Opinion: The biggest problem with cyclist's nipple comment

Penny Burfitt
Lifestyle & Entertainment Producer
This image of Argentinian reporter Belén Mendiguren sparked a firestorm, and a really important conversation. Photo: Twitter

Opinion

A former pro-cyclist has absolutely stepped in it today, with a truly exemplary display of the overt objectification of professional women.

A since-deleted tweet kicked off the controversy, when Belgian journalist, and former pro athlete, Sven Spoormakers decided to share a side-splitting gag after noticing a female journalist, Argentinian Belén Mendiguren, was in possession of a pair of nipples.

The young reporter’s nipples were spotted interviewing a cyclist during the Vuelta a San Juan cycling race in Argentina, covered completely by a mustard-coloured cami, with a hint of cleavage visible.

(It is worth noting that this was while she was interviewing a man clad in lycra. An equally revealing fabric that may also hint at the existence of private body regions, but I digress.)

“Is it cool (cold) in Argentina?” Sven wrote in Dutch, in a tweet that copped almost instant backlash, and that he since deleted.

Aussie journalist Sophie Smith jumped in to defend the reporter.

“Seriously? Please tell me this is lost in translation and you did not just publicly objectify a young female reporter,” she wrote.

Sven’s defence centred largely on the fact that he never interviewed anyone with his balls hanging out, and that meant he could make a crass joke about someone’s nipples.

“Objectify, really? Come on. Don’t draw the feminist card on this one,” he wrote in response.

“She knows exactly what she’s wearing – or not wearing – and why. If I would interview a female athlete with my balls out, you’d be joking about it too. Or calling it a disgrace.”

Sven Spoormakers pictured in 2010 after a cycling event. Photo: Getty Images

Bélen herself hit back at the former cyclist, calling the saga a ‘complex gender issue’.

Others came to the defence of the woman being discussed, slamming the comments as offensive, and Sven has since apologised for the comments and deleted them all.

A pervasive problem

What I want to talk about however are the overwhelming amount of comments that followed a different train of thought.

“I would’ve taken this reporter less seriously in this outfit. By wearing a blouse I would’ve noticed that the interview was about the cyclist,” was one comment.

“She obviously knows what she is doing. Smart girl,” was another.

“Maybe she should act and dress more appropriately when doing her job?” another suggested.

So while in the press the whole saga got the Belgian labelled a ‘dinosaur’, the reality is that this is a frighteningly common attitude women come across every single day.

It may not be as overt as ‘she was asking for it’ which we have cast to the unutterable pile, but ‘she knows what she’s doing’ is an equally disgusting statement, if slightly more palatable.

It assumes women’s choices of clothing should and do revolve entirely around men.

That you can’t be acting ‘appropriately’ if you’re not dressed ‘appropriately’ (conservatively).

That if a man finds something distracting, that thing (your body) is inherently inappropriate, and needs to be removed.

Needless to say, the inverse does not apply.

Need another example?

Two weeks ago a boy at a party asked me how much my boobs weigh, unprompted and out of the blue.

When I responded that it was none of his business (in slightly stronger tones) he said ‘I knew what I was wearing’, pointing out I was wearing a sheer top with a cropped bralette underneath.

As if I could only have chosen that outfit in the hopes, or at least knowledge, that men would freely joke and comment on my body.

When men run shirtless, or happily stride around in form-fitting lycra on any given Saturday morning, people say nothing.

If the groin area is a little exposing, we tend to just avert our eyes.

It’s time to start applying the same logic to women, particularly women trying to do their jobs.

In perhaps the best response to come out of the whole saga, one woman pointed out that the pot may very well be at risk of calling the kettle black: “So, someone is upset that a woman is not wearing a bra, while reporting on an event which has 150 men, all of whom are not wearing underpants?”

Got a story tip or just want to get in touch? Email us at lifestyle.tips@verizonmedia.com