It should go without saying that an athlete is an athlete is an athlete, regardless of their gender. It’s their performance on the field/court/track etc that counts. Sadly, the reality is far from the truth, especially for women. Over the past few years we have seen a number of female athletes speaking out against pay disparity and the double standards placed on them in certain sports that mysteriously are not found among men.
One of those women is Canadian marathon runner Lanni Marchant, who has been speaking out about the sexualization of female athletes. Similar to the harmful messages women and girls are sent through advertising, which emphasizes that their worth comes from their appearance, rather than their achievements or what they have to offer, the same thing has been happening in the athletic world.
Lanni is fed up with this epidemic hampering the initiatives that seek to encourage more women to get into sport, and the positions of leadership for women in various sporting bodies and organizations. She is not here to play games, either. At the Rio Olympics she competed in the 10,000 meters and the marathon all within 3 days. She is a Canadian national record holder in her sport, and to top it off, she is a criminal defense attorney when she is off the track.
In October 2016, she spoke before the House of Commons to detail some of the barriers holding women back, despite many people claiming they want to increase the number of women participating in sports. Some of the issues included lack of funding, sporting organizations making the barrier to entry more difficult for women, and of course the media portrayal.
“I actually started out in sport as a figure skater, so I was very much the pretty little girl in the pretty little box. I transitioned into running because I liked that in running you crossed the finish line and you knew where you stood…it didn’t matter what you looked like. I think that’s a message that spoke to me and it needs to speak to other women and girls in sport,” she said in the video below.
Lanni recalled a few events where her fellow male athletes have remarked on the fact that people in the street often recognize her because of her backside, or her appearance. She is one of the most accomplished marathon runners in Canada, and is incredibly frustrated that many of these narratives are often spoken without recognition to the harmful long-term effects.
“If you stop talking about my body and sexualizing my body, then when a 13-year-old girl is feeling really uncomfortable in her own body she’s going to see how women in sport are spoken about as athletes—muscular, fit, and strong,” she said.
In an op-ed for iRun.ca, Lanni explained one aspect of the double standards placed on female athletes. She was photographed for a cover issue of the magazine, and originally had mimicked an image of Adam van Koeverden, who was pictured holding his shoes up, sans shirt. In a last minute decision, the magazine decided to scrap Lanni’s version of the picture and instead chose one of her wearing a sports bra, flexing her muscles.
She was annoyed about this, yet the magazine’s general manager decided it was important for her to express herself in an op-ed in order to shed light on this inherent and often over-looked problem in sports.
“Most of the athletes aren’t that interested in the sport politically. They’ve spoken out about [doping] and they’ve spoken out about funding, but she has represented another important place in runners’ consciousness—that people who define themselves as runners are a lot of other things also. She runs fast, but also thinks and has opinions,” said Ben Kaplan to Runnersworld.com.
Lanni’s op-ed is worth reading in full, but we have shared some of the piece below:
Did van Koeverdan have to think about whether his picture was too sexy? Did he worry that it would undermine his role as a strong athlete, an advocate, or a feminist? I can’t answer that. But I know I have to and that’s BS.
Apparently female bodies are more sexual than males, so my shot isn’t on this issue’s cover. A man showing skin is OK. My picture is not appropriate for the “future is female” edition; the aim of which is to speak out against the double standards women face. I’m not shirtless—I’m half naked.
We chose a different “look” for my cover–powerful, not playful–because being too playful might mean I’m not taken seriously. Being playful may even come across as flirty or sexy and not send the right message. But what is that message? The “future is female” but please be careful not to be too feminine. Be strong, but please do not be too confident. Be a role model, but cover up.
Be you…but not really.
During the cover shoot we paused because—according to the men in the room—the images were becoming too sexual. I was fully clothed. Was kicking my legs out on a chair too lighthearted to depict a powerful woman? Was me standing with my hand on my hip too simple to convey strong? Was me staring at the camera too sexy?
It’s easier to set Canadian records than to take a stupid photograph.
Her mission is certainly two-fold: make the athletic governing bodies and governments aware of how they become the greatest barrier to women in sports when they don’t recognize how their own policies are hindering the growth of a demographic they claim they want to see more of, and to challenge media perspectives of women by pointing out blatant hypocrisies that continue to abound, whether intentional or not.
“If we want to see continued change and growth in women in sport, it needs to happen at all levels. Our teammates need to see us and treat us as equals. Our governing bodies and administrators need to understand our development. We still have a relatively short history between women in sport, in Canada and worldwide. We need to see ourselves as equals and stop asking for permission. I’m done asking for permission to be seen as an equal, on or off the field. And I think we’re starting to see that women in sport are demanding it as well,” she said before the House of Commons.
If the running sexist commentary from the Rio Olympics proved anything, it was that unconscious sexism still very much exists, and it will take advocates like Lanni Marchant and many others to take a stand in order to break the cycle. Hell, if she is able to be the change in between setting national marathon records and working as a criminal defense lawyer, there’s no reason other people in the athletic world can’t do the same.
See more of Lanni’s interaction with Canadian politicians in the video below: