Janice Turner has written a fantastic piece in Saturday’s Times magazine, and if you have access to the Times online, then do read it. Over six pages of glorious photos of women Olympic athletes, she took us through the triumphs of these Games, which really did place women on the front pages for their achievements, not for their appearance. “In Britain, where for all the purported equality our female stock images are TOWIE airheads or actresses peacocking at premieres or wifely political help-meets, it did us good to have a whole new cast in our national soap.”
As we know, these Games were amazing for women, from the first medals for Team GB (which were earned by women), to the inclusion for the very first time of female athletes from Qatar and Saudi Arabia. For these women, just being there was a triumph: women’s sport is in effect banned in their home countries, and for them to have trained and gained permission to compete was an astonishing step forward. Leah McElrath in the Huffington Post, after interviewing Saudi women about what it meant to them to see their countrywomen compete, concluded that: “The images of two strong, courageous young Saudi women athletes will forever exist as part of Saudi history. … a bell of hope and expectation has been rung – a bell that cannot be unrung within the hearts and minds of the women and girls of Saudi Arabia.” She is right, of course, also to remind us that the battle for women’s equality has not yet been won: only “Time will tell if the leaders of the Kingdom heard it as well.”
But from a Western perspective, it was the focus on women’s achievements and not on their appearance that was so refreshing, so empowering, so liberating. These were women as real people, not clothes horses or simpering shadows of who they could be. We saw, experienced and shared their stories – real stories, with all the twists and turns that we know our own real lives bring us, but which we have been ‘Hollywoodised’ into imagining are not part of the lives of those in the public eye. Surrounded as we are by pictures of unrealistically shaped, airbrushed women, plucked and buffed to what we have been cudgelled into believing is ‘perfection’, it is not surprising that female aspirations for success have become so enmeshed with these notions of superficial beauty.
These Games have had a huge impact on how women are viewed, and we have to keep up the momentum. The vultures are circling, though – in this week’s ‘women’s lifestyle’ magazines there is a rash of stories and pictures of Team GB athletes dressed up to the nines and looking, in the words of many an edition, “hot”. There is nothing wrong with this in moderation, but there is something devastatingly wrong if we airbrush away the images and stories we have just recently been witnessing, of these real, amazing women, with their real, amazing stories of hard work, sacrifice and triumph. We need our daughters to have role models of whom we can genuinely say that we would want our daughters to be like them when they grow up. Let’s not lose this once-in-a-lifetime opportunity we have to make this happen.
My fervent hope for London 2012: that they were the Games when women chose to be who they really are.