Confident and tough are out of the question, but when we show emotion, then we're over-sensitive and weak. Let's not respond by becoming what the world thinks is acceptable, writes Heidi Matisonn.
The word "unbecoming" is usually applied to behaviour – we talk about it being unbecoming of X to have done Y when we mean it was inappropriate, unsuitable, unseemly, even unacceptable of X to have done Y. I think the word has taken on an even greater power: it is used to belittle, demean, and disempower women.
Women are held to a different standard from men. We are expected to be becoming, to be appropriate, to be seemly, to be acceptable. Men, not so much. Take confidence: a confident man is attractive, a leader, a man among men. A confident woman? She's bossy, domineering, doesn't know her place – or my personal favourite – feisty. Speaking your mind, having the courage of your convictions, not being demure – all very unbecoming – if you're a woman.
So confident and tough are out of the question, but when we show emotion, then we're over-sensitive and weak. Yet when former US president Barack Obama cried after one of the school shootings that took place in America, no-one called him over-sensitive, or emotional, or weak. They focused on the great message he sent that it's OK for men to cry.
Speaking of presidents, why has no one batted an eyelid at the 25-year age gap between Melania and Donald Trump whereas the one between Emmanuel and Brigitte Macron caused such a stir? An older man with a younger woman – he's virile. An older woman with a younger man – there's clearly something wrong with her.
Perhaps nowhere do these double standards play out more explicitly than in sports. From a young age, it is expected that boys will play – and excel – at sport. Girls, well, they can dabble in a bit of this and that. But if they get too good, watch out – first thing we'll do is question their sexual orientation. Or worse, expect them to chemically modify their genetic make-up to conform to the standards becoming of other women. Compare Caster Semenya's treatment to Michael Phelps: as Monica Hesse wrote in the Washington Post:
"I've been reading about the unique genetic blessings bestowed upon the greatest swimmer to ever live. Phelps possesses a disproportionately vast wingspan, for example. Double-jointed ankles give his kick unusual range. In a quirk that borders on supernatural, Phelps apparently produces just half the lactic acid of a typical athlete — and since lactic acid causes fatigue, he's simply better equipped at a biological level to excel in his sport.
"I'm thinking of those stories, because I'm thinking about the ways Michael Phelps was treated as wondrous marvel. Nobody suggested he should be forced to have corrective surgery on his double-jointed ankles, nobody decided he should take medication to boost his lactic levels."
This is starkly contrasted with how the IAAF has treated Caster Semenya, whose body allegedly produces testosterone at a higher level than most women: it has ruled that if she wants to continue to compete, she must take medications to lower it.
The decision, when described as discriminatory, was justified in a statement that read: "discrimination is a necessary, reasonable and proportionate means of achieving the IAAF's aim of preserving the integrity of female athletics."
"Integrity of female athletics"? What does that even mean? I'll hazard a guess: it means that women need to look a certain way on the sports field – while men do not. Think about endorsements: no-one seemed to care what Tiger Woods, Wayne Rooney or Ronaldinho looked like (just as well). It's skill that counts. Take tennis for example. In 2013, the top three earners in men's tennis in terms of endorsements were Roger Federer, Rafael Nadal, and Novak Djokovic. They were also the top three players. In 2002 Anna Kournikova was reportedly making $10m a year in endorsements, even though she had never won a professional singles tournament.
In 2015, Forbes listed Serena Williams as no 55 on its list of power women. At that stage, she had won $72m in prize money, more than double what Maria Sharapova, had made. Yet Maria Sharapova was number 2 on that list because, according to Forbes, Serena Williams "can't quite match Sharapova in endorsement deals". Why? Well, Forbes suggests that "the Russian standout's good-looks may play a factor in working deals".
This supports the view of Merlisa Lawrence Corbett, who writes that the "Kournikova era ushered in a new type of tennis star. Instead of making a name through conquering the courts, women could reach tennis stardom by looking good and playing 'good enough'."
Serena herself has admitted that she has encountered constant body shaming since she came on to the scene: "It was hard for me," Williams said in an interview in 2018. "People would say I was born a guy, all because of my arms, or because I'm strong. I was different to Venus: she was thin and tall and beautiful, and I am strong and muscular ? and beautiful, but, you know, it was just totally different."
But it's not just looking like ladies – women sport stars have to act like ladies too apparently: that is, restrained, retiring, modest.
Here's another contrast:
The USA Women's Soccer team were criticised for celebrating each goal in their 13-0 defeat of Thailand in the recent FIFA Women's World Cup – the women faced backlash for embarrassing their opponents and being unsportsmanlike. But in the 1995 Rugby World Cup, when New Zealand crushed Japan 145-17, the All Blacks were praised for "not taking their foot of the gas" and showing respect to the Japanese players by playing hard for the full 80 minutes.
Women's rugby is one of sport's great success stories, experiencing unprecedented growth around the world. Participation levels are at an all-time high with 2.7 million players globally – making up more than a quarter of the global playing population – and a 28% increase in registered players since 2017. For the second year running, more young girls have got into rugby globally than boys and more than 40% of rugby's 400-million fan base is female.
When you go on to the Women in Rugby website, the first thing you see are four words, written in 10cm high, uppercase red letters:
TRY AND STOP US.
Scroll down and you see some rules:
FIRST RULE: TRY. SECOND RULE: TRY AGAIN.
LIFE WILL HURT SOMETIMES.
THIS GAME WILL GIVE YOU STRENGTH.
TO NEVER GIVE UP, GIVE IN, OR GIVE AN INCH.
WHATEVER YOUR SIZE, SHAPE, OR STORY.
THERE'S NOTHING YOU CAN'T TACKLE.
NO LINE YOU CAN'T BREAK.
NO OBSTACLE YOU CAN'T GET OVER.
OR POWER STRAIGHT THROUGH.
THERE'LL BE JUDGERS, DISAPPROVERS, NON-BELIEVERS.
FEAR LESS. PLAY MORE.
BECAUSE ONCE YOU'VE STARTED, YOU CAN'T BE STOPPED.
Now, I'm not saying all women should rush out and join a women's rugby team. I'm certainly not planning to. (I'm much more of a watch-the-game-on-TV-while-drinking-a-beer-and-screaming-at-the-ref kind of rugby woman.) But the sentiment is one I approve of: try and stop us.
The world can carry on with the unreasonable standards and unfair rules. Persist with the unrealistic expectations and unnecessary demands. Continue to call our behaviour unbecoming. Let's not respond by becoming what the world thinks is acceptable. Let's respond by giving the world the finger.
- Dr Heidi Matisonn is a lecturer at the School of Religion, Philosophy & Classics at the University of KwaZulu-Natal.