Beyond Limitations: Women’s Athleticism and Empowerment

Last Saturday, March 9, a group of trailblazing women in the sports world participated in a panel discussion at South by Southwest, sharing their insight as influencers in an often patriarchal and exclusionary industry.

Story by Zoya Zia

Although many narratives about sports are still shaped by men, the panelists at “The Female Body: Athleticism, Empowerment, Strength?” sought to unpack stereotypes and demonstrate the power of women athletes in telling their own stories. These speakers included ESPN anchor Cari Champion, editor-in-chief of espnW and ESPN The Magazine Alison Overholt, professional basketball player Sue Bird and professional softball player Lauren Chamberlain.

The topics encompassed the challenges faced by the speakers in their respective interests, especially as they intersect in the sports world. With a slideshow of photo shoots in the background, Champion moderated the panel and asked about the Body Issue, a copy of ESPN The Magazine that features athletes either nude or partially nude. Overholt mentioned how the conversation surrounding this issue changed when she became editor-in-chief and explicitly articulated the goals behind the photography. “Everybody has a story and the human body is an art form, and we wanted to capture that with diversity in all dimensions,” Overholt says.

To Chamberlain, who plays for the United States Specialty Association Pride in Orlando, this became an important platform to narrate her story. She gained fame for hitting impressive home runs and winning a national championship at the University of Oklahoma. After posing on the Body Issue, her experiences with body image resonated with athletes and fans. “It was on my bucket list to be on a Body Issue, but I didn’t think they would ever ask because of my body type,” Chamberlain says. “The mission was to show my body and what it did for me on the pitch, and it was a long process of accepting and celebrating myself.”

Photos courtesy of Steve Sisney (left) and espnW (right)

Echoing this point, Overholt tied Chamberlain’s experience to the goal of the Body Issue, which is now in its tenth year. “We want to tell a true, authentic story, with a full range of sports represented and a balance between men’s and women’s rosters,” Overholt says. “It is not about sexualizing, because there is an emphasis on bodies and emotion. It is still subversive to show women as athletes.”

As one of the most decorated athletes of all time, among men and women, Bird has epitomized what it means to be a successful basketball player. She has won an Olympic Gold Medal and a World Championship Gold Medal four times each, and is also a two-time NCAA Championship winner and a three-time Women’s National Basketball Association champion. These accolades do not tell her entire story. Bird and her girlfriend, soccer star Megan Rapinoe, were the first gay couple on the Body Issue. “I think it was an opportunity to break down barriers,” Bird says.

Bird and Rapinoe received a positive response of people thanking them for “being the first,” and Bird acknowledged that with a sense of humility. “Before you know it, it’s the norm,” Bird says. “To be in the magazine is an honor, more so as the first to do something.”

Photo courtesy of Seattle Refined

Photo courtesy of Seattle Refined

Connecting the stories of these women, Championship alluded to the strength and vulnerability it takes not only to be featured on the Body Issue, but also to go into their respective sports and make a name for themselves. Overholt gave shout-outs to two talented athletes, Simone Biles and Naomi Osaka, to elaborate on this point. “Women walk around with a bit of vulnerability in the world,” Overholt says. “With a platform in the media, we have a responsibility to consider what stories are heard.”

Before the Q&A session, Overholt mentioned that ESPN the Magazine is constantly trying to figure out what story they have not told. ORANGE Magazine asked about the representation of Muslim women athletes in sports media. Overholt acknowledged that while this conversation is happening at ESPN, more should be done. “We have thought about this and we were close to getting one athlete in particular for the Body Issue, but there were questions about the response from their community,” Overholt says.

From the Body Issue to dominating the sports world, Bird offered inspiration to women athletes from different backgrounds and fans of women’s sports. “My body tells stories of what I’ve been through and what I’ve had to overcome,” Bird says. “The more genuine you are speaking about something, people are drawn to that and they can learn from those stories.”