boobs and small bums".

In the domain of sports where 'performance' should be the key, a different set of mentality is applied in the case of male and female athletes. The body of the female - sportswoman or not, is inevitably sexualized and thereby, objectified and observed.

For Kate and Izzy, who have spent over a decade working on attaining the perfect physique conducive to swimming by engaging in weightlifting, gymnastics, speed swimming and dance training, the body has also responded likewise. As it is, swimming is a sport that banks a lot on arm and chest strength and there is no option but to ensure that your shoulder region is well-built and muscular enough to thrust in the water.

This kind of training of the body inevitably leaves its mark and moulds it in a certain way that isn't fitting with the definition of 'feminine' in your go-to dictionary. "Swimmers tend to get big shoulders and when I was younger I would wear things to cover my shoulders - baggy clothing that would make them less noticeable," Izzy mentioned to Radio 1 Newsbeat.

It's one thing to carve your body the way you please to suit your sport and it's a whole different thing in trying to let society accept your move as they are quick to criticise - the mental conditioning done from very early-on. With the arrival of social media, the opportunity for hate-spewing and general negativity has also increased and to that effect a lot of thinking needs to be done before any picture can be posted.

"If I was posting pictures on social media I would try to crop them out of pictures, or try and make them look less prominent to avoid getting negative comments," Izzy revealed.

Bullying and body-shaming go hand in hand

Kate Shortman and Izzy Thorpe (Source: Karen Thorpe)

The insecurities related to a person's body stems from a very early age and from the most familiar environments - the space of the school or the family. Unknowingly enough, people pass on set ideas they hold regarding how a person should look, behave, act, et al and a mould is created for everyone to fit into, no matter what. It's not strange then to realize the statistic that among 35% girls in the age bracket of 14-16, refrain from participating in sports because of 'lack of confidence'.

In the interview to Radio 1 Newsbeat, both Kate and Izzy opened up about the bullying they had to face in school. While at the public swimming pool, people would come up to them and ask them to 'cover up' - for their skin was too-revealing in their swimsuit.

"We only wear one-piece costumes that are the same as everyone else but because we have an athletic figure, the costume naturally sits higher on your hips," Kate mentioned.

What's far more amusing to her is how no eyes are batted if boys strut around half-naked, in their speedos and nobody says a single thing. Too natural, is it?

"It's ridiculous because boys can be walking around in Speedos and that's fine, but if girls show any skin, then they're accused of parading their bodies," Kate adds.

At this juncture, let's take a few examples to show how deep-rooted the problem really is. Breckynn Willis, a then 17-year-old swimmer of Diamond High School, Alaska was disqualified from her swimming race in September 2019 after the official determined that the swimsuit worn by Willis was far too revealing of her curvy figure. Belonging to a mixed race, Willis naturally curvy body became the talking point unnecessarily and caused much uproar.

Even tennis ace and 23-time Grand Slam champion, Serena Williams has had to go through a lot of body-shaming all her career. The subject of several trolls and hateful comments that gloss over her success on the court, Serena has learnt to look past this pettiness and has always let her performance speak for itself.

Like in every walk of life, the field of sports is not free from this gaze – obsessively busy in trying to put people into moulds and trying incredibly hard to make them fit in to the set ideas and if they don't, the label of being a deviant, an aberration, an oddity, befalls them.

Just as jarring the idea of a female playing sports - especially competing in certain 'manly' events like wrestling, weight lifting, rugby, track and field events would be, it is similarly jarring and 'unacceptable' when these very women do not conform to the ideal beauty standards so thankfully created by whitewashed, glossy fashion magazines.

How to silence this 'shameful' criticism?

Kate and Izzy Thorpe star in a commerical for Bluebella

The first and foremost step to winning this battle is to make peace with your own self. Kate and Izzy, after being subjected to blatant bullying all their life have started to accept their body as it is - they do not look at themselves as "too small", "too skinny" or feel shame for not being "big" enough - rather they have taken these comments in their stride and managed to subvert the narrative, for the greater love of their sport.

"You don't have a big bum, you don't have a big chest but we do the sport for the love of it..when you're training 40 hours a week you're naturally not going to have that body type," Kate told Radio 1 Newsbeat.

"Body image [concerns] are not just reserved for people who don't think they're skinny enough, it's also for people who think they're too athletic, too big, too small. We're proud to be where we are today and happy and confident in our bodies.," Kate asserted strongly, no longer ready to be put down by her critics.

Having recently starred in a commercial for a lingerie brand - Bluebella, both Kate and Izzy have learnt to be confident about themselves and do not hesitate so much before uploading pictures on social media anymore. The biggest hurdle to cross is to accept your own body and not let the opinion of others bring you down and Kate and Izzy, Tokyo-bound as they are, have succeeded in doing just that and the trolls, even if they appear, no longer upsets them mentally.

The need for body positivity - a pop culture take

Still from the movie Little Miss Sunshine (2006)

Perhaps the biggest fight we have to battle is the one with our own selves and our inner demons. Every individual is perfectly capable of catapulting themselves - both ways, either upwards or downwards, towards glory or away from it. The very first step to actually making peace with glory is to understand the need for being positive about your own body and as cliche as it may sound but to be comfortable in your own skin.

In Valerie Faris and Jonathan Dayton's 2006 movie Little Miss Sunshine, we are shown how the taboos related to certain body types are generated. Centering around a 7-year-old Olive's (Abigail Breslin) obsession with winning a beauty pageant, the film wonderfully showcases the prevailing notions and unrealistic standards of beauty set by society. Refusing to conform to the set ideas of being 'pretty' and fitting into a mould, Olive wins hearts by being real and herself.

In sports specifically, a lot of campaigns have been done to do away with body shaming and gender stereotyping of female athletes. Notably, Nike has launched powerful campaigns like - 'What will they say about you?', 'This is us' and 'What are girls made of?' that have been thought-provoking and instantly reminded women to truly embrace themselves as who they are. Sport England is also doing a campaign called #thisgirlcan to spread body positivity and break taboos.

Needless to say, it is a long and arduous road ahead and the fact that female athletes are subjected to such scrutiny and judgement is indeed sad. However, the issue isn't limited to being female only, even male athletes are also openly ridiculed and criticized if they do not conform to standard ideas of 'manliness' or are too 'skinny' to pass off as an athlete of real acumen.

Ultimately, the challenge remains at a personal level - to be okay with our own selves and accept the fact that perhaps, there is no real mould to aspire for here except to just be yourself.

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