This May I took many photos outside my garage, and signed many autograph cards. At times I couldn’t spend as much time out there as you wanted, as I wanted, and there were unfortunately many fans whom I had to turn down because I had to be inside the engineering room for our next meeting or a debriefing, out on pitlane for a run, or because I was trying to be on time for an interview, an appearance, or an event. All of this during a month when I often feel like I need to have a clone of myself running around so I can be in more than one place at once. However there was one fan I did deliberately turn down.
Racecars are hot, sweaty environments. We work hard when we’re driving, our heart rates are high, our muscles are getting a workout, and we do this in layers and layers of Nomex clothing. The only skin exposed at all is where the Nomex head-sock leaves space around your eyes, and then this is covered too by the visor of your crash helmet. Add into this the heat soak from the engine behind you, the track underneath, and the sun above you, and you can probably understand that when I get out of a racecar, I look like I’ve been working hard, in a rather warm environment.
So this was me. One day in May, heading back to the garage area after a run, then walking across from our garage to the engineering room. It was one of the few days where the garage area was not overly busy, there were only a few people wandering around.
“Hey! Are you a racing driver?”
In my suit, in the garage area, I always try to curb my natural response to this question, to come up with something politer than, “No. I just wear this for fun.”
On this occasion I managed a tight smile, but not an actual response, and I kept walking.
“Oh my God! That’s hot! You’re hot! Can I get a photo with you?”
“No,” I replied. I kept walking.
The guy in question didn’t understand why his comment that I looked “hot” in my race suit would get him this reaction. He thought I had misunderstood him, and that I thought he literally meant I looked “hot” – as in sweaty. So he kept digging.
“No! I don’t mean you’re hot like that, I mean you’re hot! Like sexy!”
I kept walking.
“Hey! There’s no need to be a b****. It’s not even like you’re that hot anyway.”
I walked into the engineering room, and shut the door behind me.
* * * * *
So often when women are playing sports, any sport, there is as much of a commentary about how they look, as to their talent level, and how they play. This perpetuation starts with the media covering sports, the comments commentators sometimes make without thinking, the photos photographers sometimes shoot, and the publications or online media who buy, publish and share those photographs. The Williams’ sisters in tennis are incredible athletes, record-breaking athletes, and yet they have been subjected to this type of scrutiny their whole career.
As a racing driver, I spend most of my time professionally pretty well covered up – jeans and a polo, or a fire suit, are hardly outfits that would be described as risqué. As athletes, we are probably some of the most covered female athletes out there, and in racing we are also incredibly lucky, because the racing press is used to female drivers, and female athletes. They publish photographs of us in our fire suits, in our helmets, occasionally in our polo shirts. These photos often show us scowling, or looking distant and focused before we get in a car. They might show our eyes with our visor up, perhaps looking intently, perhaps squinting against the sun, perhaps showcasing a facial expression of frustration, amusement, disappointment, or success – a photo where your eyes tell the entire story even though that’s the only piece of your face you can see. The photos also often show us after we have climbed out of cars – sweaty, hair a mess, faces red. In a conventional sense, these images of us are not exactly what one would call “flattering”. However in another sense these are some of the most flattering images we could hope to have out there, because these images convey us as athletes, taking part in our chosen sport, not being defined by our gender, or how we look.
As a woman in sport, I am also asked to attend events away from the track. Sometimes they are charity galas, or awards banquets, or events for my sponsors. I am asked to, and am happy to, dress up the appropriate amount. Those of you who have read my blog for a while, and follow me on social, know that once you take me away from the race track, and take me out of my training gear, I can actually morph into quite the “girly-girl” with dresses, and heels, and hair no longer a tangled mess of rats-tails. I like attending these events, I like the opportunity to dress up, and I have no issues with red carpet photos, taking photos with people at the events, or even sharing the photos I grab on my phone with you via social media.
This is a completely different environment, and while I, like most other women, still don’t like being objectified, I do understand that as a public figure, when I go to these events I will be judged on how I look at them. I also understand that as an athlete, I have an athlete’s body, and as a racing driver, I have a racing driver’s arms, upper back, shoulders, and neck. I work hard to achieve those muscles, and I’m proud of the athleticism I have. Needless to say, the comments on these types of photos range from those who think I shouldn’t expose my arms in public, to those who think that objectifying me is a compliment I should be happy to receive.
As a female athlete in racing, again overall I am extremely lucky. Race fans as a whole treat me with a lot of kindness, and respect, at these events, and most of the comments I receive simply tell me they think I look nice, or that I clean up well. This gets a genuine smile, and thank you, from me, as opposed to the “You’re hot!” guy who probably means well, but still makes me feel uncomfortable, even when I’m wearing a dress.
At these events, just as at the race track, I do try to stop to speak to fans, to sign autographs, and to take photos when asked. Just as with their comments, in real life, most race fans make this a pleasure rather than a chore, something I enjoy doing as opposed to something I have to do. Occasionally you will see my smile go tight, and you will see me step away from someone smartly, but in my sport I am so lucky that these interactions happen so rarely, that when they do, they stand out. Interestingly though, this is just as likely to happen to me in my race suit – sweaty, red faced, tangled hair – as it is to happen to me when I’m at one of these events in a dress.
I’m also a female athlete who regularly posts photos of myself in the gym to social media. These images are generally taken, and lit, to show off the muscles that I work so hard to obtain, and need for my job. I am proud of how hard I work, and interestingly, the comments on these photos nearly always highlight my strength, my muscles, and my determination. They celebrate those attributes that make me a female athlete—capable of strapping into a racing car without power steering, and hustling it for 500 miles. Rarely ever do I get comments on these photos that make me go “Eww”!
However, my experience as a female racing driver is the exception, not the norm, in terms of treatment, and comments towards many female athletes. You only have to scroll through the comments on the Facebook Page, or Instagram feed of other famous female athletes who have made it into mainstream to see that many focus on their opinion of an athlete’s sex appeal as opposed to her sport appeal.
The Women’s Sport Trust is trying to change that, and I agree 100% with their mission. It’s something every single one of us can help them achieve. This campaign starts with those taking the images in the first place, the onus to show more of the strength, skill, passion and drama of the sport, as opposed to simply focusing on how a female athlete looks. But from the moment that image is shared to the public space, we have a responsibility too. Let’s focus on the female athlete’s achievements, the incredible play she’s making in the shot, her drive, her strength, and her determination. Let’s celebrate her victory or console her in defeat. Let’s not make it about whether she’s “hot”.
It’s 2016. The time to recognize female athletes appropriately as athletes, and to celebrate them for their achievements not their looks, is long overdue. It’s time for change, and we can be the ones to help drive that change forwards.
Join me, and join the Women’s Sport Trust. We can be the change we want to see.
Photo credit: Women’s Sport Trust / Getty Images.