Thursday, 30 September 2010

Sexism and the Swimming Times

I've always quite enjoyed the Swimming Times - a bit over-focussed on the elite end of things for my taste, but a good mix of different aspects of swimming, reasonable coverage of open water swimming etc. Plus, unlike other specialist magazines such as those covering triathlon, there are high levels of coverage of female athletes. So, my heart sank when I opened the August 2010 issue to find this "centrefold" of synchronised swimmer, Jenna Randall.

[5/5/12: this picture has now been removed from this post. Following a dramatic spike in hits, I discovered that members of a football club fan site had linked to the picture as part of a thread about female athletes they'd like to have sex with. This sort of proves my point about sexualisation, but I've also taken the picture down so as not to contribute to that process.]

I wrote to ST, who subsequently published the letter, with a reply, both of which I have copied in full below:
"I was really disappointed to open my most recent copy of the Swimming Tiems to see that it included a highly sexualised centrefold spread of synchronised swimmer, Jenna Randall.

This picture has absolutely nothing to do with swimming, and simply perpetuatues the idea that women are there to be looked at. Why did we not see a picture of this athlete performing or training? All this picture does is tell young women that how they look is more important than what they can do."

Reply from editor:
"I disagree that the picture referred to has nothing to do with swimming. The whole point of us using it was to emphasise that Jenna is a swimmer and an athlete, and to show that in addition to how she is normally seen in the environment of her sport, she is also a glamorous young woman out of the pool - who could be attractive to model agencies and to sponsors. It was also something different for the magazine as we could always (as we have many times before) print action pictures (of Jenna) from synchro or other athletes from swimming or diving, but we wanted to show one of our athletes in a different light, and raise their profile slightly beyond the action in the pool.

And we are pleased to note that Jenna has recently received sponsorship from Kellogg's" first objection to this is that contrary to the editor's defence, the picture itself does not, in any way emphasise that she is a swimmer and an athlete (although the small text box on the next page does mention her sport....and the fact that she is curling her toes in the picture like they do when they swim to make their legs look longer). Secondly, the picture is highly sexualised in both clothing and posture, and consequently, highly out of place in the official magazine of the ASA. This is not an argument based on prudishness - more one of context. That she is pictured in a semi-recumbant, come-hither posture with her clothing sliding up her legs and down her shoulders would fit perfectly in a soft porn publication, but in a sports magazine engaged in the promotion of swimming, it's just gratuitous and offensive. Young women should not have to sexualise themselves, and be sexualised by others, in order to gain sponsorship or paid employment, and it's a shame to see ST endorsing this as a legitimate way to view female athletes. What a young girl can learn from this that it's great to be good at sport, but that to really get on, you also need to be sexualised and beautiful...and another generation of body-dissatisfied young women is born.

I realise that this is not necessarily a popular view in some quarters, but this stuff drives me nuts. Oh least that's a magazine to cross off the list.


  1. I agree with you entirely, Karen. The woman in this photo does not look particularly athletic, and she is certainly not wearing swimming or athletic attire! It would be entirely possible to have a picture of Jenna to show how she looks and what she gets up to out of the pool - maybe going for a walk or with friends or family - without making it into this sort of 'soft porn' image. You are absolutely right to be annoyed and shame on the editor for (perhaps deliberately?) misunderstanding you.
    Rebecca Gumbrell

  2. I have to disagree with you

    Firstly I think the photo is tastefully done and Jenna looks fantastic. Anyone would think by your description that Jenna was lying around in vulgar positions in nothing more than a thong.

    Jenna is wearing more clothes in this picture than in a normal working day when just a swimming costume is worn. In this sport,athletes have to perform in many different styles,just like dance and that involves sexuality. Take Strictly Come Dancing and the response from the judges if the Argentinian Tango for example was performed with no form of sexuality involved?

    Secondly many photos have been published in the Swimming Times of Jenna and other synchronised swimmers in costumes competing or training and this was to show the readers another side of Jenna who is an elite athlete but also a young woman comfortable with her body and image. Jenna worked closely with the photographer to produce this shot that she wanted to achieve.
    I think it is great to see Swimming Times reaching out to a wider audience than those who are just interested in the aquatic sports because they participate in them, this can only be a good thing.

    We live in a culture where most females admit to disliking their image including very young children. We are increasingly exposed to media pictures that show unrealistic skinny bodies that are mainly computer generated or plastically and chemically enhanced, whilst we read the constant articles on female bodies and celebs which gossip about who has put weight on, who is a size zero which I am sure is making young girls feel even more insecure about their bodies. Images of female athlete bodies are surely a step in the right direction. Then we have at the other end of the scale the obesity problem.

    In this country we have a high number of girls dropping out of sport at a young age for many reasons, but one being that they would rather become a pop star or reality tv star because they think that industry is glamorous whilst thinking sport isn't. In the past female athletes have been seen by young girls to be quite masculine which hasn't helped in attracting many girls into sport, where as these days we are seeing women athletes being marketed to the wider public with images shouting out that you can be successful in sport, be athletic and powerful yet still remain beautiful and feminine. Female athletes have been pushing down barriers for many years and can now secure lucrative advertising deals and sponsorship based not only on their results but their looks too and what's wrong with that? Sport is business after all. More importantly, its the society that we live in. The modelling industry is one of the few professions that women command higher rates then men where as sport is completely the opposite,so why shouldn't young good looking female athletes tap into this to help them support themselves financially and to help build a career after sport whilst creating positive body images and role models to young girls,showing that if you work hard then so much can be achieved.

    I don't believe its that different with male athletes either. There are many footballers, rugby players and cricketers who are using their image to sell products, including many provocative shots.

    Its refreshing to see a positive female role model with an athletic yet feminine body who is comfortable in her own skin in a magazine which is trying to raise the profile of its athletes to the wider public and media.

    One other note, has the photographer given you permission to use this image on this site?

    Adele Carlsen

  3. Dear Adele
    Thanks for this feedback. I guess that ultimately we disagree on how to live in a society that values women in this way, and I respect your position even though I disagree strongly with it.
    ST are aware of the post, and if asked, I will remove the image.
    Best wishes

  4. i did swimm the channel on 2nd of aug 2010

  5. Karen
    If this were a picture of, say, Tom Daily,or Mark Foster, bare-chested, maybe wearing surfer-type shorts,smiling alluringly to camera, would you be writing in to complain? There are many weekly and monthly mainstream media magazines (e.g. Heat) including Sunday supplements that have pictures of males, who may be actors, sportsmen etc, shot in a "sexy" style, yet I don't feel the need to write in and accuse them of sexism.If swimming had a higher profile, perhaps swimmers would feature in such and not be constrained to ST? Surely the fact you complained is a form of bias, the very type you are trying to rail against? If Jenna wasn't as photogenic, would you be complaining? Is she to apologise for her beauty? She only came to prominence on the basis of her abilities as an athlete. Had she not been successful in that field, her picture wouldn't have appeared in this context. If someone can be proud of their academic, artistic or musical abilities, most of which could be largely said to be gifts bestowed from on-high, why should beauty and athletic prowess not be treated on the same footing? I think your concerns say more about your political beliefs than the objective qualities of the image.

  6. thanks for this comment - although I'm not sure why it needs to be made anonymously. Firstly, I don't think that what Jenna is wearing is comparable to a man in surfer shorts, and secondly, the fact that Jenna is undoubtedly a very conventionally attractive woman is utterly irrelevant to my argument. My point here is one of context - I would expect this in Heat magazine, which I choose not to read; but I don't expect it in a specialist sports magazine. I don't believe that an image has objective qualities, but that its meanings are determined by the context in which it appears and is viewed. In my opinion, this is an inappropriate context for this kind of image. And yes, my response to it says everything about my feminist politics, and I don't feel at all apologetic about that.

  7. "Secondly, the picture is highly sexualised in both clothing and posture, and consequently, highly out of place in the official magazine of the ASA. This is not an argument based on prudishness - more one of context. That she is pictured in a semi-recumbant, come-hither posture with her clothing sliding up her legs and down her shoulders would fit perfectly in a soft porn publication"

    I must say, this idea of 'sexualisation' you have seems to me to be unusual.

    Someone sitting on the floor in summer clothes and smiling is NOT sexual! If you are reading a "come-hither" posture because of her smile at the camera I think this reflects your own issues being projected, whatever they are.

    The photo is nothing more than you would find in a copy of Take a Break magazine or an M&S catalogue.

    Now, if anyone has certain issues close to their heart be it feminist politics or anti-immigrant views for example, then they will see most things in that light. Quite often that light is blinding.

    This comment will be anonymous because I am not registered with any of the other sign in methods and I have good internet security standards. Hell hath no fury like a blogger [who thinks they have been] scorned - too many over sensitive wierdos out there I'm afraid. Nothing suspicious going on as perhaps you might be thinking.

  8. Thanks for commenting - I only remarked on the anonymity because I like to engage in direct debate and discussion. But anonymity is fine too, of course, and I was wrong to comment on it in that way.

    I agree that images of those kinds can be found all over the place - my point was only ever about what I personally consider to be an inappropriate context. We will have to agree to disagree on what constitutes sexualisation in what context (although I should point out that the recent massive spike in visits to this particular post has come via a posted link to the photo on a football fan site discussion thread about female athletes they'd like to have sex with...). The fact that this is the most viewed, most commented-on post on my blog speaks to what people feel is at stake when these ideas are challenged, but debate is a good thing.

    I'm not sure when anti-immigration came into this, but as for the feminism - absolutely, and I wear the badge with pride. It affects how I think, and how I see the world.



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