Not just sexism: How drinking society culture targets women with body image issues

Elsa Maishman 20 May 2015

The news that the Wyverns drinking society is bringing jelly wrestling back to their May Week garden party has sparked a lot of debate about whether the practice is sexist or should be banned. To pay the Wyverns their dues, the new format they have proposed (males being allowed to wrestle, competitors challenging a champion who is part of the society) is certainly an improvement on the 2013 version of the game. When I asked my friends what they thought, some said it didn’t seem overtly sexist any more and they were willing to see it as ‘just a bit of fun’.

I believe that jelly wrestling, as it stands in the context of a male drinking society’s garden party, is damaging to the mental health of women with body image issues and eating disorders (EDs). It's not surprising that EDs are a big problem in Cambridge as one of the main risk factors is perfectionism, which is a very common trait in students here. When I tried last year to raise awareness of EDs by producing an informative video, I was quickly flooded with messages from girls just like me – who felt that being academic was no longer enough, they had to be physically perfect too (and by any means necessary). I’m sure male drinking societies don't mean to add to the pressure felt by these girls, but the fact is that they do. It's common for male drinking societies to openly judge women on their appearance – if you don't believe me try going to a swap dressed in something loose that covers you up and see how long it takes for you to be called frigid or be completely side-lined by the group.

It only makes sense that women who are less confident in their body will struggle with our university’s drinking society culture. As for the jelly wrestling itself; in the past it was always for girl in bikinis who would be watched and sexualised by male society members. Just because the men are now allowed to join in doesn’t erase what jelly wrestling means to those who attend the event, and those who feel threatened by it. Sure, the odd guy might join in, but realistically most competitors will be attractive bikini-clad women. Do we really believe that male and female competitors will receive the same response from the male-dominated crowd? Or will women be jeered at and judged on their appearance while men are touted as ‘proper lads’? What is more, I have yet to see a larger girl in any of the pictures from Wyvern’s wresting events. Are they included? Or would they just be made fun of if they tried to join in? If this event goes ahead, the Wyverns have a responsibly to make it all body type-inclusive and make sure there is no body shaming. I fear this is quite a mammoth task for a group of young men and probably not very high on their list of priorities.

So yes, jelly wrestling is intended as 'just a bit of fun', but to those of us who struggle with body image the message is clear: even in 2015 your body is just something to show off for the enjoyment of others, and your appearance still affects how you will be judged by your peers.

Agree? Disagree? Let us know in the comments below, or email comment@tcs.cam.ac.uk to pitch a response. You can also click here to read 'Not all drinking societies are privileged misogynists', written by the anonymous president of a drinking society.