opinion

A talented teenage swimmer won her big race. And then she was disqualified for showing too much skin.

Last week an excited teenage girl scrambled out of a swimming pool, ready to accept victory. A champion swimmer for Anchorage’s Dimond High School in the US, she had smashed her competition in the 100-metre freestyle event.

But moments after stepping out of the water, the teen was told she had been disqualified.

The reason? Her swimsuit was exposing too much of her buttocks.

In other words, the teenager had a ‘wedgie’, something anyone who has ever worn a one-piece has likely experienced.

The referee’s call – which is now under investigation – has generated intense debate well beyond Alaska’s close-knit swim-and-dive community, and prompted a larger discussion about how female athletes’ bodies are scrutinised.

The referee who made the controversial call has not been publicly named and Mamamia will not identify the high-school swimmer who was disqualified, since she’s a minor on the receiving end of intense attention.

Lauren Langford, a former coach of the swimmer, said she believes racism, in addition to sexism, was a factor, given that the teen is among the few ‘non-white’ athletes in a predominantly white sport.

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“All of these girls are wearing suits that are cut the same way,” Langford said. “And the only girl who gets disqualified is a mixed-race girl with rounder, curvier features.”

“This young lady and her sisters are being targeted not for the way they wear their suits but for the way those suits fit their curvier, fuller-figured bodies… some will argue this has nothing to do with race, but when the same officials [who are] targeting these girls have been heard saying that so-and-so white girl also shows too much skin but has never been disqualified for a similar violation, the racial facet of this issue cannot be ignored.”

In this instance, the teenager didn’t have the option to choose the swimsuit — her school chose it. But even though all the girls on her team were dressed identically, she was the only one cited for a ‘uniform violation’.

In a world where young girls are constantly told the skin they’re in isn’t good enough, the last thing we need is adults commenting in ANY way on their bodies.

Meagan Kowatch, the teenager’s mother, has spoken out, saying the referee who made the call had previously embarrassed one of her other daughters by critiquing the fit of her swimsuit during a meet.

Furthermore, the teenager’s mother was told by other parents that her three daughters, who are all talented swimmers, need to cover up for the sake of their sons.

Why are we shaming the very bodies of athletes that facilitate their achievements? It certainly isn’t new.

I was a competitive swimmer. And when I was a 15-year-old girl, the head Australian coach at the time told me I was “Carrying too much weight to be an elite athlete”, even though my times and medals had secured me on a spot of the Australian Team. For me, this was a trigger for my own battle with body-image issues.

jessica Smith
Jessica Smith is a former Paralympian and body image activist.
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There’s no doubt this blatant objectification of women’s bodies does not apply to men, and through every example of recent body-shaming, the media persistently places relevance of women’s physical appearance to their sporting career.

Of course the teenager’s mother wants to see the results of last week’s competition overturned, and for the referee “to be kept away from her daughters’ races in future”, she said.

The disqualified teenager was visibly upset after the referee’s decision, and “heartbroken” to learn that people were accusing her of purposefully hiking up her swimsuit.

“The fact that she’s been told she’s intentionally trying to draw this sexual attention has really crushed her,” her mother said.

The teen swimmer, however, is in good company. Serena Williams has repeatedly been called “too big” or “too muscular” even as she’s become the most formidable tennis player in the world. She has always shunned this negativity and after the birth of her daughter in 2017, wrote a public letter to her own mother, grateful that her baby had inherited her ‘strong, muscular, powerful, sensational body.'

Serena’s confidence in her athleticism shows women that they should be proud, not apologetic, of their strength.

Incidents like the Alaskan one only remind us that it’s time to take body shaming out of sport. It’s time to take body shaming out of all careers.

It’s time to stop body shaming, the end.

Jessica Smith OAM is a former Paralympian, speaker, body image advocate and author. You can follow Jessica on Instagram here and visit her website here

Tags: features , news-stories , opinion , swimming
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