Claressa Shields hasn’t gained the national attention of Olympians like Simone Biles, Michael Phelps and Katie Ledecky—despite having won a historic victory in her sport. It isn’t that Shields isn’t as accomplished as her peers, however. It’s that sexism works against her not only as a female athlete, but as one participating in a “masculine” sport.
Shields is the first-ever gold medalist in Women’s Boxing—because the 2012 Olympics in London were the first games to allow women to compete in the sport. It was the last male-only sport in the Olympics.
But after making history and winning gold, Shields did not receive endorsements or advertising deals. In fact, her name barely made the news. After the games, she returned to her hometown of Flint Michigan, where she helps support her family on a stipend of $1,000 a month she earns for being a member of the US national boxing team.
When asked why she thinks her historic championship didn’t make more of a splash, Shields’ response is heartbreaking:
“I don’t know why it didn’t happen. I take it as I wasn’t ready for it, I guess. I wasn’t the ideal woman. I wasn’t the pretty girl who wears her hair straight. I don’t know. I guess I wasn’t what they were looking for.”
Here is an American athlete who made history in her sport during the 2012 Olympics. Her bravery and dedication should be applauded. But because of the systemic sexism that skews how we treat women athletes who excel in their sports, Shields was made to feel that, despite the gold medal around her neck, she still isn’t “the ideal woman.”
Society needs to adjust its unrealistic sexist and racist beauty standards, because the problem is not that Shields isn’t pretty enough to be an “ideal woman.” The problem is that women are praised for looking pretty but not for having the strength, endurance, and sheer talent to win an unprecedented victory.
Perhaps another reason why Shields’ achievements have been so underrated is exactly why women were not even allowed to compete in boxing until 2012: it is not considered a sport for women. It is clear that gender bias plays a large role in which sports women athletes will get attention in. Audiences may be more comfortable watching women who excel in a more feminine sport like gymnastics, than in a typically masculine sport such as boxing. Women’s boxing will not even be televised on most channels, and fans have to find the matches online. But this stigma won’t stop Shields. After all, she is a fighter.
If you want to find out more about Claressa Shields, you can watch “T Rex: Her Fight for Gold” on PBS. And join me as I tune in, online, on Friday at 11:30am to watch Shields kick some serious butt in the semi-finals. Help me cheer a little louder for this badass role model who is showing little girls around the world that you don’t have to be the prettiest girl in the ring in order to win gold—just the strongest.
Shelby McNabb just finished her first year at UCLA, where she is getting her Masters of Public Policy. In her free time, she co-hosts and co-produces a podcast, the Left Ovaries, with her best feminist friends. She is also working on a project to provide incarcerated women with access to feminine hygiene products by donating menstrual cups.