What I love about Allison Stokke is not what Matt Ufford and other bloggers love about her. “Hubba hubba and other grunting sounds,” Ufford wrote about Stokke, the California high school pole vaulter whose life has been turned upside-down by unwanted Internet oglers in recent weeks.
Photos of Stokke — thin, strong, gorgeous — have been flying around the Internet faster than a sprinter round a track, and as a result, thousands of anonymous users are looking at Stokke in her tight track uniform and posting graphic sexual fantasies. Reporters from around the world are requesting interviews with this new young sex symbol.
Some female athletes would love the attention. Some would respond by agreeing to pose for risque magazines. Some have justified the sexualization of female athletes by claiming that they’re proud of their bodies, and eager to show them off – even if to an audience that treats their photos with as much respect as they afford centerfold “girls.”
Stokke is different. Wise, at eighteen years old. She can’t do much to stop the worldwide “locker-room talk,” as her mother, Cindy Stokke, describes it. But Allison, a 2004 state pole vaulting champion, doesn’t have to like it, and doesn’t pretend to.
“Even if none of it is illegal, it just all feels really demeaning,” she told the Washington Post. “I worked so hard for pole vaulting and all this other stuff, and it’s almost like that doesn’t matter. Nobody sees that. Nobody really sees me.”
This is the crux of the answer to the “oh, we’re just appreciating female athletes’ bodies” argument. When female athletes are treated like Playboy bunnies, they lose their individuality and their identity. They become a product to be consumed by a lustful male public.
Allison Stokke wants to be known for her accomplishments – like any other athlete. Yes, she “worked hard for her body.” But the buff body was not her goal. And as long as her body is all these men see, they are “winning” by “demeaning” her, as she put it: reducing her to a sexual object to fulfill their fantasies.
It takes courage for female athletes to Just Say No to unwanted media attention. No, she can’t stop the Internet, but she doesn’t have to buy into it either, and so far, she isn’t. (Oh, please do NOT accept that sure-to-be impending invitation from Hustler, Allison, even though it would fund your college education!)
It takes strength to define oneself on one’s own terms. Fortunately, Allison Stokke is both courageous and strong – not just as a pole vaulter, but as a person.
Those who manage to see not just the body but the person will become true fans.
Mariah Burton Nelson
American Association for Physical Activity and Recreation