Nude But Not Degraded

By David

One of our triathletes is a second year student at Florida Atlantic University. She’s doing a course on feminism and has been asked to write a five thousand word paper on a female role model. I thought Swimwatch might help. The tutor has asked that the work of the chosen woman be contrasted with the images of exploited women found in glossy magazines and television advertising. FAU clearly wants its young students to end their course as pious apostles of Madame Curie, Florence Nightingale and Indira Gandhi. It seems the works of Pamela Anderson, Kate Moss and Naomi Campbell are not viewed too favourably in the feminist corridors of FAU.

But I wonder if this is actually right. I don’t mean to denigrate the contribution of Madame Curie, Florence Nightingale or Indira Gandhi. They are remarkable women who touched and improved the condition of their generation, their gender and their world. It was and still is true that the road walked by women of ability is harsh and more difficult than their male peers.

Even in swimming, that’s true. The attitude of men is fairly easy to identify. Men in the training pool risk heart attacks trying to prevent a Rhi Jeffrey or a Darra Torres from passing them. Day after day, these women swim alongside men who feel threatened by a female and immediately increase pace to prevent her passing, their neck and shoulders bright red as they strain to avoid the inevitable. They would be far less likely do this if a male was trying to pass.

Weight training is where you see the most extreme examples of men’s ingrained belief in their superiority. Go to a gym and try a 100kg Lat Pull Down or a 40kg elbow raise. I’ve helped female swimmers who have lifted these weights. But the reaction of men is fascinating. The young bloods that surreptitiously set their own weights to the same level and then strain and struggle to do the lift. Many well-meaning males warn female swimmers of the dangers they face lifting heavy weights. They’d never bother if it was a man.

But my reservation with FAU is the implied criticism of Pamela Anderson, Kate Moss and Naomi Campbell. You see, if it is right that women are degraded by what these women do, then women today should be more vilified than they were one hundred years ago. After all, in those days no one appeared in a bikini trying to sell anything. When women were denied the right to vote, there were precious little of the fun and games Pamela Anderson gets up to these days. The lot of women appears to have improved as the behavior of some women has become more unchecked. Perhaps their liberated behavior has helped.

It also seems true that the quantity of clothes women wear or what they advertise has little to do with their social freedoms. Some of the most clothed women in the world live in the most awful repression. Pamela Anderson may show a few too many tattoos for sensitive eyes, but it does not prevent her society educating her or giving her the right to vote. That’s more than you can say for the jilbab clad women of Afghanistan.

My swimming role model for the FAU essay will be Amanda Beard, the current Olympic 200m breaststroke champion and subject of a recent Playboy photo shoot. My guess is the feminist staff at FAU will share USA Swimming’s horror at Amanda Beard’s Playboy spread. They too will mumble about swimming being a family sport and photographs that degrade women. Can’t you just hear it? “She was such a nice girl when she was fourteen and won all those medals in Atlanta. It’s such a shame. Just look at her now. In Playboy – of all things!” But again I’m not so sure.

I’m certainly not suggesting that any other swimmer appear in Playboy. But I am pleased Amanda Beard had the opportunity and the right to do the article. FAU and some swimming officials may not like it, but what Amanda Beard did was not degrading. On the contrary, it’s a thing called freedom and that’s worth hanging on to, even if it does involve the occasional good looking swimmer appearing in Playboy. Posing for Playboy may or may not be good for women or the sport of swimming; having the freedom to appear if you want to is very good for both. USA Swimming deserves credit for not trying to censure Beard for her Playboy adventure. I know of more than one Association around the world who would not have been so restrained. And that would have been degrading.

Well done USA Swimming; pity about our “D” in the feminist class at FAU though.