Advertising American Wet Dreams (Ad of the Week)

Feeling cold water envelope your body as the relentlessly hot sun beats down around you. Tasting sweet frosty ice cream before it drips off the cone. These simple summer activities appeal to people of all ages and backgrounds—from toddlers in city centers to octogenarians in suburban retirement homes.

Jantzen swimwear ad, Vogue, 1955. © Condé Nast Archive. Flickr.

In 1955, a photo spread in Vogue cleverly combined the two iconic and wholesome American summer pastimes to showcase Jantzen’s new line of women’s swimwear. According to the 2013 Mercedes-Benz Fashion Swim Week, modest-looking swimsuits reminiscent of this 1950s style are resurfacing. The swimsuit itself may be functional and aesthetically pleasing in a fashion sense. But what does the ad say about American culture?

Functioning on multiple levels, it sends mixed messages.

The woman’s pure white bathing suit and white straw hat suggest childlike innocence, as does the ice cream cone—a double scoop of vanilla and strawberry. Standing before the red and white stripes of the American flag, she strikes a compelling, patriotic image of “ideal” American womanhood: young, innocent but alluring, white, shapely, and passively awaiting fulfillment.

The woman’s stance sends an invitation, but not an obvious one: her legs are crossed demurely but her hips are thrust slightly forward. Her left hand gingerly holds an ice cream cone while her right arm wraps around her waist—both protectively and provocatively. Her smiling mouth is partially open in anticipation—not of the ice cream, necessarily, but of something just out of the viewer’s sight. The receptive tilt of her body suggests she’s waiting for a man–not just ice cream or cool water–to quench her heat.

Both the woman and the ice cream cone exist to be consumed. Just as the ice cream cone must be consumed quickly before melting, the woman—like all women—should be enjoyed quickly—before her youth melts away. But the woman in the ad represents more than disposable sexuality. Her white swimsuit, designer hair scarf, crisp hat, and crossed legs lend her an air of respectability. They suggest she is a wholesome girl-next-door-type that one weds and beds (though not necessarily in that order).

The juxtaposition of sultry and sweet, seductive and wholesome has deep roots in Jantzen’s advertising history and served to establish the company as a leading swimsuit manufacturer in its formative years. Ironically, season 4 of AMC’s Mad Men opened with Jantzen executives seeking help in selling the company’s wholesome one-piece swimsuits to women in the age of the itsy-bitsy bikini. In the situated “hyper-real” history offered by Mad Men—a show I follow avidly—Jantzen executives stress the company’s family orientation and desire to uphold Christian values by selling modest swimwear.

But in historical reality,  Jantzen’s most successful advertisements insinuated that a smoldering sexuality lurked just beneath the modest surface of their respectable-looking suits. In the early 1920s Jantzen revolutionized women’s swimwear by mass-producing a sleek, short suit that resembled a man’s union suit. Short trunk bottoms encased women’s upper thighs but a long, form-fitting tank top skimmed the top of the thighs, covering the leg openings like a mini-dress.

Jantzen swimsuit advertisement, Life, 1921.

In the early 1920s, when real-life women tried to wear these new suits on the beaches they encountered resistance. Most cities had very strict public ordinances about what was appropriate public exposure and violators were often arrested (more on that to follow).

So Jantzen faced the task of generating widespread public acceptance of the new sleek styles. Advertisers accomplished this feat by associating is swimsuits with happiness and a distinctly modern and desirable American lifestyle. Jantzen ads that appeared in Life and Vogue targeted young middle-class consumers, promising them a life (or at least a summer) filling with promise, happiness, and possibly romance–all from wearing a Jantzen brand swimsuit.

Featuring a young girl poised to dive, the ad asked, “isn’t it good to be alive?” The attractive rosy-cheeked diving girl confidently regards the viewer. Behind her, an exotic seaside sea-side scene unfolds. Beautiful white villas stretch along the shore and young people—wearing Jantzen swimsuits—frolic. Immediately behind the diving girl, a couple stands closely together, posed as if flirting. The man dangles a cigarette which then symbolized chic rebellion and glamor. The choice to light up could—especially in the movies—signify sexual prowess and power.

While ads subtly hinted at subtle sensual promises that wearing a Jantzen swimsuit could bring, text promoted the practicality and respectability of the suits. The names of three champion male swimmers are printed on the left side of the page of this 1921 ad, highlighting that athletes preferred Jantzen. The text in the ad explains:

Those who really enjoy water sports find Jantzen the logical bathing suit. Practical because it permits utmost freedom of action in the water. Beautiful because it fits perfectly and holds its shape permanently.

Verbally, the ads associated Jantzen swimsuits with serious athleticism and practicality. But visually, ads captivated the imagination by suggesting that Jantzen represented youth, freedom from responsibility, comfort, and an idyllic modern American lifestyle.

The visual message appealed to both men and women. Presenting young women as modest but modern, sexy but subdued, rebellious but patriotic, the ads captured the sentiments of confused young generation devastated by the unprecedented trauma wrought by World War I. Buying and wearing a Jantzen–the ads implied–young men and women could begin express their individuality. Because Jantzen’s Diving Girl’s sexuality is implied not overt, middle-class men could ogle her openly–she exists to be admired.

Wearing the sleek Jantzen suit, young women could begin to explore their sexuality in public while retain respectability. Some feared such youthful expressions of freedom would threaten traditional gender roles. But in the end, the Jantzen’s ingenious blend of sexy and sweet didn’t upset the existing social order in America. Instead it perpetuated the complex eroticization of women swimmers and reinforced traditional gender stereotypes.

Drowning in Fashion: Trash the Dress

Photograph from wikipedia commons, illustrating “Trash the Dress” trend.

Newlywed Maria Pantazopoulos wanted an unforgettable photograph of herself in her wedding dress. She posed, in full wedding attire, in the shallow waters of the Ouareau River in Canada. As she edged into the stream, water seeped into her dress weighing her down. The 30-year old drowned–in her bridal gown–just weeks after her wedding.

Humans are more buoyant in water. Fabric, however, increases in weight—exponentially—and the long billowing layers of dresses would cause even expert swimmers to struggle. This doesn’t stop trendy photographers from suggesting that brides be photographed in their gowns, in unusual settings like abandoned buildings and waterways.

The trend “Trash the Dress” reportedly started over a decade ago when wedding photographer John Michael Cooper persuaded clients to pose in their wedding dresses days or weeks after the traditional ceremony and reception shots. Mimicking the edgy, heroine-chic style of some fashion photographers who juxtaposed refined beauty and harsh reality, Cooper shoots newlywed brides in their expensive wedding dress in unexpected or offbeat locales–often at waterfronts. “Is This Any Way to Treat Vera Wang?” Caren Chesler queried facetiously in a 2007 New York Times article exploring the trend. The video of photographer Kadie Pangburn at work shooting a recent bride dressed in full regalia illustrates, the process.

In theory, any bride holds the right to save, repurpose or dispose of her gown however she sees fit. Yet, the trend “Trash the Dress” is flirting with danger. It also represents a disturbing mentality of a disposable culture with little knowledge of history.

A hundred years ago, custom dictated that women wear long heavy dresses to swim. These early bathing suits—made of wool, flannel, or sometimes taffeta—grew heavy in water. Full skirts hampered leg movement incapacitating even the most adept swimmers in the water.

Margaret Wessell Piersol learning to swim, 1896, Courtesy Radcliffe College Archives, Schlesinger Library, Radcliffe Institute.

At the time, drowning presented a serious threat to American women and children. In 1904, over 900 women lost their lives when the steamboat General Slocum caught fire and sank. Most women drowned in relatively shallow waters, close to shore. Summer after summer newspapers across the country continued to lament the tragic deaths of women who drowned.

Physical educators and swimmers fought long and hard for years to win public approval of shorter swimsuits that permitted women to move in the water. The National Women’s Life Saving League (NWLSL) formed in 1911 in New York. One of its four aims was to promote “simplicity and rationalism in bathing and swimming costumes.” To illustrate the danger of swimming in a full dress, the League staged a life-saving demonstration in which they tossed a fully-clothed mannequin into the water. Members of the NWLSL raced to swim to the mannequin to rescue it from drowning before the weight of the dress caused it to sink.

Perhaps if swimming were taken more seriously as a sport in America, and its history chronicled as thoroughly as baseball or football, women would understand–or at least be aware of–the very real dangers posed by plunging into a body of water wearing a dress.

It’s a tragedy that Pantazopoulos drowned in her wedding dress. Other women, however, are opting to wear gowns to go swimming.

Sample of new swimming dress designed by Shivan Bahtiya and Narresh Kukreja, 2012.

In July, swimsuit designers Shivan Bahtiya and Narresh Kukreja launched a line of haute couture swimwear that included colorful, glamorous swimming gowns, bikini tops with long flowing skirts, and more traditional styles. Priding themselves in Indian cultural ethos, designers offer women more modest swimming gowns cut from expensive and boldly colorful materials. I wonder what Annette Kellerman and the other women who fought so diligently for the right for women to wear short swimsuits in public would say?

When Culture Kills: A History of Drowning in America

The fire spread quickly. Onlookers on the Astoria shore noticed “a solid mass of flames” lurching in the water toward North Brother Island. The few men aboard the pleasure cruiser jumped into the water and swam to safety. But most women, not knowing how to swim, remained aboard. They shielded the children and desperately hoped to be rescued before the fire spread. From eyewitness accounts the New York Times reported, “With sure death from fire behind, the women . . . waited until the flames were upon them, until they felt their flesh blister, before they took the alternative of the river. . . Babies …were dropped into the water by scores, and finally the women were forced over the rail and hundreds of them fell into the river.” Nearly all drowned.

Bodies washed ashore after the steamship, General Slocum, caught fire, 1904. Over 900 people did not know how to swim and drown. Photo likely by Gustav Scholer via en.wikipedia.org by Richard Arthur Norton.

Of the estimated 978 women and children aboard the excursion steamboat, the General Slocum, nearly all died. Most drowned just a few feet from shore in relatively shallow waters because they did not know how to swim. Fire fighters, police officers, and volunteers worked for days to free dead bodies lodged under the sunken ship. Mass burials took place as many of the bodies, so swollen from water immersion, could not be identified. The Times cautioned, “one of the lessons which the General Slocum horror should bring home to every woman and girl in New York City is the desirability of knowing how to swim.”

While catastrophes like the General Slocum commanded the most attention, thousands of accidental drowning deaths occurred in the US annually and most fatalities involved women and children. They simply did not know how to swim.

Why did so few women know how to swim in the early 20th century?

Some concluded that women were biologically inferior or incapable of swimming. One common cultural stereotype held that men were innately predisposed to athleticism and that swimming was a “masculine sport,” far too challenging for women. Others realized that drowning had less to do with biological deficiency than it did with culture. Few women had access to proper instruction or time in which to learn. Additionally, the heavy cumbersome bathing suit deterred many women from learning to swim at all; those brave enough to try were often immobilized in the water.

“Far Rockaway.” Photograph of Rockaway Beach, NY, 1900, by Charles E. Bolles. Library of Congress.

Women ventured to bath houses located along river banks and ocean beaches to cool themselves and allow their children, who played in the water. Women’s long, dark, heavy bathing suits permitted frolicking in the surf, but they made swimming–for those few women who knew how to swim–very difficult. If a wave knocked an unsuspecting woman off balance, she could easily have drowned. And often they did–sometimes while trying to save a child.

As newspapers lamented the needless deaths by drowning, municipalities began initiating “Learn to Swim” campaigns targeted to women. Postcards, posters, and newspaper articles encouraged and admonished women to learn to swim as a life-saving measure for themselves and–most importantly–for the nation’s children.

Postcard promoting swimming for girls and women, circa 1905. Personal collection.

As cities began offering swimming instruction to women, individuals advocating for swimsuit reform–like Lucille Eaton Hill, Edwyn Sandys and Annette Kellerman–began finding audiences receptive. Thus advertising campaigns about public safety worked together with advertisements glamorizing swimming for women and began to dismantle the stereotype that swimming was a masculine sport unsuitable for women.

In the late 19th and early 20th centuries middle-class propriety delineated appropriate interactions between the sexes in most social settings. Swimming pools were segregated by gender and race. Typically, pools allowed women access at separate times or days–if they permitted women access at all. Beaches didn’t have such rules. Public safety advertisements successfully persuaded the general public that men and women could (and should) swim together on public beaches because most believed that men could not only safeguard women but teach them basic elements of swimming.

So, while most sports segregated participants according to gender, the dangers posed by the surf allowed conservatives to condone mixed-gender swimming. Photographer G.C. Hovey captured a group of mixed swimmers frolicking after a distance swim in New York, August 1906.

Mixed-gender swim group in New York, August, 1906. By G. C. Hovey, Mid Manhattan Picture Collection, Library of Congress.

The early 20th century “Learn to Swim” campaign was successful: It wasn’t long before women begin outdistancing men in open water marathon swimming. But the campaign may have had unintentional effects and generated beliefs about race and swimming. The photograph “In the Swim” illustrates clearly the homogenous racial composition of the group. Thus these early “Learn to Swim” campaigns that targeted women may have inadvertently (or purposefully) reinforced another cultural stereotype: that swimming was a “white” activity. Today, sadly, death by drowning is capturing headlines again. This time, however, the victims are predominantly nonwhites: 70 percent of African-American children don’t know how to swim and are three times more likely to drown than other children. Are our cultural stereotypes killing us?

Advertising Swimsuits, Sex and American Ideals

Deborah Kerr and Burt Lancaster, From Here to Eternity, 1953. Photo from This, That and More of the Same.

From May through September swimsuits abound in America. Throughout the rest of the year, women in bikinis are featured in advertisements to sell myriad products, many of which have little do with swimming. Why feature swimsuits in ads that sell soda? In part, scantily-clad women–who are thin and young, especially–attract attention. But in America, swimsuits are infused with cultural meaning.

Now iconic, pinups of bathing suit-clad movie stars and starlets posing poolside and other “cheesecake” shots abounded in the 1940s and 1950s. The film From Here to Eternity featured scenes—then considered mildly risqué—of Burt Lancaster and Deborah Kerr intimately embraced in their swimsuits in the Hawaiian surf. Screening the film, censors reportedly demanded that Kerr’s swimsuit be skirted so she did not appear too provocative.

The 1950s saw a rise in bathing suits used in advertisements that had nothing to do with swimming. Advertisements for both Pepsi and Coke featured young women or couples in swimsuits. A 1950s Pepsi ad bears striking resemblance to the classic scene of Kerr and Lancaster on the beach.

Pepsi-cola ad, “Aren’t today’s people wonderful?” LIFE, 1956.

The ad reads: “Aren’t today’s people wonderful? . . . They’re so wonderful to look at–these slender, handsome, active men and women of today.” Swimsuits still carried the connotation of health and activity, but appearance in a swimsuit was beginning to outweigh its association with the sport of swimming.

In the 1950s, as the ad illustrates, swimsuits began to symbolize freedom—from the constraint of clothes, from social responsibility, and from authority. Whatever tragedies occurred in the world, the young couple in the Pepsi ad lounged worry-free drinking “Pepsi, the Light Refreshment.” The man gazes admiringly at the woman who sits, eyes closed, luxuriating in the Pepsi she consumed, while he viewer is encouraged to visually consume her body. Notably, her body is positioned far more prominently, shielding the man.

In this way, the ad appealed to both men and women–men could ogle her body openly, presented, as it was, within the context of a healthy, wholesome lifestyle. Women could appreciate the style of the swimsuit and aspire to emulate the woman’s lean figure. And of course, who doesn’t want to feel as happy and carefree and wonderful as the imagined couple? The ad insinuates–without promising–that consuming Pepsi will lead to happiness. At the very least, the ad implies that merely purchasing the Pepsi product signals to others that one has style, taste and is at least trying to be wonderful.

Advertisement for Lucky Strike cigarettes, featuring Olympic swimmer, Helen Wainwright, 1928.

Swimsuit manufacturers had—quite logically—featured Olympic swimmers and other well-known champion swimmers like Duke Kahanamoku, Annette Kellerman, Johnny Weissmeuller, and Esther Williams in advertisements for decades. Some advertisers used swimmers as celebrity endorsers of other products—from chocolate to cigarettes—as well. But typically, those ads featured swimmer’s well-recognized names and faces, not full-length body images—like the Lucky Strike ad. Olympic silver medalist in diving (1920) and swimming (1924) Helen Wainwright was recruited as a celebrity endorser for Lucky Strike cigarettes–even though she didn’t smoke (more on Wainwright later).

Mack Sennett’s bathing beauties posed on automobile, Washington, D.C., area, 1919. (Library of Congress)

Bathing beauties were featured in a series of Mack Sennett’s films of the 1910s-1920s. Sennett had managed burlesque shows prior to making movies. The women in Sennett’s films wore bathing suits to titillate male viewers–they were presented as eye candy to be consumed. But Sennett’s bathing beauties appeared as glamorous and unattainable creatures–objects of fantasy. They were not confused with everyday reality–not typical women men might marry. At the time, the short, form fitting swimsuits worn by Sennett’s bathing beauties were considered inappropriate beach attire and weren’t produced for mass consumption.

Short, form-fitting swimsuits were mass-produced in the 1930s and had become socially acceptable. Hollywood movies featuring stars in bathing suits became popular in the mid-1930s thanks in part to Johnny Weissmuller’s long run as Tarzan, the Ape Man and, a decade later, a hybrid genre of bathing-suit/swimming films featuring Esther Williams. Starring Esther Williams, Bathing Beauty (1944) helped reshape the widespread public acceptability of bathing-suit clad women—for the mere sake of showing skin.

Poster advertising Bathing Beauty, 1944.Image from filmlinks4u.net

Swimming constitutes a fraction of the film’s plot yet posters advertising the film prominently featured Williams in a bathing suit. Mack Sennett’s bathing beauties bordered on risqué but Esther Williams was wholesome and young–traits that epitomize the ideal American woman. In the WWII era, cultural associations between the swimsuit, sex, passivity, and ornamental beauty heightened. And because sleek, short swimsuits for women were mass-produced and easily attained, the lines between fantasy pin-up girl and real, “ordinary” women blurred. This, combined with several factors soon to be explored, helped contribute to the feminization of swimming as a sport and firmly entrenched the swimsuit as a prop to evaluate women as sexual objects.

Gaining to Win? Open Water Distance Swimmers Lose Media Attention

Over 100,000 spectators lined the banks of the Serpentine in Hyde Park to witness the women’s open water marathon swim on August 9. Representing 34 countries on 5 continents, 25 women plunged into the lake’s murky waters and raced for nearly two hours to complete the 10K (6 mile) course. Astonishing viewers in a highly unexpected and dramatic finish, Hungary’s Eva Ristov and America’s Haley Anderson stretched their strokes to claim the gold and silver medals, respectively.

Official boats monitoring swimmers racing the Serpentine course in Hyde Park, London. Photo by Mike Lewis. http://www.olavistaphotography.com/

Ahead for the majority of the race, 26-year old Ristov finished in 1hr, 57min 38.02sec. Anderson, a 20-year old senior at the University of Southern California, trailed her by a mere .04 seconds. Swimming enthusiasts predicted that Keri-Anne Payne (Britain), Martina Grimaldi (Italy) and Melissa Gorman (Australia) would capture gold, silver, bronze, respectively. Ristov and Anderson–the dark horses–astonished onlookers and made history for their nations.

The dramatic finish of the women’s open water 10K coupled with the unpredictable nature of the sport illustrate why, from 1910-1927, American sportswriters reported avidly on similar races occurring in American waterways annually. Water temperature, unseen obstacles and sheer physical exertion of open water swim marathons lend an exciting element of danger. Undertaken in oceans, lakes, and rivers, the swims present unique challenges. Unlike the pristine aqua of a chlorinated pool, open waters are typically murky and filled with reeds, weeds, and aquatic life that must be navigated. Open water courses are not cordoned into lanes, forcing swimmers to plunge into the water in a chaotic free-for-all. They race closely, body-to-body, heightening intrusive splashes and the chances of kicking and elbowing one another. Interviewed after the 2012 race, Anderson noted that some swimmers intentionally grab at the feet of racers in front hoping to disrupt the leading swimmers’ focus.

Water temperature presents one of the largest and potentially dangerous issues. The Red Cross identifies 78°F as the ideal safe temperature for open water swimming marathons (most pools hover between 80-84°F for comfort). American distance swimmer Fran Crippen died while swimming the in FINA’s 10K open water series in the United Arab Emirates in 2010. High water temperatures (86°F) induced serious heat exhaustion and dehydration that led to the hospitalization of several other swimmers after the race.

In most open water races, fleets of boats trail beside swimmers to monitor safety and ensure that rules are followed. Governing rules prohibit swimmers from touching the vessel at any point. Coaches may administer food and water, provided they do not direct touch the swimmer’s body.

Open water swimming race from the Battery to Coney Island, New York, 1908. (George Grantham Bain Collection, Library of Congress)

In the 2012 women’s Olympic open water marathon, the motorized skiffs monitoring the swimmers were called to action when two women, Jessica Roux (South Africa) and Poliana Okimoto (Brazil), floundered. After completing four of six laps, Okimoto succumbed to hypothermia. Unable to continue in the Serpentine’s 77°F water, she raised her hand to be withdrawn. She lost consciousness after being taken from the water and received medical attention.

The danger and drama of the women’s 10K open water marathon didn’t provoke much attention in America. And, compared to rapid reporting in other swimming events, Anderson’s incredible finish received relatively scant media attention, despite the fact that she was the only woman representing the US in the marathon and became the first American to win an Olympic medal in open water swimming. Perhaps the newness of the event–the open water 10K debuted in the 2008 Olympics–makes it less newsworthy. In general, however, open water swimming fails sustain contemporary American mainstream media interest. Why?

The multifaceted reason involves money, time, convenience, and cultural expectations. By its nature, marathon swimming is at odds with values in modern America. In a society characterized by short attention spans and instant gratification, the news media can’t profitably sustain widespread interest in an athletic event that lasts between two and fifteen hours and may or may not occur due to unpredictable weather. Plus, open water swimming isn’t terribly sexy compared to other sports. Swimmers aren’t clad in bikinis. Instead, they tug on wetsuits or coat their bodies with an odorous mixture of lanolin and grease. In a culture obsessed with counting calories, fat-free foods, and streamlined bodies, open water swimmers run against the grain.

To withstand the cold water temperatures and store energy required for the race, most athletes intentionally gain weight before long distance open water swims. Keri-Anne Payne (Britain), silver medalist in the 2008 Games, reportedly gains two kg (4 lbs, 10 oz) three days prior to intense competitions. Few women today can relate to intentionally gaining weight or wanting to sustain physical bulk.

From 1910-1927, Americans followed open water swimming marathons as faithfully as they do football games today. At the time, standards of beauty differed greatly. The larger frame of open water swimmers was applauded as healthy–an ideal to which women should aspire. Annette Kellerman, considered “a paragon of physical perfection” stood 5’4¼” tall, with a 33.1-inch bust, 26.2-inch waist, and 37.8-inch hips.

Ad for Daughter of the Gods, promoting Kellerman as the perfect woman by showing measurements, Nov. 1916.

Compare that to figures idealized today. Elle McPherson stands 6’ tall, with a 36-inch bust, 25-inch waist and 35-inch hips. If Barbie–who introduces young girls to impossible beauty standards–were a real woman, she would stand 5’9″ tall, sport a 39-inch bust, 18-inch waist, and 33-inch hips. Women open water marathon swimmers exhibit muscular strength, impressive stamina, and discipline unfathomable to most. Their builds defy the skinny ideal which monopolizes popular culture in American. Is it any wonder that open water swimmers aren’t favored by the press?

Split Decisions: Synchronized Swimming and Cultural Bias

Attitudes toward synchronized swimming suffer from a sort of schizophrenia. Americans love to follow synchronized swimmers during the Olympics—the topic trended hours before the event started in the 2012 Games.

U.S. 2012 Olympic Synchronized Swim Team, April 2012. AP Photo/Matt Dunham. http://www.klewtv.com/sports/Photos-Olympic-synchronized-swimming-quals-148116795.html?tab=gallery&c=y&img=5

The grace, glamor and style on which synchronized swimmers are judged have captivated viewers since the sport debuted at the 1984 Olympics in Los Angeles. Even sports purists don’t deny the strength, flexibility and stamina that synchronized swimming requires–Olympic routines are four minutes long, three minutes of which are spent underwater.

Yet the smiling poise, precision, and theatrics that audiences love make the sport an easy target for mockery and ridicule. On the surface, synchronized swimming may not resemble sport in the traditional sense: televised coverage of the Olympics captures athletes in most sports perspiring, their muscles bulging with strain and faces contorting with effort. Their grimaces and grunts offer tangible proof of exertion.

In contrast, media coverage of synchronized swimmers reveals long limbs, pointed toes, and ever-smiling, theatrically made-up faces. Judged, in part, on the appearance of effortlessness, they mask exertion and exhaustion in unnaturally perpetual grins.

Preliminaries of the freestyle duet technical routine, day 1 synchronized swimming, 2012 Olympics. CNN website: http://www.latestcnnnews.net/2012/08/london-2012-synchronized-swimming-photos/

The sleek hairstyles and colorful cosmetics required of the swimmers make it easy for viewers to confuse the athletes with beauty pageant contestants and pave the way for ridicule. The fact that synchronized swimming is considered by FINA an exclusively female sport further undermines its legitimacy as a “real” sport.

Some critics, like the Facebook page “Synchronized-Swimming-is-NOT-a-Sport” carry little authority. Others hold more influence. During the 2008 Games, Hannah Beech, writing for Time magazine’s World section, advocated removing synchronized swimming from the Olympics. Acknowledging the arduous effort required of the swimmers, she concluded, “But effort — and a discreet set of nose-clips — doesn’t make it worthy of being an Olympic sport.” http://www.time.com/time/world/article/0,8599,1834475,00.html#ixzz22gSjLbsC
Beech complained that in synchronized swimming, the “girly bits overshadow the athletic parts.” Fair enough. But instead of questioning why the sport’s official rules insist on showcasing women as eye-candy—downplaying their athleticism and emphasizing their appearance—she proposed FINA drop synchronized swimming altogether and open a “real” sport, like Olympic boxing, to women.

That solution would solve little and underscores a larger issue: sports historically associated with masculinity—boxing, football, and baseball—are commonly perceived as more authentic. Yet most athletes acknowledge that synchronized swimmers train exceptionally long and hard. After sweeping the duet preliminary freestyle routine on Monday, the Russian gold medalists Natalia Ishchenko and Svetlana Romashin told interviewers that they train often for ten hours, nonstop. Despite the cosmetics and costumes, they epitomize hardcore athletes.

Yet in America, sports associated with or dominated by women—swimming and gymnastics—are trivialized. Why? Male team sports generate more revenue. And today in America, sport is defined not only by athleticism but by the ability to fill a stadium with paying spectators.

Aware of this basic fact, some—like the owners of women’s beach volleyball teams—take the approach of sexualizing women athletes. Needing to make a profit, why wouldn’t they? Simply put, sex sells. While emphasizing women’s bodies will, in the short term, generate spectator interest in a sport, it’s akin to wrapping a severed artery with a Band-Aid. At best it offers a temporary solution at worst it exacerbates the cultural problem of gender bias.

Cultural associations of “real” sport with masculinity and money hurt promising athletes. The US excelled in synchronized swimming in the 1980s, winning nine Olympics medals, five of which were gold, in 1984 alone. But the American team didn’t qualify to compete in London.  Mary Killman and Mariya Koroleva are the only synchronized swimmers representing America in the London Games. As of Monday they stood 10th in the duet competition. America should be proud that they qualified but where might they stand if the sport were taken more seriously here?

Gender bias in sport has other detrimental effects. Since FINA classifies synchronized swimming as exclusively female, men cannot compete in those Olympic events. And yes, despite the gender bias, men do compete in synchronized swimming—even in America where they are taken even less seriously than women.

Out to Swim Angels practicing, 2012. http://www.outtoswim.org/index.php/synchro

How, in the 21st century, can a decision to exclude athletes from participating based solely on gender by justified? Some answer with numbers, claiming that there simply are not enough male synchronized swimmers in the world to hold a male event. Perhaps.

But others question this rationale. In London, prior to the Games, “Out To Swim,” an aquatic club for gay men, lesbians, bisexuals, trans people and straight people, protested  FINA’s exclusion of men from synchronized swimming. The Out to Swim Angels—the group’s synchronized swim team—sent a letter to FINA protesting men’s exclusion and politely demanding that the rules need be changed prior to the 2016 Games in Rio de Janeiro.

We’ll find out what happens in four years.

Synchronized Swimming: History Behind the Smiles

Promotional photo of Esther Williams performing underwater, circa 1944. Courtesy International Swimming Hall of Fame.

It happens every four years. The world’s best women synchronized swimmers enthrall Olympic audiences with their perfectly timed twists, turns, thrusts and flips. Where other sports, like swimming races, are perceived as athletic competitions, synchronized swimming retains an association with entertainment and pageantry.

Perhaps more than any other sport, women’s appearance matters as much as their athletic performance. While swimmers may practice with goggles and swim caps, during competitions most forgo such aids. Long-time synchronized swimmer, Yassi Jahanmir, explained that USA Synchro–the sport’s governing body in America–doesn’t formally forbid swimmers from wearing goggles and caps but, in synchro culture, serious swimmers regard them as amateurish. Perhaps this attitude stems from FINA’s official rules which permit swimmers to wear an unobtrusive nose clip but other equipment–like goggles or swim caps–are forbidden during the routine session of Olympic competition, unless required by medical reasons. As loose hair swirling in the water would obstruct visibility and get in the way, swimmers must coat their hair with unflavored gelatin to cement it in place. Would athletes in any other sport agree to this–while wearing a smile?

The association between synchronized swimming, pageantry and femininity harkens back to its inception. The modern sport evolved from underwater ballet which was performed in Europe in the 1890s. Australian swimmer Annette Kellerman whet America’s appetite for synchronized swimming when she began demonstrating swimming and diving techniques in a 14-foot aquatic tank at London’s Hippodrome (1906). Wild success in England led to vaudeville contracts in America. Because vaudeville still held associations with burlesque and the swimsuit Kellerman wore to perform was considered risque, she took great pains to exaggerate her femininity–respectably–in her swimming acts. Within six years, she transitioned to the silver screen, becoming one of the most popular silent film stars of her era. Because her films featured her swimming underwater or diving, the press dubbed her the “Million Dollar Mermaid.” The underwater ballet movements Kellerman performed in later films were direct precursors to synchronized swimming, but that term did not yet exist.

“Synchronized swimming” made its way into common parlance in 1938. The description was first used, reportedly, by American Olympic swimmer Norman Ross who earned three gold medals in the 1920 Games. Asked to comment on a group of women performing water acrobatics to music at the Century of Progress International Exposition in Chicago (1934), Ross remarked on the impressive “synchronized swimming” of the performers. The phrase stuck.

Broadway celebrity Billy Rose further promoted synchronized swim performances in his wildly popular “Aquacade” which was staged at the World’s Fair in 1939. Five million people flooded New York’s 11,000-seat marine amphitheatre to watch the dramatic performances that combined dancing, swimming and water acrobatics–the same elements of modern synchronized swimming–and featured former Olympians including Gertrude Ederle and Johnny Weissmuller.

Swimmers in Billy Rose’s Aquacade, Golden Gate International Exposition, Treasure Island, 1940. (San Francisco History Center, SF Public Library)

Based on its success in New York, in 1940 Billy Rose’s Aquacade opened in San Francisco where Rose discovered California swimmer Esther Williams. Winner of three national swim championships (breaststroke and freestyle) Williams had earned a place on the 1940 U.S. Olympic team. When WWII preempted the Games, Rose persuaded Williams to join his Aquacade and she shifted from athletic swimmer to celebrity swimmer.

Esther Williams posed underwater circa 1948. Courtesy International Swimming Hall of Fame.

After seeing Williams in the Aquacade, MGM signed her to star in a series of swimming movies. Audiences flocked to theaters to see popular films in which Williams performed breathtaking dives and underwater acrobatic scenes. In 1952, she played the lead in the elaborate biopic musical film about Annette Kellerman’s life, Million Dollar Mermaid. More than any other person, Williams deserves credit for popularizing modern synchronized swimming in America.

Like today’s synchronized swimmers, the acrobatic moves Williams performed underwater required rigorous training, agility, and advanced skill. When executing a dive from a 50-ft tower during the filming of Million Dollar Mermaid, Williams broke her neck. She remained in a body cast for over six months before completing the film. But the press habitually downplayed her athleticism and emphasized her svelte figure and beauty. Williams became a favorite pinup girl, further cementing the link between swimming, beauty, and pageantry.

Do the elements of pageantry–having to coat your hair with gelatin, wear cosmetics, and smile–make synchronized swimming any easier? Of course not. In fact, having to maintain an ear-to-ear smile while pumping leg muscles vigorously must present an added challenge. Yet most people subscribe, consciously or not, to the bias that because the swimmers are smiling and look attractive, they are performing not competing in a sport.  The Olympic Games provides an opportunity, every four years, to rethink perceptions of what constitutes sport. The 2008 documentary, Sync or Swim, by filmmaker Cheryl Furjanic addresses some of those concerns as it traces a group of young women swimmers competing for spots on the 2004 U.S. synchronized swim team.

Disempowering the Powerful: Gender, Popularity and Profit

With arms slicing through water like hot blades through soft butter, Michael Phelps won the 100 m Butterfly on Day 7 of the Olympics. The swim earned him a 17th gold medal and 21 Olympic medals. This expanded the record he set a day prior when he became the first man to win the same individual medley (200 m) at three consecutive Olympics. He did it all wearing a Speedo.

The company may profit from Phelp’s gold—surely more than he will. Because of Rule 40, Speedo’s visibility is limited and Phelps, a world-record breaker, cannot capitalize on his achievement by endorsing products right away.

US Olympian Dawn Harper protesting restrictions against sponsorship at the Olympics. (Self-posted on Twitter)

During week one of the Games, several American athletes used social media to call attention to the rule. Tweeting with #WeDemandChange, athletes, including Sanya Richards-Ross and Dawn Harper, protested the unfairness of Rule 40. Some dramatized the protest by taking stark photos of themselves with mouths covered with duct tape on which they wrote “Rule 40.″

The photographs, implying as they do, that these athletes are hostages performing at the world’s most prestigious sporting event are unsettling. Women and African-Americans comprise a core of the most outspoken protesters. Why? The rule affects them disproportionately.

What’s the fuss about Rule 40? Established many years ago to prevent ambush marketing—any unofficial promotion—Rule 40 is an IOC by-law forbidding athletes from promoting personal sponsors 10 days before, during, and 3 days after the Olympics, unless those sponsors are official Olympic partners. http://www.london2012.com/mm/Document/Publications/General/01/25/29/32/rule-40-guidelines_Neutral.pdf
Official partners and supporters hold the potential to profit substantially thus sponsorship rights are extremely valuable. But athletes don’t reap the benefits generated by these partnerships—profits pay for the cost related to the Games themselves. Still, athletes are forbidden from endorsing the sponsors who support them during the Games.

In essence, during the Olympics, athletes are paid not in currency but in honor. That might not seem unfair, at first glance, but the training these athletes undertake for years before qualifying for the Olympics can be unfathomably expensive. Until they attract attention of a sponsor, they (and often their families and communities), foot the bills themselves. Rule 40 lacks uniformity; it affects athletes of smaller, less-revenue-generating sports—especially women’s sports and sports like swimming—far more than sports like basketball or baseball.

When interviewed, Peter Carlisle, who represents Michael Phelps, compared Rule 40 to bullying. Other agents have pointed out that, prior to the Olympics, swimwear manufacturers were required to significantly reduce their logos on swimsuit and caps—greatly reducing brand visibility and prompting them to question the return on their investment. In other more lucrative sports brand logos are more visible.
If sponsors for Phelps, a record-setting gold medal earner and media magnet, worry about the return on their investment, what hope do athletes in smaller sports have that draw less revenue? What impact does this have on women athletes?

Commercialization of sports is a key factor in the marginalization of women’s sports and the reason why some, like women’s beach volleyball, have relied on accentuating sex appeal to attract spectators.

After perusing Getty photos—a primary photo source for images of athletes, Nate Jones wrote the cheeky photo essay, “What if every Olympic sport was photographed like beach volleyball?”  The essay pokes fun at the unquestionably sexist professional sports photos of women’s beach volleyball players by following a selection of those photos with pictures male athletes cropped to mimic the photos of women volleyball players. The essay underscores the trivialization of women athletes’ bodies. Presented as faceless torsos wearing bikini bottoms—sometimes labeled  “unidentified athlete”—their bodies become eroticized objects for viewers to visually consume. http://www.metro.us/newyork/sports/article/1148979–what-if-every-olympic-sport-was-photographed-like-beach-volleyball

Wearing bikinis—which until this year were the sport’s mandatory uniform—downplays the athleticism of these women, presents them as objects for consumption and obscures the hard training they undertake. Yet, if athletes don’t concede to sponsors who seek to generate profit by presenting them as objects first, and athletes second, they risk losing financial backing.

Men in sports that generate less revenue face a similar issue. Before the 2008 Olympics, Speedo used Phelps to promote its swimsuit Fastskin Pro. Mimicking the quick pace and flashing lights of a dance club, the minimalist, artistic commercials presented brief flashes of Phelp’s body to the beat of dance music.

The provocative ad appealed to both men and women–judging from comments left on various sites–exactly what any brand would hope. On the one hand, the glimpses of Phelps are awe-inspiring, celebrating his impressive physical body. On the other hand, sexuality seeps through the commercial as quick flashes of Phelps’s streamlined body are timed perfectly with the lyrics, “Hold me back, ‘Cuz I’m about to blow.” The ad is incredibly effective, treading the line between showcasing the human body as a work of art and presenting it as a sexually-charged object.

Today, some athletes are affected by measures, like Rule 40, which are meant to protect against blatant commercialization but in effect actually disempower them to capitalize at their most profitable time. What choice do they have but to acquiesce to being treated like objects if that will generate revenue?