Bartoli and the BBC/ Words Matter

Marion Bartoli and Andy Murray at the Champions’ Ball

I dread to think what I’d look like sans make-up in a white mini skirt on Centre Court at Wimbledon, having run around like crazy, swiping balls back at my opponent for an hour and a half. Add in a few frowns of concentration and some beads of perspiration, along with several focused grimaces, and I’m quite sure I’d not look a pretty sight.

Most of us accept the fact that Marion Bartoli, the 2013 Women’s Singles champion, was not on court to look pretty and that that was the last thing on her mind throughout the tournament. Yet some of the vitriol directed at her by mindless would-be commentators at home and the thoughtless comment from the BBC’s John Inverdale, suggesting live on air that she was not much of a ‘looker’ is shocking and regrettable. No wonder 674 viewers responded irately to the insensitive gaffe. I didn’t come across any unkind comments in the news regarding male players’ appearance or attractiveness. Bartoli’s stunning transformation at the Winner’s ball after the Championship may well have silenced some of her critics, but I don’t see why she had to prove anything at all. It’s not like she had tried to win a modelling contract; she’s a tennis player for goodness sake!

Fact is, there are times when we should just keep our thoughts to ourselves. What right do any of us have to name call and belittle others on the basis of their appearance? Unfortunately Bartoli’s experience was not unique to her; countless women face judgements on their looks on a daily basis. Female politicians and high profile women in media or business are frequently subjected to commentary on their appearance rather than their capabilities. The rise in social media has in no small part contributed to people’s tendency to broadcast mean or critical comments that they wouldn’t dream of vocalising in public.

Although Inverdale and the BBC have apologised for the above quote, the effects of the words still linger. I once read an analogy about the power of words, likening them to toothpaste that has been squeezed out of the tube. Once the substance has come out, it’s incredibly difficult to push it back in without leaving a big mess. That’s what our words are like. We may try to retract them or to apologise, but once they’ve passed our lips (or keyboard), they are hard to ignore or forget.

I’m aware of this myself, having spoken countless thoughtless words and regretted them. Thankfully, I don’t appear on live TV or radio and only a few have been on the receiving end of my ill advised comments or outbursts.  I’m reminded of the old adage, favoured by grannies and those of a previous era: “If you haven’t got anything nice to say, don’t say anything at all!” Wouldn’t it be good if that once again became a consistent maxim for the media – and for the rest of us – to follow before rushing to make announcements about people’s outward appearance? The BBC could perhaps also consider whether its presenters would benefit from some refresher training courses in how to avoid sexism and inappropriate comments.

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