Sailing salopettes: sexy or sexist?

Posted on
February 3, 2022
Something caught my eye on LinkedIn the other day: a photographer for a professional sailing brand (I won’t name names) posted an image of a woman wearing racing salopettes with the drop seat down, exposing her bikini underneath with just a sliver of her behind showing. The caption asked “how do you make offshore sailing clothing appealing for women?” The comments called it “boundary pushing” and the implication was that it was something provocative. Far be it from me to clutch my pearls over the occasional “thirst trap” but in the context of offshore sailing gear? I think it sends completely the wrong message to aspiring female offshore sailors, an industry in which there is already a paucity of women. I don’t think the photo was aimed at women at all (I’m fairly certain no one’s ever asked Armel L’Cleach or Charlie Dalin to get their cheeks out for a photoshoot), rather at men, who are statistically more likely to buy offshore sailing gear anyway. 
I take issue with the idea that women on display is something provocative, as opposed to something that’s been used as an advertising technique since the 1950s. Look at BMW’s advertisement for selling used cars: a doe-eyed young woman stares up at the camera while the caption asks “You know you’re not the first but do you really care?”. Or watch this extremely questionable Carl’s Jr advert that aired during the 2015 Super Bowl. Ground-breaking? I think not. 
True, the tide has started to turn in the last few years, but it’s not happening fast enough. In 2019 World Sailing conducted an international survey on women in sailing and the results were damning: 80% of women surveyed believed there is a gender imbalance in the sport, and 56% of men agree (funny how the number drops considerably, isn’t it?).  
Before anyone levies allegations of slut-shaming at me, I truly believe every woman should have the right to express her sexuality any way she wants. But we’re not talking about an individual woman here, we’re talking about a brand choosing to propagate the message that sexing up salopettes might get more women into offshore sailing. Which, as anyone who’s actually taken part in an offshore race knows, is the least of your concerns. True, I’m not an offshore sailor, but I think if I were to undertake, say, The Ocean Race, my primary concern would be my boat handling tactics to make sure I don’t die at sea, not if my bum looks good when I open the drop seat of my trousers. 
Some of the quotes included in the World Sailing report paint an even darker picture: “I have been sexually harassed and assaulted by male bosses and crew mates in the sailing industry” said one 24 year old female sailor. Another said “An athlete that was starting to coach me said that he wanted to have sexual relations with me. He is 30 and I am 15 - this is the kind of abuse that keeps girls from coming to sail”. Until the sailing industry is safe and equitable to women and girls, I just don’t see how further sexualisation helps. 
The post is right about one thing: there’s a distinct lack of women in offshore sailing. As per World Sailing’s report, the 2021 Vendée Globe fleet was only 21% female, while the 2019 Transat Jacques Vabre and Route du Rhum were comprised of 7% and 4% women respectively. The Magenta Project is doing great work to address this imbalance but there’s still such a long way to go.  I’ve had the pleasure of working with some of the women paving the way in offshore sailing, Sam Davies, Clarisse Crémer, Justine Mettraux and Dame Ellen MacArthur, to name a few. One thing they consistently stress in interviews is that they don’t want to be known as the “best female sailor” in their class, they want to be known as the “best sailor”. And why shouldn’t they be? Offshore sailing is one of very few sports that allows people of all genders to compete on an equal footing. There are no weight or height restrictions, all that matters is pure skill. Surely a way to get more women into offshore sailing would be to celebrate the superhuman feats of athleticism and endurance all the women above have achieved, not to further ostracise women entering the industry by reminding them that they’re beholden to the male gaze.
Posted on
February 3, 2022
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