October 2016

Olympic and burkini fever

By Katharhynn Heidelberg

Two images.

One: A young woman in a spangled leotard balances on one leg, arms wide, poised to spring, on a balance beam.

Two: A woman on a beach, surrounded by police, face obscured, as she removes a long-sleeved swim shirt.

The first image is of Alexa Moreno, Mexican gymnast and Olympic athlete. The second is of a Muslim woman in France, being forced to remove parts of her swimsuit because it is too modest, too “foreign,” too “religious.”

It wouldn’t seem these two images have much in common. But both gained publicity for much the same reason: either the response they drew, or events that prompted the capturing of the image to begin with, show that, even now, women’s bodies are considered public property.

In Moreno’s case, images of her sparked something that perhaps does not often occur in tandem with the description “Olympic gymnast.” Twitter and social media trolls poured in with comments about how “fat” Moreno was.

Yes. Really. This 99-pound woman is “fat.” This solidly muscled woman, who could kick her haters to the moon with her powerful legs, is “fat.” This Olympic athlete is “fat.” Because she has extraordinary muscle tone and dared wear a leotard showing it. Because she didn’t look like an anorexic 8-year-old. Because you can’t see every rib etched out on her. Yeah. Fat.

This woman and her extraordinary accomplishments were reduced to what perfect strangers — sitting at keyboards or staring at their phones and tablets — thought about her body. No doubt, these people all were perfect physical specimens themselves, who could do at the drop of a hat what Moreno had trained her whole life to do.

The headlines that lead search results are the ones about how she was “bodyshamed,” not about her achievements. Calling out the idiots who tried to shame this powerful young woman is appropriate (and viewers did so, too); unfortunately, it allowed the trolls to set the narrative about her Olympic experience. I am aware this column does so, too.

But Moreno doesn’t need to be defended. She needs to be celebrated. After all, there are other images of Alexa Moreno. My favorite shows a young woman in a sparkly blue leotard, running, muscled arms in motion, face set with determination. Oh, and the other shots of Moreno on the beam, where she was presumed to be “fat,” show her flying.

Once again, women are reminded that, if not even an Olympic gymnast is “good enough,” then they have no prayer. Their bodies, by virtue of appearing in public, are fair game for ridicule, judgment, criticism. And control.

The C-word is alive and well. You can see that in the picture of the woman on the French beach, who is surrounded by people acting as a literal dress police. She had been wearing a burkini, a fulllength swimsuit with skirting and waterproof hat.

Thirty or so French cities banned the burkini over fear of Muslims — I mean “terrorism”! Because who knows what the women might be hiding in their bathing costumes? (Pretty sure ISIS hadn’t thought of that. Until now.)

A French court ruled in August that mayors cannot ban the swimwear. But the prime minister and president are on record supporting the ban. And France’s law prohibiting women from wearing the burqua itself in public was upheld by the European Convention on Human Rights, reports CNN.

France’s rigidly secular dress code extends beyond the beach. France is a secular nation, you see. And Islam oppresses women, by forcing them to cover up.

That’s the reasoning. It is true that some people, in the name of Islam, control women and punish them mightily for even the slightest straying.

In a distressing number of instances, “straying” is basically when a male in their family decides he has been dishonored by something a woman has done, or failed to do. So she dies. (This isn’t to say “honor killings” are happening left and right, or that all Muslim men participate in them, or support them. The book “Honour Killings” catalogues a number of such murders, including among Christian households.)

I do not support forcing women to cover up to satisfy others’ sensibilities and fears. But neither do I support forcing them to disrobe to satisfy others’ sensibilities and fears. France, too, is controlling women through its burkini ban.

The irony is staggering.

The ban rightly triggered backlash. I was surprised to hear of the dictate; my thoughts went immediately to two things.

One, is France banning wetsuits? Because that’s the same thing as a burkini; it’s just that men also wear wetsuits.

Two, I remember when I first heard of a burkini, years ago, before anti-Muslim paranoia got such a firm foothold. In my memory, they weren’t being marketed as particularly religious attire, just as a modest swimsuit option for women who wanted one.

I wanted one. (Minus the head covering.) I didn’t feel it was my “duty” to cover up. I wasn’t being pressured by a man, for any reason, let alone a religious one, to cover up. Certainly, I am neither a closeted Muslim nor openly Muslim. I just wanted practical swimwear in which I could be comfortable. Like its fashion twin the wetsuit, options in my size and budget just weren’t there.

France’s burkini bans are certainly not as oppressive as honor killings or the number of other rules imposed on women in the name of Islam (or other religions). That doesn’t mean they are not at all oppressive. It’s simple, really: Whether you are a man who thinks women are showing too much skin, or a government who thinks covering up is too religious … STOP TELLING WOMEN WHAT TO WEAR.

Stop treating women as public property, whose every move must be scrutinized, particularly with regard to appearance.

When a woman takes to the balance beam or uneven bars or the floor routine at the Olympics, assess her on her performance — with a heavy dose of humility as after all, you are merely a spectator.

When a woman takes to the beach, be it in a burkini or a bikini, a nun’s habit, a wetsuit, a one piece, a pair of old shorts and a T-shirt, leave her be.

She is not there for you.

Katharhynn Heidelberg is an award-winning journalist in Montrose, Colo.