Androgynous Athletes Not Exactly "Revolutionizing" Beauty Standards


Let’s play a super-fun drinking game! Take a shot every time we find another thing that’s wrong with today’s article on Baylor basketball star Brittney Griner and “changing standards of beauty.”

The piece, in today’s Times, argues that beauty ideals have changed, thanks in large part to the increasing visibility of athletic women. Or, as the author puts it,

Feminine beauty ideals have shifted with amazing velocity over the last several decades, in no realm more starkly than sports. Muscular athleticism of a sort that once raised eyebrows is now commonplace. Partly this can be credited to the presence on the sports scene of Amazonian wonders like the Williams sisters, statuesque goddesses like Maria Sharapova, Misty May Treanor and Kerri Walsh, sinewy running machines like Paula Radcliffe or thick-thighed soccer dynamos like Mia Hamm.

And the poster child for our new acceptance of this “androgyny” is the 19-year old Griner. Because, as the author notes, “With her attenuated Gumby torso, coltish legs and tomboy features, the still growing Ms. Griner falls well outside familiar beauty standards.” The point here, as far as I can tell, is to get people to admit that they find Griner beautiful, and to recognize that they once might not have? Though the piece does acknowledge that most web chatter is devoted to speculating about whether or not the teen is a lesbian or, indeed, a man. How to work around this? With “beauty arbiters” giving half-hearted endorsements!

“I try never to work with just the type of person who’d be attractive to me,” said Katie Grand, the influential stylist and editor of Love magazine. “If you look at art through the ages,” Ms. Grand added, “some will always prefer a more straightforward beauty and others something untraditional.” A woman of Ms. Griner’s appearance might be, Ms. Grand said, “fantastic to work with, since I try to work always with people who are interesting on a lot of levels,” and not merely those with model-pretty looks…Before Googling Ms. Griner’s most recent spate of off-court pictures, said James Scully, a model casting agent whose clients have included Gucci and Stella McCartney, he knew her only as this “slightly gender-ambiguous athlete who reads either as a pretty hot boy or a trans-girl, and not particularly a person who falls into the realm of how people see beautiful.”

Adds another modeling scout, “I always love one-offs and amazing creatures…Maybe I should represent her? Why not? I can imagine a market for that.”

So in purporting that standards of beauty have changed, the author objectifies a teenage athlete, subjects her to conventional standards, and then makes it clear that, in fact, no one has redefined their notions of beauty at all — although maybe they could make use of her, since they like novelty. Reductive? Check. Offensive? Check, check. And that’s just for starters! Indeed, there’s plenty wrong here:

– First, and perhaps foremost, is the question: Why are we even discussing this athlete’s appearance? She’s a gifted basketball player and a 19-year-old student. (Who, by the way, made headlines for punching an opponent — which doesn’t make the cut for this piece.) She’s not a model or a spokeswoman. She’s a teenager who, by his own admission, is still growing: leave her alone.

— It’s the old paradox: Let’s continue pigeon-holing what we’re allowed to find culturally beautiful by talking about our appreciation for “deviation!”.

-A ccording to this piece, we define “beauty” as marketability now? And for that matter: What “changing standards” are we talking about? Tall and thin have been the standard of at least high-fashion beauty (which is how the author seems to define it) for the past few decades. And by any standard, Griner is a conventionally pretty woman — is this radical new paradigm shift an acceptance of…tall women?

— It’s pretty rich to write an entire piece on changing beauty norms and the alleged “acceptance” of androgyny and not so much as mention Caster Semenya, the one woman who might realistically be termed such. It’s like the whole article is dancing around it, and the omission makes a mockery of the whole idea: in a world where Semenya is still considered a “freak,” and given a grotesquely feminizing makeover to make her more palatable, I’d say we have a long way to come before the standard has shifted. And if it indeed has, why doesn’t she get any credit?

— Besides everything else, this is all a bit rose-tinted; far from being universally hailed as a new beauty paradigm, apparently Griner has been subject to a lot of taunts and abuse on the court. And if you’re starting to feel better about cultural attitudes towards the athletic women the author cites, a look at the loathesome comments on this Perez Hilton item will bring you right back to reality.

(Drunk yet?)

Brittney Griner, Basketball Star, Helps Redefine Beauty [NYT]

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