Is Beauty Taking Over Women’s Sports? (Updated)

August 17, 2012

Watching the Olympic Games, I’ve noticed that this time around the athletes are all way more made up and styled. And it’s not just the gymnasts in full makeup and hair gel – they’re certainly savvy enough to know that they’re going to be scrutinized on everything. But the track runners are wearing full makeup as well, the swimmers are pulling their swim caps off to reveal perfectly arrayed and cascading hair, and don’t even get me started on Ryan Lochte’s grill. I even wondered if there was some sort of Olympic makeup and hair team going around and making sure everybody looked good!


Now, I’m all for women choosing to be both sporty and feminine, but is beauty taking over the sports world? Does a female athlete, in addition to her years of rigorous training, need to have a perfectly photogenic smile as well?


Early Olympic games had exclusively male athletes, who competed in the nude. So there’s no doubt that the opportunities for spectators included both admiring their athleticism and taking in their beauty. But as athletics got more clothed – and women joined in – there arose a sort of…seriousness to the Games. Many female athletes would never have wanted the public to know they were primping before they played.


It’s a fairly recent social development that “allows” women to be both sporty and girly, as though a bit of makeup would somehow atrophy the muscles of anyone who used it. And a lot of athletes have embraced this – the Williams sisters have been into makeup and putting as much pizazz into their costumes as long as the rules allow.


But the big thing here is sponsorship. There’s some big money to be made from a good deal, and winning gold can be worth it in dollars as well as pride. That’s not new to this Olympiad, but it seems the stakes are higher. And it’s not just a Wheaties box, but cosmetics companies are jumping in, even sponsoring athletes before they compete.


So we see US swimmer Natalie Coughlin a television ad for Pantene (UK readers: have you been treated to one featuring cyclist Victoria Pendleton?), Michael Phelps in Head and Shoulders ads, and US athletes Marlen Esparza(boxing) and Jennifer Kessy(beach volleyball) are in Cover Girl ads.


So when we see other athletes all done up, are they… auditioning? When Missy Franklin has her hair perfectly twisted under her cap to splay perfectly afterwards, is she saying: “Hey, shampoo companies, put me in the next ad, I’ve got great hair and a Gold Medal too!”? Is Gabby Douglas saying, “Hey Cover Girl, now you can have a black girl athlete for your campaign, I’ve got an awesome smile and a Gold Medal too!”?


Probably, yes. And it’s not all bad, after all it’s fun to see Olympic athletes in ads – they’re inspiring! And these athletes work so hard, so yeah, let them scoop up the all the rewards they can when they win.


But there’s a danger here of the sponsorship taking over the sport. Marlen Esparza did well getting her Cover Girl sponsorship. But when she won Gold, There were headlines calling her “Marlen Esparza, Cover Girl model” before US or boxer. As though her years of training take a back seat to the always provocative female word “model.” And dang, did Cover Girl just take half that headline?


Because in the end it’s just marketing; for the most part, athletes get money and the brands get exposure. And nobody gets overcoopted. Plus most women who either watch the Olympics or compete in them wear makeup, even when playing sports. Esparza has always worn makeup in the ring, even before her sponsorship, saying, “I think if you look good you feel good, and if you feel good then you fight good.”


Update: I’ve heard from a secret source that no, there’s not an official US or NBC makeup artist at the Olympics, but there are pop-up shops, and their original hiring notices included makeup and hair artists, so maybe there are beauty teams at work? Anyone who knows, send me a tip!

Update 8-17-2012: One of my industry hair/makeup sources worked with Gabby Douglas and Jordyn Wieber and asked them if they had makeup artists over in London. No, they did their own hair and makeup for competition, though they did get a makeup artist for the all-day press marathon when they got back to New York. And that’s more glam squad than most athletes get: the women’s soccer team were on their own for press day – either they weren’t big enough “stars”, or there were just too many of them…

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  • Sue - MakeupMew August 11, 2012 at 11:19 am

    This article really cracked me up…athletes with makeup auditioning for sponsors. I’m not sure if there was hired help. I like looking at athletes in ads for products too. I agree with you, Meli. Their fame as an athlete should not take the backseat! Boycott Cover Girl!! *kidding* but seriously… boxer first, model second.

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