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Soccer: what's sex got to do with it?

The Vancouver Whitecaps are using a body-painted model to publicize the team.

Even a Vancouverite like me who isn’t into sports couldn't totally miss the recent viral advertising campaign started to publicize the Vancouver Whitecaps, Canada's newest Major League Soccer Team.

It started with a "Find the Billboard" contest, which challenged fans to be the first to Tweet or text the location of a billboard featuring a model with a painted-on Whitecaps jersey.

The Whitecaps then released a video of the model being painted, shown in extreme close-ups. Because the close-ups mean you often can’t even tell what parts are being shown, I found it made me feel distanced from the model as a person and view her as more of an object.

Vancouver novelist and businessperson Anne Giardini objected to the Whitecaps’ campaign, arguing that the ad doesn’t resonate with real young women who are into soccer: “They are not passive. They are not painted. They are not a blank canvas for some kind of perverse sports fantasy.”

Local blogger Meghan Murphy of the F-Word Media Collective agrees, pointing out that ads like this make the only role for women in sports a decorative one.

Unfortunately, it’s not new to sexualize women in sports or to use sexy women to sell men’s sports. From the Sports Illustrated swimsuit spreads to having women athletes pose in Playboy to the expansion of cheerleading to NHL Hockey, we see the objectification of women in the world of sports through sexualization.

Women who don’t conform can be subject to homophobic harassment, accused of being lesbians or trans. It creates a hostile environment for LGBTQ people and any women who don’t happen to wear skimpy clothing and look like supermodels.

Soccer doesn’t have anything to do with women baring it all, but it’s not surprising that the advertising strategy persists, with women still under-represented in sports leadership associations such as the Canadian Soccer Association, which has only 1 woman director out of 11. It gets to be a vicious cycle when there aren’t enough women at the top who can call attention to the double-standard that treats men as athletes and women as sex objects.

The women’s World Cup of soccer is coming to Vancouver in 2015. Let’s hope local soccer fans and sports organizations are able to make some positive changes in sports culture to ensure the athletes are treated with the respect they deserve.

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