Female gymnasts perform some of the most incredible feats of athleticism in the entire Olympics. Perfect handstands, mind-boggling flips and twists, graceful landings—all under the scrutinizing of the entire world (and some seriously intense judges). And they do it in perfect makeup.
Can we talk for a minute about Aliya Mustafina’s fabulous sparkly cat eye from the London Games? Did anyone catch Daniele Hypolito’s peacocky ode to the Brazilian flag? Or why not go back to Vera Cáslavská’s fantastically giant 1960s bouffant? How did that thing even stay on her head?
In Olympic gymnastics, there is no finish line to cross, no net to score into. Instead, the routines are performances, heavily dependent on visuals and aesthetics. As gold and silver medalist McKayla Maroney told Teen Vogue, “In gymnastics, everything is a competition. You want to have your hair look the best and your makeup look the best. You want to be the best, and you want to have the prettiest leotard.” But is it troubling that the competitors performing some of the most brutal, physically demanding routines would worry about how their makeup looks? Only if you consider sports and beauty to be incongruous.
But as we know, they generally are. And not just for the practical reason that anything but the most carefully applied makeup is going to slide right off your face while working out. Makeup is, we assume, frivolous, superficial and a whole host of other adjectives traditionally associated with femininity, while sports are serious, strong and of course, masculine. And yet here the two come together, and no one blinks an eye that the girl executing a perfect Amanar vault is also wearing sparkly eye shadow and a leotard covered in thousands of Swarovski crystals. Even as the sport has become more physically demanding over the years and female gymnasts become more and more muscular, such exuberant displays of femininity are still an integral part of the sport.
That ability to straddle the two worlds of athleticism and beauty is unique when you consider that makeup is a difficult line for prominent woman to walk, no matter the venue. Too much visible makeup and they’re vain, not enough and they’re hideous. Or “brave” for showing their potentially flawed human faces to the world. Wearing makeup, not wearing makeup, it’s a statement no matter which way you cut it (just ask Alicia Keys). Women already have to constantly negotiate a tightrope of being beautiful in just the right way – just consider recent profiles on actresses Margot Robbie and Renée Zellweger, in which male critics twist themselves into knots trying to describe how their beauty is or isn’t acceptable. Female athletes face an even trickier conundrum.
For many female athletes, their femininity is often presented as at odds with their talent and athleticism. It’s as though being a world-class athlete or a female human were a zero-sum-game. Extraordinary female athletes have been subject to degrading public probes of their gender identities for decades, and even the very idea of women participating in the Olympics has been fraught with anxiety. Tennis powerhouses Serena and Venus Williams regularly deal with insults like “the Williams Brothers” lobbed at them. And yet, oftentimes when female athletes do “pretty” themselves up, they’re subject to sexualization from creeps like Marco Aurelio Cunha of the Confederation of Brazilian Football, who says women’s soccer has become more popular because “the shorts are a bit shorter, the hairstyles are more done up. It’s not a woman dressed as a man.”
But comments like Cunha’s rely on the reductive assumption that women always wear makeup in order to be palatable to men. The reality is that for many people, including but not limited to heterosexual women, makeup is just another form of self-expression.
This isn’t to say that the world of gymnastics is some utopia where gymnasts are free to present themselves however they wish. Not since Dominique Dawes at the Sydney Games have we seen a black female gymnast sporting her natural hair at the Olympics – and considering online commentators still took issue with Gabby Douglas’s slicked back ponytail in 2012, we probably won’t for a long time. And unlike their female counterparts, male gymnasts are pretty much without adornment—where, we ask, is the Johnny Weir of male gymnastics? It seems most keep it as “butch” as possible, because although they may have some of the biggest muscles around, they’re still part of that sometimes feared, sometimes revered category of men in tights. Unlike most male athletes, they’re in one of the few fields where their female counterparts steal the spotlight.
Although really, is there truly anything more inherently “masculine” about football players who, as Jim Caple writes in a profile on the aforementioned Weir, “occasionally hold hands in the huddle and wear knee-length pants in golds, silvers and ruby reds so shocking that Carrie Bradshaw would think twice about wearing them in public”? What with all the theatrical emotions on display, the color-coordinated uniforms and the cries from the spectators, there is something a little bit flaming about all sports. Female gymnastics simply embrace it with open arms. We should all be so sparkly.