Growing up in middle-class Varanasi, Prashanti Singh had short hair and dressed like a boy. The lanky teen worked on her dribble by the fading evening light, beating older boys at the hoops with the swagger of a pro athlete. Basketball was her calling and she knew it; she could move like magic up the court. But every year, as school reopened after summer break and other girls rushed to sign up for dance classes, Singh would freeze up, her heart beating wildly in anticipation. And she would inevitably walk away, fist clenched, tanned arms wrapped around her deflated self. “Once, when I expressed interest in dance, everyone said, isko suit nahin karega (it won’t suit her). I loved the idea of dancing, but as a sportswoman, I was considered too tall and inelegant. I was scarred by the stereotyping and I never managed to take up dancing,” says Singh, now 29, a shooting guard and former captain.
Prashanti and her equally talented sisters Pratima, 24, Divya, 32, and Akanksha, 26, are to Indian women’s basketball what the Chappells and the Waughs were to Australian cricket. But the girls didn’t have it easy. For women in sports, body- shaming starts early. Tall, skinny, muscular, rugged: they are physical outliers in a society that judges them against an untenable configuration of feminine beauty. “We do not have your average halki-phulki (slight) bodies. Basketball is a contact sport and we want to be known for being strong and skilled,” says Pratima. As irony would have it, the Singhs are now counted among India’s most glamorous sportswomen. However, much before the eventual acclamation came the sidelong glances and the sniggering insults. Prashanti was ragged in college for ‘standing like a boy’. An autowallah once called Divya ‘bhaisaab’ and suggested she sit next to him in the driver’s seat. “Now, when we wear good clothes, people say we look like models. We stand out, but in a good way,” Prashanti says. As though making up for lost time, the girls love dressing up for the camera— Akanksha, who now captains the Indian team, was recently featured in a promotion for online clothing portal Jabong. com—and oblige scribes who grill them on the gender-normative subjects of fashion and shopping destinations.
Elite athletes, both men and women, are increasingly conscious of their looks, says national badminton coach Pullela Gopichand, who also runs a sporting academy in Hyderabad famed for producing top-level athletes. The pressure on women in particular appears to be mounting. They don’t just have to train harder than ever to win, they are also encouraged to look pretty to sell the game or to build their personal brand. Adding to their body image issues is the very Indian notion that athleticism is at odds with sex appeal—unless, of course, you are fair-complexioned, fit and reasonably curvaceous. “All sport is evolving and so is badminton. It is no longer just about artistry. Strength, endurance and physical ability are paramount, and women are now training very hard to be successful,” Gopichand says. “But even before they come to the big stage, their managers begin to emphasise their looks way beyond what is necessary. Advertisements tend to further tilt this balance.”
Earlier this month, as the world discussed threadbare the curves and the musculature of Serena Williams after her sixth Wimbledon win and 21st Grand Slam, it became clear that a woman’s success excites a perverse and unwarranted scrutiny of her body by professionals and amateurs. What else could possibly explain why 19-year-old Dutee Chand, one of India’s most promising sprinters who shot to fame with a 200m bronze at the 2013 Asian Games, was subjected to a ‘gender test’? Last summer, acting on an anonymous tip, sporting authorities hoodwinked her into getting tested for hyperandrogenism, wherein a woman’s body produces more testosterone than is acceptable under the International Association of Athletics Federations (IAAF) guidelines. And there it was, the reproachful result that implied Chand wasn’t woman enough. Banned from competing against other women in the Commonwealth Games and her gender identity suddenly called into question, Chand refused to undergo hormone therapy and, in a rare act of defiance, has challenged the IAAF regulations at the Court of Arbitration for Sport in Switzerland.
At an athletics track in Gachibowli, Hyderabad, Chand is now running to catch up to her potential. At 5-ft 4-in, she is a diminutive athlete with the explosive start of a seasoned sprinter. She ties her hair back in a low ponytail and says she likes to paint her nails. “I train in the hope that the case will be decided in my favour before the Rio Olympics,” Chand says. “But honestly, my interest in sport has dwindled.” Gopichand’s academy, where she is a resident, has given her a cloak of invisibility that she is grateful for. “I have a room to myself. I lost all my old friends to the controversy, but here the girls don’t know my history and they respect me,” she says. “See, I am very much a girl, and I have always looked like one,” Chand reasons, speaking in Hindi with an Oriya accent. “Before this controversy, no one ever wondered whether I was a ladki or a ladka.”
Social perceptions about gender often regulate how a woman athlete should look, says Payoshni Mitra, a researcher and activist advocating gender equality in sports who is closely involved with Chand’s appeal. “It is undeniable that there is pressure on women athletes to look and act a certain way or they run the risk of being singled out and mistreated,” Mitra says. Chand’s contemporaries attest to the fact that her ‘atypical physique’—by which they mean her muscular frame and angular facial features— coupled with her unprecedented performance at the tender age of 17 made her the target of a sad witch-hunt that has, in the past, tainted the careers of Santhi Soundarajan and Pinki Pramanik.
Every day in a female athlete’s life is a hurdle race of sorts, especially if she hails from a village, says Ashwini Akkunji, who was hailed as India’s golden girl after her 400m hurdles win at the 2010 Asian Games in Guangzhou, China. “We live in hostels for years and we cannot hope to make friends or marry outside the world of sport. In India, sportswomen are not considered companionable,” she says. At the end of a two- year ban for steroid violation, Akkunji’s career may finally be looking up, but her social life isn’t. “I like dressing up, but if I wear sleeveless shirts and step out, people stare at my biceps and I feel conscious,” says the 27-year-old. “I have taken to wearing full sleeves. I am proud of my body but sometimes society makes you feel bad about yourself.”
There is a rigid dichotomy between urban—‘high-brow,’ as an elite athletics coach put it—sports like tennis and others that are favoured by rural and small-town youth. Ritu Rani, a hockey player from Shahabad, Haryana, who captains the national team, knows well what it is like to cut through the sonorous nonsense that Indian women aren’t built for sport of a physical nature. “We may not be as strongly built as some of the European players,” she says, “but we are playing fast-paced hockey and we are an energetic bunch.” The Indian women’s team stands a real chance to qualify for the Olympics for the first time. “And if we do, it will dispel any doubts about women in hockey,” Rani adds. Whatever be the denouement, breaking free of the cultural fabrications of small-town Haryana to make it the fountainhead of Indian women’s hockey—it has produced over 40 players in the past few years—is a victory in itself.
Sometimes, even acts of mild gender subversion may trigger epiphanies about how society perceives women athletes. When Ashwini Ponnappa, a badminton doubles player from Bangalore who partners with Jwala Gutta, posted pictures of her new pixie cut on social media, she was shocked by the initial reactions. “People said I look like a boy. But it was something I had wanted to do for myself and fans slowly warmed to it,” says Ponnappa, who represents the athletic feminine. “I think it is important, as a representative of your sport, to make an effort to look good, on court and off it.” Ponnappa and Gutta, who clinched a gold at the 2010 Commonwealth Games and paired up again to win the Canada Open women’s doubles title last month, are keenly watched as much for their game as for their sense of style, an arrangement that is not without its complications.
“People say I am not fit for sport, I am only fit for movies,” says Gutta, 31, in a disarmingly chatty mood on a recent Saturday afternoon. “The fact that I am still able to win, at my age, should matter.” Like squash sensation Deepika Pallikal and tennis ace Sania Mirza, Gutta straddles the fence between sexualised popular culture and the largely masculine world of sport. She is as much at ease in a shimmering Shilpa Reddy sari as in a gym lifting weights. “I love fashion and I don’t step out dressed shabbily. But why is that a basis for accusing me of not being focused on my game? I can’t train 24×7, can I?” Gutta is not lean, which is something she ascribes to her body type. She has struggled with her weight in the past and continues to work hard on her fitness, although, she admits, “it doesn’t always show on my body”. Fans and detractors of Gutta abound on social media, hailing her as the hottest pin-up girl in Indian sport and ridiculing her ‘extended adolescence’. “At some point, you have to stop caring about what is said about you and believe in yourself,” Gutta says.
According to Mitra, there is an increasing attempt to trivialise women’s sports and to reproduce stereotypical images of women athletes in the media. “A completely separate gender vocabulary and images are used by the media to make a female athlete more acceptable to the larger society and the market,” she says. Body image has always been an issue for women in sport, argues former athlete PT Usha’s husband V Srinivasan. “Back in the late 1980s, a photographer from north India had come to shoot Usha at a hurdles event. She was crouched in an awkward position when he chose to take his juiciest shots. After the race, she walked up to him, slapped him in public view and confiscated his camera. Photographers have been careful around her ever since,” he says. “Women in sport have to be mentally strong to fend off objectification of their bodies.”
Physical strength, meanwhile, is becoming increasingly important in women’s sport, says Mithali Raj, the 32-year-old captain of the Indian women’s cricket team who recently crossed the 5,000-run mark. “We are benchmarked against men and we have to compete with them for the nation’s attention while also competing against highly physical women’s teams such as the West Indies, Australia or New Zealand. With the T20 format, we need to achieve high fitness levels,” she says. Raj, who has been signed on to endorse Vaseline and Adidas, among other brands, has argued for better visibility for women’s cricket. She is rarely seen wearing make-up and says she advises her team to look presentable but not to ‘fake anything’. “Some of our girls, including Vanitha VR and Harmanpreet Kaur, are especially fit but they do not feel the need to look glamorous,” Raj says.
A 2008 study of a cross-section of international women athletes found a worrying correlation between the level of their competitive success and critical comments made about their bodies. The higher the level of sporting success, the study showed, the keener the critical gaze on their physique. “Each sport tends to define a certain body type. Besides being fit, an athlete is expected to look the part,” says Gopichand. Champion boxer Mary Kom argues for restructuring such norms and says women in masculine- labelled sports must refuse to morph into men. “I encourage my juniors to be as feminine as they want. Many women athletes try to look and act like a man, perhaps in an attempt to conform. I have warned my students not to repeatedly cut their hair short,” Kom says. “Hair, fashion and how you look does not make you a champion. Let people respect your womanhood along with your achievement. That is true empowerment.”