On Sunday, International Women’s Day, Agent Provocateur released a lingerie ad featuring four female athletes engaged in their sports while wearing the brand’s lingerie, to the accompaniment of “Oh Yeah” by the Swiss electronic duo Yello. They include American hurdler and sprinter Queen Harrison Claye, Canadian pole-vaulter Alysha Newman, American climber Sasha DiGiulian and British gymnast Georgia-Mae Fenton. Canadian 300m and 400mH record-holder and fellow Olympian Sage Watson was upset by the ad, posting her reaction on Instagram.
Watson posted: “My heart broke when I watched a recent lingerie campaign video as it zoomed in on women’s butts and breasts as they did sporting activities. As a female athletes that’s not what makes our bodies amazing it’s our arms, legs, abs, backs and our mental strength. I was sexually harassed for months after the Olympics because my buns rode up after my hurdle race and the camera man zoomed in for the world to see a close up of my butt…. people didn’t care that I made my first Olympic semifinal they just cared that my butt was shown on international television.”
Watson raises the point that women’s sport is often sexualized. In elite women’s track and field, most competitors wear a brief on their bottom and a cropped top, similar to a modest two-piece bathing suit. At the 2016 Olympics, Watson’s bottoms rode up as a results of her hurdling and the camera shot focused on that, instead of the race. “It was one of the hardest things I ever went through, receiving sexual and explicit messages about my body, even though I loved my body it hurt to have it sexualized while I was competing.”
While this blurred line has had its drawbacks for female athletes, some see it as something on which to capitalize. Women in track and field, according to some of the industries top agents, earn similar amounts as their male colleagues. In the sporting world, women earning the same as (if not more than) men is no small feat, and track and field has been ahead of the curve in this regard. There are many reasons for this. But it is undeniable that track and field athletes’ marketability is partly based on their social media following. And for some women, the competition outfits may contribute to their ability to cultivate a following.
Harrison Clay, the sprinter in the commercial, told the New York Times that she felt empowered in the shooting process. “I was outside my comfort zone. I’ve never done hurdling in a bra like that, obviously.” But, she continued, “it was also really liberating.”
Newman wrote on Instagram that, “As a woman and an athlete, I have been breaking barriers my entire life and this campaign “Play To Win” allowed me to show another side of the beauty of being a woman.”
The company has a female CEO and creative director, Michelle Ryan and Sarah Shotton, and the intention of the commercial was to hero a different kind of body–an athletic one.
For some, the commercial was a way to take control of the female athlete narrative. For others, it felt like a trivialization of athleticism. No matter where you sit on the issue, this is an important conversation to have, and to keep having, as the landscape of women’s sport evolves.