According to a recent survey, 78% of female athletes are self-conscious about their body image – and it’s no wonder considering the sexist trolling they’re experiencing on social media.
Warning: this article contains distressing content which may prove triggering for some.
When Rebecca Adlington became the first British swimmer to win two Olympic gold medals since 1908 at the 2008 Beijing Olympics, she should have come home to a hero’s welcome.
“The comments started off as being really nice and congratulatory, but as my following grew, they became really personal. It was stuff you wouldn’t say to your worst enemy,” she tells Stylist, explaining the body-focussed trolling she’s put up with for over a decade.
“Had it been about my performance in the pool, I would have taken it, but it had nothing to do with my swimming ability. I didn’t know that you had to look like a model and be a size 8 to be a swimmer.”
Many of the comments compared her to a whale or dolphin “because they swim fast”, while the comedian Frankie Boyle went on Mock The Week and said Adlington “looks like someone who’s looking at themselves in the back of a spoon”. Needless to say, that “joke” exacerbated the trolling that she went on to endure.
The swimmer is far from being the exception. A recent BBC Sport survey found that 30% of sportswomen have been trolled on social media – up from 14% in 2015. As a result, 78% of female professional athletes are self-conscious about their body image.
To repeat: we’re talking about sportswomen here – Olympians, women with elite levels of fitness, strength and endurance. If women whose careers are centred around health and fitness are being made to feel self-conscious about their bodies, what hope is there for the rest of us? Of course, it’s not just “fat-shaming” that’s the issue.
Eden Silva is a British tennis player of Russian and Sri Lankan heritage and she, like so many women of colour, is subject largely to racial abuse. “Almost every message I receive online has a racial slur included,” Silva says of Twitter, Instagram and Facebook – explaining to Stylist that this happens to her regardless of whether she’s won or lost her last game.
She’s even received death threats aimed at her and her family.
“Recently I received a really concerning message from a troll that stood out for me more than usual. It said they would find me and break all my fingers and that they would cut my mother’s head off right before my eyes. It worried me so much that I reported it to the police.”
You would hope that Silva received support for this kind of abuse. However, according to the BBC Study, only 10% of female athletes report trolling to their clubs or coaches. For many, it’s a case of managing the issue themselves and only turning to authorities when the taunts turn into concrete threats.
“When we do report it or speak out about the abuse we experience, nothing ever gets done about it and it gets disregarded as a very low priority. Therefore, a lot of players view it as pointless to inform people and instead, suffer in silence. I personally don’t think the tennis community does half of what it should do to stick up for players and put a stop to the constant abuse we have to deal with – and that’s quite sad. I think the governing body (LTA) should try to do more.”
Sadly, Silva predicts that unless the LTA or overarching sports authorities play a more proactive role in protecting athletes online, “a player will get hurt and then everyone will jump on the bandwagon and start caring. The care needs to be shown now.”
In a statement issued to Stylist, the LTA said: ““Nothing is more important than the wellbeing and safety of those involved in our sport and the LTA takes any form of abuse directed towards our players as well as our own duty of care extremely seriously.
“We have a wellbeing group that meets on a monthly basis to consider the mental health needs of all our supported players, which includes those who might be affected by issues such as these. We also work closely with the player governing bodies such as the WTA and the Tennis Integrity Unit on reporting these incidents to the relevant authorities. It is important we continue to draw attention to any form of inappropriate behaviours on social media as it continues to be a serious concern for many tennis players.”
For women in the UK, sport usually doesn’t pay well; the vast majority of female athletes (86%) earn under £30,000 from competing. Many trolls (and male sporting fans) maintain that women’s sport should be taken less seriously because the women command lower viewing figures, and therefore generate less commercial income.
That’s a fair point, says professional boxer and current Commonwealth super-welterweight champion, Stacey Copeland, but it’s easy to rebuff with a couple of facts.
“(A troll) will say that we don’t bring in the same kind of revenue as men so how can we complain about equality. They’re absolutely correct, but we were banned from many sports; the FA has only officially recognised women’s football for 30 years so there’s a lot of catching up to do. In order to increase the revenue, we need all sorts of bodies to come together to make it happen. Once you start to explain this kind of thing, some people start to understand. It’s the purely sexist trolls that need to be left alone – there’s no point in engaging with them.”
Unsurprisingly, Copeland has been on the receiving end of relentlessly sexist trolling which often involves receiving unsolicited dick pics. These are accompanied by odd and creepy messages such as “I bet you’d like to use this as a punchbag” or “I bet you couldn’t fit this into your mouth with a gum shield”. And then, of course, there are the old classic riffs on a woman’s place being in the kitchen, rather than the ring.
“It’s all under the guise of being a joke, but it’s really about putting you in your place. It’s someone using their anonymity as a powerful tool to put you down about something that’s nothing to do with sport. Lots of people say that male sportsmen get trolled and they do, but this has to do with gender, so it’s different. Anything to do with race, gender, homophobia feels different. They’re using that prejudice to put you down as a human being.”
Copeland tries to engage with her critics online if she thinks that they may simply be ill-educated or misguided, and has had a number of successful dialogues with people. That’s something she’s only been able to do as she’s grown older and more experienced, however.
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“When I was a younger athlete, I never responded to negative comments - partly because I was grateful to have the opportunity to box. Now, I understand that the whole point is to have that voice and space. If you stick to your values and you really believe in the development of women’s sport and bringing people on board who come from a different point of view, then speaking up is valuable. But if it’s just going to become a to-and-fro, then it’s a waste of time and you should just block and move on.”
She’s also fully aware that it can be uncomfortable to talk to trolls and for some women, it might not be worth the aggravation (“you can’t be a trailblazing athlete if you’re worried about this kind of stuff going on,” she says). It can be “humiliating” to repeat the kinds of vitriol sent your way in a professional environment, and there is still a pervasive feeling in this country that with celebrity and fame, it means that you’re fair game.
Someone wrote to Copeland this week, to ask why she was complaining about abuse when they argued that it “comes with the territory.” Copeland says, “It is important to challenge the stuff that’s sexist or racist. It shouldn’t be allowed in person or online.”
Copeland makes the valid point that if a presenter went on BBC Sport and started spewing sexist, racist or homophobic remarks, they’d be fired. If a fan did the same in a post-match interview, the channel would officially apologise for airing them. Why then, is hate speech left up online for so long, and why is it so easy for female athletes to be targeted on these huge platforms?
Copeland believes that “these companies need to decide where they stand and what they want to do about it. Hate speech isn’t opinion. Everyone’s unaccountable at the moment. People have taken their own lives because of it and still nothing’s been done.”
Another athlete who is prominent with their bite backs is Welsh rugby international Barbarian Elinor Snowsill. She uses her Twitter account to highlight the abuse women receive, and the challenges that gay women in particular face within rugby. She’s received DMs with homophobic questions or comments, as well as abuse in response to things she has posted on social media. Since speaking out about the trolling she receives, a small minority of men have messaged her to “stop being a snowflake and toughen up”.
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“The fact that these men believe that there’s something I need to be ‘strong’ about implies they know that something wrong is happening.”
And the point is this abuse is largely coming from blokes who then seem aggravated when women object. Male athletes might face abuse too, but it tends to be inextricably linked to their performance; whereas with women, it’s personal and unconnected.
This week alone, American golfing pro Hannah Gregg tells Stylist that she’s had someone create multiple fake accounts to email her sponsors and the tours she plays on, accusing her of soliciting nudes and inappropriate photos from her followers. Her boyfriend, also a professional golf player however, only receives “hate messages that are performance-based” such as “you played bad this week, why are you even bothering to play?”
In Rebecca Adlington’s case, the abuse received from men was far more aggressive while she describes the comments from women as sounding “jealous or confused”. More worrying than gender, however, was the age of her trolls.
“I did a show on Channel 5 where they traced where my trolling was coming from and generally, my trolls were aged between 15 and 25. The men used to scare me because they sounded so angry, but I felt more sorry for the 16-year-old girls. It’s so damaging for a teenager to think these kinds of things, let alone send them to a stranger. It worries me that bullying people online is these teenagers’ main interest.”
With that in mind, Adlington wants more education around trolling and its effects to be meted out in schools. Her own five-year-old daughter uses an iPad at school and she’s painfully aware that in 10 years time, she too might begin to experience the dark side of social media. “We need more education on it. When my daughter gets her own phone and wants to go onto social media, I’ll educate her on how it can affect her – that it’s not just about who you follow, but who follows you.” In the meantime, however, what’s to stop someone from being reported and setting up umpteen accounts from the same phone or IP address?
The important thing, everyone agrees, is that we have to keep going. We have to keep moving, achieving and enjoying sport – ensuring that it’s as inclusive and accessible as possible. That includes seeing our wonderful sportswomen in positions of visibility.
“Since This Girl Can launched in 2015, we’ve learnt a great deal about women’s barriers which are exacerbated when they are subject to inappropriate messages around their appearance,” explains Kate Dale, Campaign Lead for This Girl Can. “Professional women athletes calling for help shows that even in elite spaces and at a peak level of activity, fear of judgement can still exist - and for good reason. No matter how strong, successful or confident we feel, it’s not always easy to shrug off insults, abuse or name-calling. And it’s not acceptable either.
“Social shaming is sadly a part of our society, not just how we look, but what we say and do often being picked up on. We need to counter the noise of negativity with more positive and authentic voices. We have worked hard to create a safe and inclusive community with This Girl Can, championing the real stories of all women who get active or play sport in whatever way is right for them.
“This is why we feel strongly that exercise is more than just about appearance. The work we do through This Girl Can aims to frame exercise in a way that highlights each and every benefit we can all get from moving more, such as feeling healthier, having better mental and emotional health, flexibility, building strength and – most importantly – having fun.”
When Adlington was swimming to victory, very few female athletes were celebrities in their own right. Today, Katarina Johnson-Thompson is on TV advertising Müller yoghurts, Dina Asher-Smith has been on the front cover of Elle and Jessica Ennis-Hill has fronted Stylist magazine. Serena Williams is arguably the most successful and well-known female athlete of all time, showing girls and women everywhere that being strong and Black isn’t a barrier to world domination.
And yet, as social media has grown and people have become more savvy and fearless in who they try to gain access to, trolling has increased for many athletes. Something has to change and perhaps it starts with social media companies taking more responsibility and brands seeing female athletes as valuable spokeswomen.
Laura Weston, trustee of The Women’s Sport Trust, explains that “sport is a powerful signifier to society and that’s why it’s so important for a diverse range of female athletes to be seen and heard”.
“We work with athletes to help them understand how they can use their platform for good and make changes around issues they care about. It’s hard to put your head above the parapet and so it’s incredibly frustrating when the athletes come up against trolls. What helps is when we can form a community of sportswomen who can support each other through issues such as this. Then, they can share tactics, frustrations and ensure that they keep going despite this pointless criticism.”
As Snowsill points out, female athletes are “ready-made role models who have had to develop resilience, discipline, respect and teamwork to get to where they are – who better to have as brand ambassadors?”
For support on dealing with trolling on social media, visit the National Bullying Helpline
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Miranda Larbi is a freelance fitness and wellness journalist, and qualified personal trainer. When she’s not finding new vegan places to eat, she can be found training for the next marathon or cycling across London on a Tokyo bike.