Newspaper Calls Olympian Leisel Jones Fat and People Get Angry, but Is the Reaction Sexist?

Leisel Jones
Leisel Jones

Leisel Jones has pocketed eight Olympic medals in her swimming career — so far. The girl has got game.

What she’s also got is a few extra pounds on her since she the last Summer Olympics in 2008.

It’s not really a matter of opinion, as Jones wears a bathing suit for a living, and her body shape has clearly changed (as you can see in this photo). Which is why an Australian newspaper seemed to be justified when writing in a Jones photo caption, “The Olympic veteran’s figure is in stark contrast to that of 2008,” according to Yahoo Sports. The same paper, the Herald Sun, also polled their readers if they thought Jones was “fit to swim” in London.

In poor taste? Maybe. But is pointing out a few extra pounds on an athlete without precedence? Hardly.

Writing about the weight of athletes is part of the business of writing about sports. Football players’ weights, along with their heights, are regularly flashed on screen during televised games. Diets, workout regimens, and fitness goals of athletes in most every sport are discussed ad nauseum on places like ESPN and talk radio.

Athletes are not desk jockeys; the level of their conditioning is in direct proportion to the level of their game. We talk about it all the time and, usually, it’s in reference to their superior shape. Which is why it’s news when it appears as if an athlete’s literal shape is less than perfect, meaning it’s literally more than.

It’s entirely possible that a few extra pounds won’t weigh down a proven performer like Jones when she competes in the London Games. But to say it shouldn’t even be part of the discussion is unfair to women athletes. If we’re pushing for continued equality in sports, then let’s bring the discussion to a level playing field and analyze female competitors just as we do their male counterparts..which might mean dissecting the number on the scale.

Despite the headlines that have decried the lack of respect for Jones since her weight was called into question, it actually seems perfectly appropriate in the context in which it has been spoken about. Discussion of Jones’ appearance isn’t in the same category as talking about a swimsuit model or a cover model, and how that affects the body image of young, impressionable girls. This is about a woman who has chosen a career in sports, and how her performance will be affected by a perceived change in the shape of her body.

It actually seems more sexist that we’d be outraged that Jones’ shape is being discussed, since it happens to male athletes all the time. Does Jones deserve to be tread upon lightly because of her gender, and is that fair? No, the fair thing is to do write about her exactly as we would a male athlete, and that’s just what has been done.

Do you think discussion of Jones’ changed appearance was without merit?

Photo credit: Wikipedia