How one female athlete is changing the representation of female athletes everywhere.
By SHAQUILLA HARRIGAN and CAROLINE CRONIN
Photo Credit: Zeb Goodman ’16 zebgoodman.com
Before reading any further, take a moment to Google ‘female athlete.’ Your results will likely be inundated with articles on the hottest female athletes and pictures of half-naked women clad in bikinis instead of uniforms. The sexualized representation of female athletes is a major problem in our society and speaks to greater inequalities within athletics. However, the situation is not without hope. Senior and member of the Harvard-Radcliffe lightweight women’s crew team Nae Lang founded the Female Athlete Network.
Lang’s project started out as an assignment for an MIT class called “Sport and Performance.” As she began her research, she became frustrated with the differences between interviews and photos of male and female athletes. “There is nothing about female athletes and their performance. [They’re] all hot and pretty,” Lang recounts.
According to Lang’s research, women only get about four percent of all sports coverage in the media. However, with the expansion of women’s athletic opportunities thanks to Title IX and the number of sports within the NCAA, it would seem that there would be more serious coverage of female athletes.
As a female athlete herself, what frustrated Lang was the consistent trivialization of her hard work and that of her peers in the media.. This frustration spawned a rant to her mother via Skype. During the conversation, Lang had an epiphany. “I was Skyping mom and ranting about it. I saw the humans of New York blog and thought it would be cool to take photos of awesome female athletes and have it online. I spent a few months collecting stories.”
Lang also argues against the age-old adage that sex sells in reference to female athletes in skimpy outfits. “It doesn’t. It sells sex. Females don’t feel inspired by that. That’s why I started Female Athletes of Boston.”
Lang’s class project has grown into the Female Athlete Network (FAN) that boasts a Facebook page, an Instagram, and a website. According to Lang, the goal of this network is to, “Empower, inspire, and connect women through sports.” She has also expanded the network beyond Boston female athletes. Lang has worked with other female athletes to form chapters in Philadelphia, Miami, and California. The women that run these chapters are called FAN Ambassadors. Their profiles are linked to the central FAN site, for individuals from their hometowns.
On the success of the project, Lang wasn’t expecting the Female Athlete Network to take off as quickly as it did. ” I started with maybe 400 likes by my friends. Then I received more messages from men and women I don’t know. And I realized how powerful it is – those stories. Not something I envisioned.”
With the photographs and profiles, Lang hopes to redefine what it means for women to have muscles. ” I want to make athletes genderless. Muscles are genderless. Muscles are a sign of strength, and strength is not masculine. Women can do whatever they want.” She continues, “Sports are so clearly a male dominated realm. The traits of an athlete have been applied to males. Women are all those things as well. That’s what I’m trying to crush.”
To crush the prevailing stereotypes of women in sports, Lang enlisted the help of her friend and photographer Zeb Goodman’16. Though the photo shoot took place at 6AM because Goodman told Lang “the lighting would be fantastic,” all of the female athletes featured in the first phase of the project look powerful in their various uniforms.
The intentional choice to feature women in their uniforms goes back to Lang’s desire to showcase female athletes in the same context as male athletes and showcase women’s strength without fetishizing their muscles.
Lang comments, “The use of uniforms is to emphasize muscles in a natural way. With this, she’s an athlete, so she should be in her uniform.” She also asserts, “She doesn’t need to strip to show her strength. We can see that you’re fit. I can see your arm muscles without you being naked. Cover women like male athletes.
Lauren Grobraty ’18, a dancer, shares her experience joining Lang’s project. ” Naomi is a friend of mine. She was really, really persistent. And I was kind of resistant because I didn’t really think of myself as an athlete; I don’t really [measure] up to these other girls. But then I thought about it and I thought the time and the commitment that dance requires really is equal to what other sports require. And I think this is something that is really overlooked in terms of the wide world of sports in general.”
Grobraty echoes Lang’s desire for this project to change the way female athletes are discussed and portrayed in the media. “Female athletes are hyper sexualized, especially dancers. I hope this project puts into perspective how hard they train and how passionate they are.” She continues, ” I really hope that the project moves the focus from ‘oh wow look at these girls who are so in shape and can do these incredible things’ to ‘wow look at these girls who have devoted so much of their lives to this one thing.'”
She also believes in Lang’s drive and entrepreneurial spirit of where this project can go. “I think it could be potentially limitless in what it can do. We always joke that being on Ellen is the goal! But I think she can make it into anything – a brand, a sporting store, a magazine. I really think she can make whatever she wants out of it because it is a field that is so untouched so she’s got a wide open space,” she affirms.
Grobraty is not far off when talking about the future potential of FAN. Lang wrote a TED talk style monologue for She, a play meant to showcase the joys and hurt associated with being a woman. “I talk about what it means to be a female athlete and to be perceived as role models,” Lang says.
With all of the current and future success surrounding Lang’s Female Athlete Network, the inspiration it gives to young female athletes just beginning their sports careers means the most to Lang. “Mothers and male coaches say to me that it [FAN] is important—being [portrayed as] elite athletes [because] that’s what they are.” The photos and profiles leave no room for doubt; these women are true athletes.
Shaquilla Harrigan ’16 (firstname.lastname@example.org) and Caroline Cronin ’18 (email@example.com) are huge fans of FAN! They also encourage people to like the Facebook page and check the photos out in Mather House’s Small Gallery.