Dvora Meyers | Longreads | June 2019 | 25 minutes (6,257 words)
More than two decades ago, a billboard went up in Salt Lake City near the 600 South exit of the I-15. It featured a young woman in repose clad in a sleeveless black leotard, her back to the viewer and her head tilted up. The weight of her upper body rested on her right arm, which was extended behind her; her left arm lay languidly on her bent left knee. Her right leg was extended straight in front of her, its foot arch, creating the appearance of a straight line from hip to toe.
The angle of the woman’s head seemingly bathed her face in light, her long curly blonde hair falling freely down her neck. The pose was reminiscent of Adam on the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel, only inverted.
Passersby unable to make out the words printed in small text beneath the image would be forgiven for not knowing what exactly the billboard was advertising. Was it selling a dance performance or was it an ad for workout apparel or a photography exhibit at a local gallery? Visually, there were few clues.
But if a driver could make out the text at the bottom, they would’ve read, University of Utah Gymnastics, 581-UTIX. The woman on the billboard wasn’t a model but a gymnast on that 1992-93 team, 19-year-old sophomore Aimee Trepanier, whose pose from her floor routine was advertised as a way to sell competition tickets for the then-defending NCAA champions.
But to others in Salt Lake City, the ad was selling something else — sex.
Shortly after the billboard went up, women’s rights groups in Salt Lake City, including the local chapter of NOW and the YWCA, began to protest it. Soon, the controversy debuted on the front page of the Salt Lake Tribune, along with an op-ed from the Tribune’s editors titled, “Selling Sport With Sex,” which decried the ad and the motives behind it. Though the editors acknowledged that the image was “striking — even classy,” they claimed the ad was sexist and dismissive of the female athletes it wished to promote and celebrate. “By so blatantly using sex to sell its most successful women’s team, the U. of U. demeans women athletes and women as a class. It reinforces the traditional notion that women are sex objects first, successful individuals second,” the unnamed editors wrote. “When a women’s team does so, it implies that women are more interested in personal attractiveness than athletic achievement.”
By this time, the controversy had shaken Utah’s largest city, as well as the community of its flagship university, and the school’s athletic director Chris Hill had already decided to remove the billboard ahead of schedule.
The op-ed derisively noted that head coach Greg Marsden — and Trepanier herself — didn’t “get it.” That claim puzzled Marsden, who had essentially built the program from scratch: Both he and the team felt that the billboard faithfully represented one aspect of women’s gymnastics, the artistic side. Marsden repeatedly insisted that the photo was art and should be judged on those grounds. A multitude of opinions could be valid. “There’s not a right or wrong answer,” he told the Tribune. “It depends on what you think is ugly, classy, beautiful or sexual.”
Marsden’s clarification was more than just an attempt to defend a controversial image from criticism. Gymnastics is a sport where aesthetics are foregrounded. It is both art and sport. Gymnasts aren’t simply judged for doing a skill, for landing on the beam; they’re also evaluated on the presentation of their skills, how well they’re executed, their form, the shapes they create with their bodies, the beauty of their movements, and even their static moments. This is even more significant for an event like Trepanier’s floor exercise, the inspiration for her pose and the portion of the routine in which gymnasts are expected to dance as well as tumble. While all of this is hard, if not impossible, to quantify for scoring purposes, this artistry is nevertheless an important part of gymnastics. It’s right there in the sport’s formal designation — artistic gymnastics.
But talking about beauty in women’s sports can feel problematic. For many women, athletics are supposed to liberate them from the demands of looking a certain way. Sports, we generally think, are supposed to be about what your body can do, not how your body looks. But the image of Trepanier was all beauty with grace notes of strength. It didn’t mark her as an athlete but as a woman.
The year 2019 was a banner one for women’s college gymnastics. A couple of weeks into the college gymnastics season, Katelyn Ohashi’s floor routine went viral online after it was posted to Twitter: more than the acrobatics — though they were certainly impressive — it was Ohashi’s exuberant performance to a medley of Tina Turner, Michael Jackson, and Earth, Wind & Fire that made the video take off online. The video of the UCLA senior’s performance racked up more than 117 million views on social media, and her viral fame didn’t just made her popular — it helped increase the visibility of women’s college gymnastics as a whole. The 2018 national champion Bruins broke their previous attendance records at Pauley Pavilion, selling out the very same arena that hosted the 1984 Olympics gymnastics competition. (You know, the one in which Mary Lou Retton became the first U.S. gymnast to win the Olympic all-around title.) And when the Bruins were on the road, crowds traveled with them. When they competed at Pac-12 conference rivals like Stanford, Washington, and Oklahoma, each school had attendance spikes. The sport’s visibility also increased this year via an expansion of television coverage, which meant that those interested by Ohashi’s floor exercise could go beyond YouTube highlights and further satisfy their curiosity.
But even if you’re one of those recent converts to college gymnastics, you might not have heard of Utah’s gymnastics program. Though the Utes were ranked in the top six throughout the 2019 regular season, Utah hasn’t yet had a viral moment like UCLA’s in the internet age, and it wasn’t really part of the national title discussion.
Though their most recent national title is more than 20 years behind them, Utah gymnastics is one of the most important programs in the history of women’s college sports, and those other teams owe a debt to Utah for figuring out how to turn gymnastics into a popular spectator sport, the kind that can fill arenas year in, year out.
Utah women’s gymnastics team was created in 1975 in order to bring the school into compliance with Title IX — like many other schools, Utah had to add women’s sports to their athletic rosters. The U, as it is known, turned to Greg Marsden, then a 24-year-old graduate student in sports psychology, to start a team for a paltry $1,500 stipend. Marsden had no prior experience with gymnastics — he wasn’t a gymnast himself, and he had never coached the sport. This is a testament to how seriously athletic departments at that time took women’s sports: Try imagining a man being hired to coach the men’s basketball team with no knowledge or experience.
But Utah was lucky. Marsden became a devoted student of the sport and was a quick study to boot. In 1976, his first year, the gymnastics team placed 10th; two years later, they were fourth. By 1981, they placed first at the Association for Intercollegiate Athletics for Women (AIAW) national championships. For the next 14 years, through 1995, the Utes won 10 national titles — tied with the University of Georgia for the most. (All of Georgia’s wins, however, came after the NCAA took over the national championships in 1982 so I’m sure that there are some UGA fans out there who don’t consider the programs tied for the winningest program.) Utah has also never missed a national championship. They’ve qualified a full team for 44 consecutive years, a record unmatched in college gymnastics.
In the process of transforming the Utes into a national powerhouse, Marsden was equally as obsessed with marketing the program. Linda Hamilton, a former longtime sports reporter with the Deseret News who covered the Utes, recalled that early in her tenure at the paper, the university’s sports information director called, saying that their gymnastics coach would like to speak to a reporter. “I was happy to talk to them because that was probably my favorite thing to watch,” Hamilton said, noting that she had been writing about gymnastics since the late 1960s when she was just starting out as a writer in Chicago. “He was happy to have somebody who knew a little bit [about gymnastics], understood what he was talking about.”
When I spoke to Marsden in 2015 at the very beginning of what ended up being his 40th and final season at the helm of the program, he spoke as passionately about filling the stands as he did about sticking landings. He felt that popularity, not just competitive success, was the key to keeping a program off the chopping block. Success on the competition floor will only get you so far. Back in 1994, UCLA announced the men’s and women’s gymnastics teams would be dropped. At that point, the women were among the top six in the country; the men had won several national titles and had placed three gymnasts on the gold medal winning 1984 Olympic team. Though the women threatened a lawsuit on Title IX grounds and saved the program (the men were cut), I doubt the women’s team would’ve found themselves on the brink of elimination to begin with if it had a large and devoted fanbase. Even when I attended competitions in the early 2000s, the crowds at the cavernous Pauley Pavilion seemed thin, and this was a period just after the program had won three national titles in four years.
Through studying the most popular sports in the college pantheon — football and basketball — Marsden conceptualized how to turn gymnastics into a raucous spectator sport, one that could attract thousands of fans for every home meet. He added previously unknown elements to college gymnastics: The competitions featured the school mascot, the band, cheerleaders, T-shirt giveaways, and entertainment during “dead times” on the floor (when the gymnasts rotated between events and warmed up). Utah’s slick production was a far cry from the solemn affairs that typified elite international gymnastics competition, which felt more like dance recitals than athletic contests.
“Greg revolutionized everything,” said Missy Marlowe, a 1988 Olympian and former Utah gymnastics star, in a documentary about the team that was broadcast at the start of the 2019 season. “I get kind of defensive when people say, ‘Oh, he helped gymnastics.’ No, he helped all of women’s sports. He was the first one that insisted that we were on par with the men on everything, with football and basketball. He was the first to say, ‘Why isn’t our school band here? Aren’t we campus sport? Where are the cheerleaders? Aren’t we a campus sport? I need everything.’”
Marsden’s drive to generate attention for his gymnastics program went beyond begging reporters for coverage and scheduling cheerleaders for competitions. By 1993, the Utes had become known for pushing the visual boundary of its media guides, which were distributed at home meets. Each year, they did something different. In 1991, the team wore formal attire, clad in black standing in a mirrored room surrounded by art (Marlowe says the image later appeared in a local art gallery). The following season, though, the media guides and accompanying poster emphasized the gymnasts as incredibly buff athletes — Marlowe was featured most prominently of all.
I could always imagine myself right along with those girls in that picture. The one that they did the year before me was kind of like a classic. They were really beautiful.
Blonde hair let down and covering the nape of her neck, she stood with her back to the camera. Her skin glistened as though she had just completed a workout. She was flexing, and the muscles in her back dimpled. You could see the cut of her shoulders and upper arms, creating a triangular effect that tapered down. It was a powerful statement that highlighted the physicality a gymnast must possess to be at the top of their sport.
Under Marlowe’s photo, her ten teammates posed in white capped sleeve leotards, flexing and showing off their toned physiques. The ’92 squad subsequently became known as “Red Rocks,” in part for the terrain in southern Utah, but also because of their cut bodies.
“We were a really, really fit and strong team that year,” Marlowe recalled. Not that a team of high-level gymnasts would be anything but physically fit when compared to the rest of us mere mortals, but after narrowly missing the national title in 1991, conditioning was of the utmost importance for the 1992 season, which ended with Utah regaining its title (Marlowe won the all-around crown).
That 1991 photoshoot left a strong impression on Trepanier-Preston (the gymnast later married and changed her name). She was still in high school, but as a Utah recruit, she received all of the marketing materials. “I could always imagine myself right along with those girls in that picture,” she said. “The one that they did the year before me was kind of like a classic. They were all in these black gowns and they were wearing jewelry. They were really beautiful.”
Listening to Marlowe and Trepanier-Preston, an AB pattern emerges in the presentation of the sport — beauty, strength, beauty, strength. In 1994, the year after the billboard controversy, the media guide featured Suzanne Metz on the cover. Standing opposite a Utah football player in full pads, Metz, assuming a tough posture, tugged on his face mask. The juxtaposition of a gymnast — one of the smallest athletes in sports against a football player, one of the biggest — makes for an arresting visual. But it was more than that. The media guide not too subtly implied that the Ute gymnasts were every bit as tough and strong as the quote-unquote strongest athletes on campus.
There has always been a tension amongst athletes in the so-called “beauty” sports having to justify their athletic bona fides. In ESPN The Magazine’s annual “Body Issue” in 2017, Ashley Wagner defended figure skating and her status as an athlete. “I think a lot of people would be very surprised at the kind of training we have to put in. I am on the ice 6 days a week, I am physically training 3–4 hours a day on the ice, off the ice sometimes up to 2 hours a day. This sport is my life. I feel strongly that I’m an athlete through and through.” A basketball player would never feel the need to insist to a reporter or the general public that they are athletes. It’s taken for granted.
In fact, Trepanier-Preston mentioned the respect the Utah football team had for the gymnasts’ conditioning program: “They were always shocked at how much we did in the gym. The weightlifting, all of the background stuff that we did for conditioning to prepare for what we did on the floor.”
Again, no one is ever surprised to learn the training and weight room routine of a football or basketball player. You can see the athleticism and strength on the field. But gymnastics — when done correctly — conceals the effort that goes into it. You’re supposed to make it look easy. And beautiful.
These media guide images — many other profiles of Ute gymnasts — were shot by Salt Lake City photographer Brent Herridge. Herridge’s portfolio included fashion shoots for local department stores, and he volunteered his time and studio to shoot the team every year. At his studio, Herridge would have a makeup artist and lunch for them. He would first shoot all of the gymnasts’ headshots, then take some additional photographs to use for the media guide and team poster. “Each year, it would take on a slightly different look and it got bigger and better each year,” he recalled. Some of the images, like Trepanier-Preston’s, would become posters that would be distributed for free at the Huntsman Center, where the team held home meets.
The aggressive and bold posturing in each crop of photos wasn’t equally embraced, but approval wasn’t the point — attention was. “My thing, whether it was with our imagery or with our leotards, my thing was always, ‘We want you to notice us. We want to be paid attention to,’” Marsden told me. “You may hate it or you may love it. And most people did on those things, they had a strong feeling about whether they loved that campaign or hated that campaign.”
These comments may imply a cynicism underlying Marsden’s marketing decisions, that he’d do anything so long as it brought more attention to the team, but that it took a billboard controversy to land the program on the front page of the Tribune for the first time is more an indictment of the media than of Marsden. Salt Lake City’s most important paper decided to highlight the team because of a controversy, not because Utah was one of the most successful programs in all of women’s collegiate sports. This almost validates Marsden’s approach; the media wasn’t going to give a women’s sport — not even a squad that had won multiple national titles — top billing unless they did something to earn it outside of the competitive arena. Merely doing what the guys did — competing and winning — would never cut it for a women’s team.
Trepanier-Preston didn’t learn that her photo had been selected for the billboard until it went up. She was thrilled. “To even be on the team and a part of such an incredible program was a dream come true for me,” she said. “And then to be highlighted in one of the marketing campaigns, I was beside myself excited to be representing the University of Utah gymnastics team.”
That excitement quickly gave way to confusion once she learned that the billboard with her image was the source of controversy and backlash.
“I read a couple of articles, and then there were a lot of editorials that were coming in where people were making their own opinions known in the papers,” Trepanier-Preston said, recalling the hurt she felt at that time. (The controversy was also featured on morning call-in radio in Salt Lake City.) “And then a lot of personal letters came to the university targeting the billboard, even some personally written to me.”
Trepanier-Preston kept newspaper clippings and other memorabilia from her gymnastics career at Utah and shared with me those related to the billboard controversy. While much of the response from gymnastics fans was quite positive, she did receive some negative feedback. One letter in particular stood out for its egregious misogyny. It’s truly a masterpiece of the genre. The letter writer, a man, explained over the course of three typed, single-spaced pages that he had a right to write to the college student because a coworker had hung the poster of Trepanier-Preston in her famous pose in his office. Since it impacted him, he had a “right to say something,” and he accused the gymnast of not only being sinful but also in league with Satan. “I don’t think you understand how powerful of an effect a ladies body has upon the male gender,” he wrote to Trepanier-Preston.
It’s hardly surprising that the image of Trepanier-Preston would receive this sort of response from the devout in heavily Mormon Utah, but she couldn’t fathom the objection from the women’s rights groups. This was a bitter pill to swallow.
“Having it be the women’s group, yeah, it definitely hurt me. It wasn’t something that was easy to take but I was not in a position to be strong enough to take that on at that age,” Trepanier-Preston told me. She believed her photo presented a positive image for young women to emulate. It was difficult for her to know that some women found the opposite to be true.
She ended up being kind of thrown in the limelight with something other than just her gymnastics.
According to Hill, Utah’s athletic director at the time, the decision to strike the billboard was an easy one for him to make: The image didn’t present Trepanier-Preston or the women’s gymnastics team in a “sporting light.” Which, to be fair, it didn’t, at least not in the way we’ve been conditioned to think about sports photography. Typically, sports photography shows off effort, struggle, and athleticism. Of course, the standard for what is “appropriate” sports photography and in all things sports for that matter was set by men.
Though they’ve been allowed to enter sports, women haven’t really been permitted to change how they as athletes are presented. They’re treated more like a spice that you forgot to include when you first started cooking and add halfway through. It gets in there but doesn’t change the flavor all that much.
Hill, however, was surprised by the contingent that fervently supported the billboard. The Tribune was flooded with letters mocking the controversy and defending the billboard as a faithful, nonexploitative representation of women’s gymnastics, and in retrospect, perhaps Hill didn’t quite understand the billboard’s power. This was a different form of sports photography. “I didn’t get why it was such a big deal to make a change,” he said.
And yet, Hill still permitted Trepanier-Preston’s image to be distributed in poster form. It was fine to hand out her photo at a gymnastics meet, presumably to people who knew and understood gymnastics, but several stories high on a billboard was problematic. It was a problem of context, but the disconnect is somewhat startling.
Every time that I did my floor routine and that pose was shown, there was a show of support and cheers, and a lot of times, there were standing ovations.
“I wanted to defend our gymnastics program so people didn’t think they were rogue,” he said of his stance in the media at the time. (Hill noted that he supported and remains close friends with the Marsdens.) The head coach received the mildest of rebukes. “From that point on, I wanted to approve any posters that were going to go up,” Hill said.
No one I spoke to who was involved in the creation of the billboard — the coaches, the photographer, the PR consultant, and the gymnast herself — regretted the nature of the image and what it conveyed. But Megan Marsden, a former Utah gymnastics star who then became the team’s assistant coach until this past April (and Greg Marsden’s wife), did feel bad about one thing: not helping Trepanier-Preston more during the controversy. She didn’t fully appreciate how hard this all was for her former gymnast until very recently, when Trepanier-Preston spoke about the incident in the Utes’ gymnastics documentary. “Some of it, in her eyes at least with the few things she said on that documentary, I could tell there were parts of it that were tough for her,” Marsden said. “She was a 19-year-old becoming even more famous in the community because she was the picture.
“I feel a little bad about that because I’m not convinced in my mind now that Greg and I helped her enough through that,” she continued. “She ended up being kind of thrown in the limelight with something other than just her gymnastics.”
Though she and Greg were cocoaches, there weren’t many outside of the gymnastics community that were aware of her role in the billboard. Greg, not Megan, was in the limelight, and so the story became how a man exploited a 19-year-old for the sake of ticket sales and attention. “It was hard for me for me to watch him being criticized when I felt like it wasn’t just him and I knew all of the background,” Megan said.
Even if special interest groups within Salt Lake City and the state were aghast, the billboard did spark the already robust interest in the gymnastics program. “We garnered so much attention that we wound up having our biggest season ticket sales and attendance ever in history. We had over 13,000 that year, which was a big jump at the time,” Greg Marsden said. And the Utah fans rallied around the gymnast, something that Trepanier-Preston — now decades removed from the backlash she suffered — spoke warmly about.
“The first time competing in the Huntsman Center, I can just tell you, there was nothing but support,” she recalled. “Every time that I did my floor routine and that pose was shown, there was a show of support and cheers, and a lot of times, there were standing ovations.”
The overwhelming support of the crowd, as welcome it was, forced Megan to move the pose from the beginning to a different spot in Trepanier-Preston’s routine for the following season. As her routine had previously started with her head back, an insouciant arm over her knee, whenever she assumed the pose, “The entire arena would go crazy. I mean, crazy goosebump material.” This meant that Trepanier-Preston sometimes had to wait a few minutes before starting her music. No one wants their athlete getting cold on the floor. By 1994, the pose was featured at the very end of Trepanier-Preston’s floor routine. The crowd could applaud for as long as they wanted to.
Though the billboard soon disappeared from the interstate, the Trepanier-Preston pose lived on. During the team’s free poster night that season, the Tribune reported that thousands attended just to swipe a giveaway and leave. “They all disappeared at one point,” Bruce Bell, the volunteer PR consultant who had gotten the billboard space for the team, recalled. About a year later, Bell heard from a friend. “Did you know that the baseball card shop over on Main Street is selling your poster?” his friend asked. When Bell went to the store to investigate, he found the posters were being sold for $60 apiece.
The pose appeared one more time along the interstate at the 600 South exit. This time Greg Marsden was featured — wearing a pink tutu tights, and a black beret. Also photographed was a guitar and a paintbrush with the tagline What is art?
It was an advertisement for the upcoming Utah Arts Festival. The organizers approached Marsden about recreating the image that had prompted the original controversy. “I thought it was a hilarious idea and agreed pretty immediately to do it,” he said. Marsden would later appear at the festival in the very same outfit. “The way I introduced the acts was that I was in my outfit and they put me on a pallet and rode me out in that pose,” he says.
The art festival’s interest seemed to underscore what Marsden and others had been saying all along — the image, and thus the billboard, was intended as a piece of art. Of course, claiming that something is art doesn’t necessarily defend it against charges of sexual exploitation. Plenty of great art has been exploitative of its subjects. Both things can be true at the same time.
The women who objected to the first billboard didn’t feel any better about the second. “It trivializes the concern some women had that the original billboard was selling sex — not gymnastics. One of the things feminist groups are fighting against is the objectification of women in the media in general and advertising in particular,” Luci Malin, coordinator for the Salt Lake chapter of NOW, told the Tribune.
Jane Edwards, the executive director of the YWCA in Salt Lake City, wrote a letter to the Tribune. “How appropriate that The Salt Lake Tribune’s March 26 account of the advertisement appeared directly above the story of JoAnne Marquez’s violent murder by her husband,” she wrote in the published letter. “The discounting of women, whether through sex on a billboard or a knife to the throat, keeps us all from living in peace, from living free. So the controversy around the Aimee Trepanier billboard was dismissed. Then along comes Mr. Marsden in tights and tutu to once again say that women’s issues aren’t to be taken seriously. What does it take to be heard?”
The women of NOW and YWCA, contrary to the assertion in the letter, had been heard: The billboard was taken down ahead of schedule. Hill and the university agreed with them that the image wasn’t an appropriate way to advertise a sporting event. What the activists had failed to do was get any of the principal players — the Marsdens, Trepanier-Preston, Bell, Herridge, or really, the fans that supported the sport — to see the photograph the way they had seen it. As for the second charge, that Marsden and the festival organizer (who was a woman, it should be noted) were making light of something they felt strongly about, well, that part is true.
I recently spoke to Edwards about the billboard controversy from 1993. Like many others I consulted for this story, she cautioned that her memory of the incident was imperfect and incomplete. She told me she wasn’t sure when exactly she became aware of the Utah gymnastics billboard but she does recall driving past it on the interstate. “Driving by it, you couldn’t miss it. It was really an eye catcher because it was so dramatically graphic and sensual,” she told me.
“It just called out to all of the times the media photographs commercials, advertisements, etc. [that] objectify women,” she continued. And how that is a problem, that is a huge problem, because it contributes to their mistreatment.”
I asked if it mattered at all that Trepanier-Preston was doing a pose from her floor routine, which linked it back to sport. Edwards didn’t think that mattered a great deal. “You don’t know all of that when you see it,” she said. “I mean, yeah, maybe it is a pose and that’s fine but when you’re driving by, that’s not what you think. People don’t know gymnastics. They just see this very seductive and suggestive large, large picture of a beautiful woman.”
If she felt like this was a faithful representation of some aspect of her sport, how can other women then tell her that she is being exploited?
For Edwards, the image’s perceived impact was everything. It didn’t really matter that a woman (Megan Marsden) had helped conceptualize and orchestrate the pose or that the woman pictured (Trepanier-Preston) didn’t feel like she was being sexually exploited. It didn’t matter that Trepanier-Preston’s leotard was the traditional attire of women’s gymnastics.
“I think when you look at something that is enticing or objectifying or sexual or sensual, you don’t go through an intellectual process about a competition and what are the rules and what are the poses and what are the events. You have a gut reaction,” she explained. Throughout the conversation, she resisted my attempts to intellectualize her and others’ reactions to the photo.
Edwards is probably correct that the vast majority of those who drove past and saw Trepanier-Preston up on the billboard didn’t seriously think about the nature of gymnastics as an aesthetic sport. Some might have noticed the muscularity of her arms and legs; others might’ve felt themselves pulled toward her butt; and for others, her cascading curls might’ve stood out the most. Some might’ve been intrigued and wondered what it was about, others might’ve had more illicit thoughts as the letter from the very shook Mormon indicated. And some might have seen the Utah Gymnastics text at the bottom and understood the point. Many different gut reactions were possible and reasonable, including the one that Edwards and the other activists had.
Those same gut reactions were also probably informed by the social conditions at the time of the controversy. The early ’90s were a period in which fierce arguments were waged over the representation of women’s bodies. Some feminists were critical of all imagery seen as objectifying women, while others thought such imagery could be reclaimed, that women could be represented sensually and those expressions could also be considered feminists acts. Or, at the very least, not anti-feminist acts. For the latter kind of feminist, Trepanier-Preston’s willing participation in the billboard, and her continued defense of it, is significant. If she didn’t feel objectified and exploited, if she felt like this was a faithful representation of some aspect of her sport, how can other women then tell her that she is being exploited? Do Trepanier-Preston’s feelings even matter if you believe that this image contributes to a harm to all women?
I admitted to Edwards that I struggled to understand her perspective on the photo, not just because I was looking at it in the year 2019, but because I had grown up in a very religious community with strict rules for women regarding dress. I was taught that I had to cover up for my own good, so that men could see me as something other than a sexual object. It was my job to anticipate their reactions to my body in order for them to see me as something more than a body. It’s living in a defensive crouch.
What turned out to be liberating for me was to dress “immodestly,” to show more skin, perhaps too much by some people’s standards with the understanding that some men might look at me and have the “impure” thoughts that my rabbis had warned me about. I’m sure Trepanier-Preston then, and certainly now, understood that the picture of her could be seen as sexual; but the fact that it could be viewed way is not really adequate justification for saying that it absolutely is exploitative.
Edwards noted that a lot of time had passed since she worked at the YWCA and objected to the Utah Gymnastics billboard. “I can’t even recall visually that billboard. I recall circumstances. I recall my feeling then. Who knows if I saw it today if I would still [object]? Everything is so much different now.”
But how much has really changed? Well, Utah Gymnastics’ billboards for starters. There have been billboards since Trepanier-Preston graced 600 South exit, but they are very different from the one unveiled in 1993. In fact, all of Utah Gymnastics’ sports photography is different. Gone are the ambitious themes that changed from one year to the next. The last decade of media guides and billboards are a little less exciting. Sure, they have a “sporting light,” featuring gymnasts wearing team leotards in the school colors of red and white, but the poses are almost all static shots of the upper body. The words Utah Gymnastics are splashed across the whole billboard in bright red; the text is nearly as large as the gymnast. There is little mystery as to what is being communicated through these giant advertisements. I suppose that makes them effective as ads even if it also make them a little bit boring too.
At the same time, while Utah has toned down how the university markets its premier athletic program, sports photography in general has gotten much more adventurous. In 2009, ESPN The Magazine introduced the Body Issue, which featured photographs of athletes of all genders posing completely naked. The purpose is twofold: to show us the bodies that pull off incredible athletic feats and to let us can gaze upon their beauty.
So far two gymnasts have graced the Body Issue — Alicia Sacramone, a silver medalist with the 2008 Olympic team, and Aly Raisman, a three-time Olympic gold medalist in 2012 and 2016. In both spreads, the very buff Olympians played on or near gymnastics equipment, striking some poses and doing very basic elements under beautiful lighting. They both looked gorgeous, which is hardly surprising considering that both were in peak athletic condition and in their early 20s.
With women’s sports, aesthetic still reigns supreme. By that I mean that the female body, whether in motion or static, whether in the athletic context or outside of it, will be objectified and scrutinized for things beyond ability and performance.
The International Association of Athletics Federation (IAAF) has spent years trying to drum South African Olympic gold medalist Caster Semenya out of sports because she is a woman with naturally high levels of testosterone. She never struck a sensual pose for a billboard but she has been turned into an object anyway; she was forced to undergo degrading and invasive tests and have her appearance scrutinized for signs of masculinity in order to disqualify her from competition. (Which happened in May — though the Court of Arbitration for Sport ruled to let the IAAF implement testosterone limits for female athletes competing in middle distance events, the testosterone policy was suspended for Semenya pending the outcome of her appeal to the Federal Supreme Court of Switzerland.)
And earlier this year, the football coach at Rowan University, a Division III program with a record of just .500 the past two seasons, complained to the athletic department about female runners training on the track while wearing sports bras without shirts. His reasoning? The sight of women running in just a sports bra would distract his young male players. Whether statically posed as Trepanier-Preston was on the billboard, or in action as the runners were when their attire was challenged, female athletes can be objectified. Sports, though they enrich the lives of women and open doors, don’t allow them to transcend their gender. They’re still women with all of the baggage that that entails. In sports, as outside of it, a woman’s body remains contested terrain.
Dvora Meyers is a journalist and writer. Her work has appeared in The New York Times, The Atlantic, Deadspin, ESPN, and Slate.
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