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If sportswomen were paid more, they might not feel obliged to get their kit off | Barbara Ellen
Rugby union Sport

If sportswomen were paid more, they might not feel obliged to get their kit off | Barbara Ellen

Are female empowerment initiatives in danger of becoming a tad pat and lazy? I ask, because of the mammoth backlash against the lingerie company Bluebella’s new advertising campaign, featuring three players from the rugby sevens Team GB Olympic squad, Jasmine Joyce, Celia Quansah and Ellie Boatman.

As part of the brand’s #StrongIsBeautiful campaign, encouraging girls to feel confident about taking up sport, the women are depicted playing while clad in uber-sexy underwear, teamed with rugby socks and boots.

It looks exactly as bizarre as you’d think: there they are, trudging through the grassy mud clods. Some pose with balls by goals; others hold a teammate up in the air. Most are clad in porn-adjacent BDSM-lite bras and tight pants with see-through panels and gussets that appear to be the width of dental floss.

Despite the feminist intentions and fine physiques, the effect is disconcerting, verging on fetishistic. What, exactly, is going on here? Female strength reinterpreted via balconette bras and mud-splattered camiknickers? Athletic prowess teamed with cam-girl styling? Eat your heart out, Emmeline Pankhurst.

Cue a barrage of complaints, including from tennis ace Martina Navratilova, who labelled it “regressive and sexist”, and swimming champion Sharron Davies. Team GB stresses it’s not involved with Bluebella’s advert. The charity, Women in Sport, has also disowned the “highly sexualised” campaign (awkward, seeing as Bluebella included its name in the publicity material).

In some ways, what’s the problem? The players expressed belief in the campaign. Bluebella said in a statement: “We want to celebrate and normalise the beauty of strong and powerful bodies, bodies that have historically been ignored by the fashion industry and stigmatised by society.” The company has run several Strong Is Beautiful campaigns involving sportswomen without a backlash, among them one last year featuring a couple of the England Lionesses footballers. Some people feel that critics are misinterpreting the ad.

Do they have a point? Sport has long been sexualised (some of us are old enough to recall Athena’s infamous poster depicting a female tennis player hiking up her skirt to show her tanned bum). Bluebella, after all, is a lingerie company – it’s unlikely to kit out sportswomen in full Handmaid’s Tale regalia.

Furthermore, are only scantily clad women’s bodies deemed a public disgrace? It’s become routine for sportsmen (including Jude Bellingham, Cristiano Ronaldo and, of course, David Beckham) to pout and flex for the camera in tight-fitting grundies. Where’s all the anguished pearl-clutching about degradation and objectification then?

Still, the feeling persists that something is different (wrong, off) about the rugby shoot – maybe to do with styling and tone? When the likes of Beckham advertise pants, it’s all moody smouldering, prestige lighting and the overriding sense of weapons-grade image management. Crucially, they’re made to look powerful and aspirational. I’ve yet to spy Bellingham trudging around  a muddy pitch on a miserable-looking day in diaphanous Y-fronts, showing the world his moneymaker.

Even the Lionesses in Bluebella’s previous campaign were mainly shot inside (in what appears to be a training centre, but inside nonetheless). Some are wearing tracksuit bottoms and tops with their underwear.

Still, it was only when Davies said that she understood why sportswomen might do such shoots, how difficult it was to get funding, how grateful they probably were for the money, that it clicked. That, along with the unfortunate conceptual misfire, there could be an ugly financial angle to this.

A few years ago, when I interviewed the weightlifter Emily Campbell about her success in the Tokyo 2020 Olympics, she spoke of the endless fight for funding. While male and female athletes struggle to get sponsorship, it seems women struggle more. Davies estimated that sportswomen receive a lamentable 4% of available funding and sponsorship. Women in Sport wants the government to adopt a “gender budgeting” approach to address the problem.

Through this lens, I look again at the Bluebella rugby shoot. It’s difficult not to notice how uncomfortable it all looks. The brutal no-filter vérité of the shoot, the exposing nature of it all (how instead of looking strong, the players look anything but). Let’s face it, superstar sportsmen, with their money, agents and image management, don’t end up in such situations. Even the higher profile Lionesses seemed to get off lighter (shirts, tracksuits, inside shots).

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It becomes clear: this isn’t really about underwear. Nor is it anything to do with how the women look (perfectly fine, of course). At root, this is, as it so often is, about money and power: who has it and who doesn’t? And how hard the latter group have to think about turning down much-needed advertising funds.

I wouldn’t judge these female rugby players too harshly for this ill-conceived lingerie campaign. Everyone clearly meant well and, besides, they’re probably skint. Myriad other issues are also in play here, not least how female sport has been historically dismissed as the inferior sideshow to male sport. As Andy Murray bade his emotional farewell to tennis at Wimbledon last week, it was striking how female players came out to praise him for being one of the few vocal supporters of women in the game, with current US Open champion, Coco Gauff, hailing him as a gender equality “icon”. How, for all the stellar female sporting breakthroughs and stunning victories, it’s all still a bit lopsided.

How also, however well intentioned, perhaps it’s no longer enough to dress a bunch of women in bras and knickers, point the camera, hashtag the images and declare it instantly empowering. At this stage of the game, sportswomen – no, all women – deserve better than that.

Barbara Ellen is an Observer columnist

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Source: theguardian.com