Russian Gymnast's Looks Targeted by Olympic Committee After Wearing Feminist T-Shirt

Angelina Melnikova of Russia competes on the floor during the women's qualifications at the 2016 Rio Olympics. REUTERS/Mike Blake

Lying in the grass with her long, blond hair casually spread above her head, 16-year-old Russian gymnast Angelina Melnikova posed in a white T-shirt that read, “Everybody should be feminist,” her hands positioned in the shape of a heart. The photo, which appeared on Instagram five days ago, racked up more than 2,700 likes. Then came more photos just like it, with Melnikova wearing the same T-shirt, her lips painted bright red as she blew kisses, sat in the grass and posed by a fence.

“98 days of happiness,” she wrote on one.

“What do you think, is it better to be needed or happy?” she said on another.

The photos might have gone largely unnoticed had the Russian Olympic Committee not tweeted four of them along with a sexist comment: “She may be a feminist but still, [she’s] pretty and talented.”

As one Twitter user, Eugenia Sokolskaya, a translator, asked, “Why ‘but’? That feminists can't be beautiful and talented? This is, frankly, insulting.”

Melnikova is the 2017 European floor champion and was a member of Russia’s silver medal–winning Olympic team last year in Rio de Janeiro. She was also the Russian national all-around champ in 2016. When someone commented on one of her photos, “You’re great, but you’re a feminist...” followed by a puzzled-looking emoji, Melnikova replied, “I am not a feminist.” Her response isn’t necessarily surprising, given that being called a feminist in Russia is like someone in San Francisco wearing a T-shirt with a confederate flag on it, then saying, “I'm not a racist,” when called out for it. 

“Regardless of Melnikova's personal views, I find it odd that a country’s Olympic governing body would comment on a 16-year-old athlete’s looks or anything unrelated to her sport and accomplishments, particularly in response to a personal post on her social media,” says Lindsey Green, who’s covered Olympic gymnastics for New York magazine, NBC Olympic Talk and Bustle, where she’s the vice president of corporate communications.

Melnikova isn’t the first female athlete to face harsh criticism over her body. In 1999, U.S. soccer player Brandi Chastain ripped off her shirt after scoring the winning penalty in the Women’s World Cup. The image of Chastain kneeling on the grass in her black sports bra, screaming in celebration as her tan, toned arms pumped in the air, became an iconic feminist moment. Critics, of course, argued her behavior was inappropriate. In 2012 and again last year, Olympic gold medalist Gabby Douglas was shamed on social media for her hair. Recently, Caitlyn Jenner, the Olympic gold medalist formerly known as Bruce Jenner, faced criticism over her transformation. And last week, three-time Olympic medalist Aly Raisman tweeted about a “rude and uncomfortable” experience she’d had with two TSA agents at the airport. First, a female agent asked if she was a gymnast, explaining she recognized her by her biceps. Then, a male agent responded, saying, “I don’t see any muscles.”

“He was very rude. Staring at me shaking his head like it couldn't be me because I didn't look ‘strong enough’ to him? Not cool,” Raisman tweeted. In another tweet, she added, “You are sexist. Get over yourself. Are u kidding me? It's 2017. When will this change?”

Not soon enough. Melnikova very well may have just become the first gymnast to be body-shamed by her own Olympic committee.