'My heart broke': Controversy erupts over female athletes' lingerie ad

Sam Goodwin
Sports Editor

Olympic runner Sage Watson has hit out at a new lingerie ad featuring four prominent female athletes, saying it breaks her heart to see women’s sport continue to be sexualised.

The ad for Agent Provocateur features American runner Queen Harrison Claye, Canadian pole-vaulter Alysha Newman, American climber Sasha DiGiulian and British gymnast Georgia-Mae Fenton.

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The ad campaign shows all four women wearing the brand’s lingerie as they compete in their respective disciplines to the tune of “Oh Yeah” by Swiss electronic duo Yello.

The ad was released in accordance with International Women’s Day and aimed to showcase the “femininity and the beauty of the athletic body.”

Sasha DiGiulian, Alysha Newman and Queen Harrison Claye in the ad. Image: Agent Provocateur/Instagram

The ‘Play to Win’ campaign was directed by Sarah Shotton, who said, “We wanted to hero the magnificence of their sports and body confidence and how wearing Agent Provocateur can make you feel great.

“The athletes for SS20 continues AP’s story of the celebration of women and the female form.”

While the ad has been widely celebrated, it’s also been condemned.

Watson, who made the semi-finals of the 400m at the Rio 2016 Olympics, took to social media with her own story of being sexualised for her looks rather than her ability on the track.

Sage Watson at the 2016 Rio Olympics. (Photo by Paul Gilham/Getty Images)

“My heart broke when I watched a recent lingerie campaign video as it zoomed in on women’s butts and breasts as they did sporting activities,” she wrote.

“As a female athlete that’s not what makes our bodies amazing it’s our arms, legs, abs, backs and our mental strength.

“I was sexually harassed for months after the Olympics because my buns rode up after my hurdle race and the camera man zoomed in for the world to see a close up of my butt…. people didn’t care that I made my first Olympic semi-final they just cared that my butt was shown on international television.

“It was one of the hardest things I ever went through, receiving sexual and explicit messages about my body, even though I loved my body it hurt to have it sexualised while I was competing.”

Controversial ad divides opinion

Needless to say the controversial ad has divided opinion.

Harrison Claye told the New York Times she felt empowered while shooting the ad.

“I was outside my comfort zone. I’ve never done hurdling in a bra like that, obviously. It was also really liberating.”

Newman wrote on Instagram:, “As a woman and an athlete, I have been breaking barriers my entire life and this campaign “Play To Win” allowed me to show another side of the beauty of being a woman.”

Vanessa Friedman of the New York Times wondered if the ad was a “step forward of a great leap back.”

“It is impossible to view the images and not wonder if it is really women taking charge of their own sexuality that people will see or, rather, very strong women being reduced to their sexuality,” Friedman wrote.

Morwenna Ferrier of The Guardian wrote: “The athletes don’t make eye-contact with the viewer, but the gaze remains external (it’s worth noting that the creative team behind the ad are all women, and that the women in the adverts all chose what they wore).

“This is sex rebranded as empowerment, or empowerment reframed as sex.

“Delivered with the subtlety of a sledgehammer, it also serves as a reminder, in case we needed one, that there really is no movement – in this case female empowerment – that can’t be commodified. It suggests that athleticism is an attractive quality, and that while sex sells, so too does strength.”

While Hannah Mendelsohn of Give Me Sport said: “The ad is fun and crucially the athletes look comfortable as they push their bodies climbing, leaping and twirling around a bar in the underwear.”

Mendelsohn also felt the importance of the ad was emphasised by an Instagram post from DiGiulian.

"In my career, my body has routinely been a topic of conversation,” the climber in the ad wrote.

“I have been called anorexic and I have been fat-shamed. I have been analysed for what I wear, and judged for being too 'pink.' I have been told I don’t look like a 'climber,' I am not 'core,' and at times, I feel like I don’t belong to a sport that I have loved since I was 6 years old.

"Stuff like this can resonate in your mind. It has affected me. Body confidence has, and still does, take work.

“To feel proud and to own who I am; that’s what I work towards. I want anyone out there who, like me, wants to just be his or herself, to know that it’s okay.”