‘Oh no, what are they saying?’: Women in golf reveal the ugly truth about social media

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It was February and Michelle Wie West found a fashion choice from her past drawing headlines in the present. Former New York City Mayor Rudy Giuliani told a story on a podcast about playing with Wie West in a charity Pro-Am in 2014, but the story had nothing to do with Wie West’s game. Instead, Giuliani bragged that he could see her underwear. The conversation continued on social media, where Wie West hit back at Giuliani. The usual array of commenters chimed in from the cheap seats, and the golf world was presented with another story that was equal parts absurd and maddeningly familiar.

“What should be discussed is the elite skill level that women play at,” Wie West wrote that day. “Not what we wear or look like.”

The nonsense Wie West dealt with is indicative of the torment many women in the sport confront. It takes different forms and its havoc can be personalized but it all comes from the same dark place.

“When you open social media and people are criticizing you for what you’re wearing and not for what you’re saying or the questions you’re asking or the research you’ve done, it takes a toll on you,” says Amanda Balionis, a reporter for CBS Sports. “Because it makes you feel like that’s the only thing that matters.”

“It’s something that’s been a part of my emotional state for the better part of my career,” echoes Golf Channel reporter Kira Dixon. “Seeing myself through a lens that’s already extremely critical when you’re in this profession that can get exacerbated when trolls come at you, pushing a very delicate button. It creates inner strife.”

Dixon, Balionis and Wie West are referring to the toxicity they encounter for doing their jobs. The experiences they describe are many things: upsetting, disturbing, alarming, heartbreaking. Above all, their stories are far more common than they should be.

There is an awakening to the mental health challenges inherent in sports, and perhaps no game possesses as many cognitive obstacles as golf. But for many women in the sport, no matter their station, there is an added, relentless pressure to maintain a certain look. It is a standard their male counterparts do not face, and it is a standard that takes a psychological and emotional toll.

“You can get a thousand nice comments and you have one mean comment and your day is absolutely ruined, crushed,” Wie West said.

Throughout its history the game has wrestled with the notion of inclusivity. Part of that struggle has been its marginalization of women. It can be as overt as male-only clubs, a lack of media coverage on the women’s professional game or too few programs at the junior and high school levels, but often the discrimination manifests in more subtle ways. Women feel oggled when at a range or course, and speak of an inhospitable vibe when they’re on the tee from course workers and male golfers who believe their performance or pace will hurt the rest of the tee sheet. In that same breath: “Pretty early on, I would get, ‘Wow, you move it pretty well for a girl,’” says LPGA and LET player Cheyenne Woods. “Like it was astonishing that a woman could be good.”

What steps golf has made steps to a better tomorrow remain just that—steps, with miles and miles to go. Most of the game remains male-centric and that focus is systemic, asserts Pia Nilsson, who runs the Vision54 Academy in Scottsdale with Lynn Marriott. “In how courses are set up, to a lack of locker rooms, in how research is done and how organizations and committees are formed,” Nilsson says.

And a major aspect of this male-dominated forum is the emphasis it places on the appearance of women golfers.

It is a problem that expands beyond golf, yes, women judged not by their character or merit but by an aesthetic. But just because an issue exists elsewhere does not give the sport and its community permission to ignore the issue in its backyard. (And when it comes to the issue this publication is not without blame. Golf personalities like Paulina Gretzky and Paige Spiranac were elevated to the cover for their sex appeal while years went by without an LPGA player on the front of the magazine.)

“There aren’t many women in the sport, so when you’re one of the few on the range, you stand out, and everything about you stands out,” says former Golf Channel reporter Angela Garcia. “And everything about you is evaluated.”

The objectification is pervasive and extensive, from the top of the sport to its grassroots. It is far from a new dynamic, but it’s been amplified exponentially by social media.

As online arenas continue to be ingrained into the fabric of daily life, women are finding the cat calls and criticisms don’t end when they leave the course. The persistent threat has an adverse effect on women’s state of mind and their decision-making.

“It’s hard,” Wie West says. “I love fashion, I love wearing cute outfits, but I also tether between, ‘Do I think this is pretty or do I think people will think this looks pretty on me?’ That is a constant question girls ask themselves.

“And when you see a photo of you in a somewhat scandalous outfit goes viral while a photo of you wearing ‘normal’ clothes goes unnoticed or is ridiculed, it’s hard. It’s hard when those inner-thoughts then get validated.”

Seeking validation in the pernicious vortex of Twitter, Instagram and Facebook may seem like a fool’s errand, especially when so often that validation is ephemeral. There’s also the belief that these channels are not “real life” anyway, so one should take any sentiment with a grain of salt.

Yet it is human nature to want to be liked, to be accepted, no matter the audience or medium. Moreover, with so much moving to the digital space—underlined by the past 20 months, as the pandemic has forced a physically and socially distant reality upon us—getting rejected online can feel like a personal rebuke.

“You put so much time and effort into your work, to produce something you think has value,” says Hally Leadbetter, a senior producer and host for Golf Digest’s digital content. “And a video comes out, and the first comment you see is calling you ugly. They don’t even care what the video is about. They focus on your looks and try to say that should define your worth.”

“You see the comment sometimes,” Dixon adds, “and … they’re just jarring. You tell yourself not to let the negativity get to you. But you can’t just unsee things that are so hateful especially when those hateful things are about you.”

If it’s so bad on social media, why don’t you stay off it?

This is a common refrain when hearing the plight and treatment of women. Some say it dismissively, but others suggest it as a sincere solution. Unfortunately it is a misguided response, starting with the very essence of the problem. In the same way a bullied student shouldn’t be banished from the school hallways, it would be backwards to punish women for the misogyny and vitriol of others.

Philosophy aside, “just stay off social media” fails to understand the dynamics and utility of the platform.

For media members like Dixon, Balionis and Leadbetter, maintaining a social media presence is not so much expected as it is required. Their roles might be on a broadcast or video, yet increasingly their work is distributed on social or online channels. Being a part of the online community is essential to making that content work.

“It’s not necessarily self-promotion,” Balionis says. “You want to funnel viewers and the audience to your company, and this is one of the ways to do it. Besides, if you’re proud of what you’ve done, you want the audience to see your work.” Adds Leadbetter: “It’s a direct-to-consumer model. If you’re a content creator, it’s the best way to reach who you are trying to reach.”

Same goes for players like Wie West and Woods. Mentioned above, women’s golf is not given the same level of exposure as the men’s game, so much of the promotion of the sport and their own brands falls on players’ shoulders. It can be a positive experience, and there are benefits to amassing a personal fan base. It also comes with strings attached.

“With sponsorships, you are generally contractually obligated to do a certain amount of posts,” Woods says. “Taking away social media can take away financial backing that frankly is hard to get in women’s golf.”

To a person, they want to be clear they are not sharing their experiences to complain. They love what they do and love this sport; they would not trade their careers for anything else. To an extent, there’s an inherent understanding that being in a very public position opens yourself up to a certain degree of criticism. That is the price of fame.

But it is an increasing cost, and it’s not felt to nearly as much by men in similar positions.

Being a woman in golf means your resume, competency and output are regularly under question. There is an assumption that they are only doing what they do because of their gender and how they look. Dixon in particular faced an additional hurdle, with her history as a former Miss America often overshadowing an impressive academic record and work history.

“It’s always, ‘‘Oh, she’s cute, she probably did something to get this job or they hired her because she looks a certain way,” Dixon, who also produces content for the USGA, says. “That’s not the case. I had to work really hard to get here. I’ve proved I can do this.”

Recently Dixon had a conversation with a member of the industry who admitted when seeing Dixon for the first time, “‘Oh, another blonde girl. Let’s see how long she lasts,’” Dixon recalls. “I appreciated his honesty, but the fact he felt so comfortable saying that shows that the stigma exists, and makes me wonder how many other people look at me and think the same thing.”

“I was told I was brought in because I was the best interviewer available,” Balionis adds. “Which is a freeing thing, knowing I’m not here because of how I look. But that’s what people hold on to and try to drag me, or any female broadcaster for. Your look is proof, to some people, that you are nothing more than a pretty face.”

It’s easy to grasp that everyone, male or female, wants to look their best. That desire is turned up when working in a public space. But that desire becomes an unhealthy priority for women knowing that their clothing or fashion or make-up choices will ultimately be discussed rather than the jobs they set out to do.

“It starts at a young age in golf. At 10 years old and I’m going to the golf course, they are measuring with a scorecard to make sure your skirt is a certain height above your knee cap. They are not doing that to boys,” Balionis said. “At a very young age, you are told what you think looks good is not good enough. It has to fall into the lines of the male boundaries of what they’ve set.

“You want to look your best, because looking good makes you feel confident. But I also want to look my best to limit the amount of negative comments I’m going to get to keep the focus on my job. But that’s a lose-lose situation.”

Players face the same obstacles. Professional golf is supposed to be a meritocracy, where success is a direct reflection of performance. Instead, women find they’re judged by another metric, sometimes more so than their play.

“There’s always been a stereotype of the female athlete,” Woods says. “You can’t just be good, or your game isn’t enough. You need to be dolled up and sexualized in a way. As a woman, I love to golf and I like to look good, but once you hit a certain level you realize some people only focus on the look part.”

“It goes back to athletes being highlighted for their physical attributes rather than their accomplishments,” Wie West adds.

It’s more than just their fashion and appearances, too. Women note part of the standard is to maintain an illusion of attainability, and when that facade is torn down, they are as well.

Wie West, long one of the most popular figures in the game, married in 2019 and gave birth in 2020. Moments that should have been treated as celebrations were received by certain factions as a betrayal.

“Oh, especially after getting married. Posting photos of my husband, the likes and the unfollows started to happen instantly,” Wie West says. She stresses it was just a contingent of followers—and in the process, she noticed more moms began to follow her—but it did highlight that some of her fans weren’t fans of her golf or her personality, but fans because they somehow thought they had a shot with her.

Wie West found the physical changes that come with pregnancy were also problematic. “Very innocent comments that can be dangerous. As an athlete people expect you to jump back, to find time to practice. ‘Oh hey, you lost a bunch of weight’ or ‘Looking the same as you were before.’ And then there was also ‘You’re working out already? Why don’t you look the same? When’s your next tournament?’ Somehow I’m doing wrong in two different ways.”

There are real consequences and fallout to this double standard. Many of the women said the constant judging chips away at their being, to their self-worth. It doesn’t matter how strong a conviction someone has in themselves, enough negative feedback takes a tangible toll. If you constantly see comments that you’re ugly, that you dress inappropriately, that you’re too flirty, you begin to see those comments as true. Nilsson says she’s seen the effect it has on women; it leads to sadness and despondency and depression; “How could you not with the onslaught of comments and opinions,” she says. A number of women have turned to therapy to try and make sense of it.

“Everyone has insecurities, but being a woman in golf means these insecurities are thrown at you by total strangers all the time,” Leadbetter says. “Talking about these struggles can be productive and cathartic. But to see everything you do try to be torn down, it’s disheartening and exhausting.”

“I think having an objective third party to look at it, and you start to realize when these criticisms start to get to you, it’s because of an insecurity you already have, and they are starting to poke at it,” Balionis says. “The ones that hit the hardest are the ones that are already scraping at a scab we already have.

“I go to a therapist. I journal. I meditate. I don’t keep it in, I send it to friends. I’ll talk to my mom about it. The more you handle it internally, the more you let it run you.”

At every point in this conversation, the women pause. There’s a fear that their words will be weaponized against them, that exposing the double standard will not bring enlightenment but instead encourage further trolling.

Just as harrowing, Wie West says, is the impression that women golfers should not be surprised by this behavior. What we’re seeing on social media is merely highlighting the way it’s always been. And because we’re a celebrity-obsessed culture, where famous people are treated like public entities, direct access to these figures behind a shield of anonymity is bringing out the worst of this social construct.

“Some people don’t think of you as a real person when you are a public figure,” Wie West says. “Behind that there is someone with real emotions and real thoughts.”

However, it is not simply through their own feeds that public figures are subjected to abuse.

Nilsson and Marriott have taught ten different major winners and four No. 1 ranked players in the world, but they also see a wide amount of junior players. They already see the adverse effects of social media on their pupils.

“We come across so many more players being stressed out, anxious, depressed and not doing well in general in the last few years,” Nilsson says. “Even more among younger, competitive, female players. How you are doing as a human affects your game. Especially with the younger generation on tour, college and juniors. They are just starting to discover who they are, what values are important, what they believe.”

Because the world of social media is so vast, the criticism can come from unexpected places. For example, Golf Digest has channels on Twitter, Instagram and Facebook. They are channels that deliver the content and conversations of the sport, but even innocuous posts can elicit a vicious response.

“Overall I think golf has a positive community with good people,” says Nicole Rae, Golf Digest senior manager of audience development and marketing. “But the comment sections can showcase the discrepancy in how male and female golfers are treated.”

To illustrate the point we analyzed the different responses to player swing sequences, which are one of the more popular pieces of recurring content on the feeds. The comments to male golfers are overwhelmingly positive, with the remarks geared towards the fundamentals or beauty of the swing, or a simple shout of encouragement to a player. When a female golfer is highlighted, the commentary is not so much on the swing or movements but on the player’s fashion, body parts, and looks, with some responses sexual in nature.

“Wife material,” “Better than porn,” “Hard to watch because of those tight shorts” read the comments from a recent women’s video. The gatekeepers for these channels do their best to report the comments or clean them up, but there are so many and they happen so frequently that some slip through the cracks.

And it’s not just LPGA stars. Chloe Kovelesky qualified for the U.S. Women’s Open this year at age 14, her massive drives turning her into a viral sensation. But rather than focus on her ability to outdrive nearly everyone in the field, an absurd number of commentators trashed her weight and appearance.

Being featured on platforms like Golf Digest and other media entities can be a boom for women and their profiles, delivering their story to millions. But too often it comes with a painful cost.

“When a publication posts something of me, I see the comments, you see the more common golf mentality that comes through more,” Wie West says. “As much as I appreciate getting covered, it’s always scary. Like, ‘Oh no, what are they saying?’ It’s not the content, it’s just a wider net of commenters.”

Wie West is also aware these comments are not just seen by her. She worries younger girls see the responses to the way she acts or dresses and that it will impact their own decision-making. “It’s planting the seed that no matter what you do, men only care about your looks,” Wie West says. “They are growing up with social media more than we did, but they’re at an impressionable age, and I hate the idea this is the thing that’s being sold to them.”

“Maybe people think they’re being funny, but so many girls are already self-conscious about body image,” Rae says, “and to see yourself or someone else get torn down for being less than perfect—or what someone thinks is perfect—can be destructive in so many ways.

“It’s hard, because female golfers deserve just as much attention as the men. But then you see the responses, and you don’t want to put women in these situations. We aren’t going to let negative comments and mean-spirited people curb the growth of women’s golf and we do our best to monitor the feedback. But it’s a part of the process that we don’t have to worry about when it comes to men.”

What solace many of these women take in these episodes is that they are not alone. That shared struggle can be empowering.

“What’s galvanizing is the friendship and camaraderie women in the game have,” Dixon. “Being able to share what you’ve had to deal with others who know exactly what you’re dealing with is a therapy onto itself.” Adds Balionis: “If you are trying to be someone else and dress like someone else, and then you get criticized, that’s where it becomes detrimental because you are completely lost,” Balionis says. “That’s why you need a center, and doing in your heart what you think is best.”

Leadbetter believes a catalyst for the change can lie with men. That golf can be a great place for everybody if it truly embraces everyone. “I think a lot of guys don’t know what they don’t know,” Leadbetter says. “Some of the things they say they may think aren’t hurtful. But I hope they evaluate how they treat female golfers, and ask themselves if they would say those things to their mothers, wives and daughters.”

Nilsson and Marriott have constructed a new program in their system that specifically addresses how to handle the onslaught of social media and perceived pressure to look a certain way. “It’s a lot about supporting them with awareness of the issue, learning what is real and not real. Supporting them to start being more clear on their own values and beliefs. Supporting them in deciding what they want their social media to be focused on. We believe in posting good, sharing good and commenting good. Learning when not to be on social media. Learning when and what is good to read/watch for their own happiness and confidence and future development and goals.”

Woods has started a podcast, Birdies Not BS, to use her platform to tackle the systemic issues in golf, while Garcia has started the UGLI Foundation to combat bullying and harassment. “So much of this comes down to people not knowing how to treat each other,” Garcia says. “If we can build others up instead of down, we can do a lot to turn the tide.”

Wie West, having been in the spotlight for nearly two decades, has wondered often about this negativity. Why are people like this? Why do they want to bring me down? Why? She does not have an answer. But on one question, the answer is clear.

“All the unfairness and inequality, I want to talk about it more because it’s not talked about enough,” Wie West says. “We’ve had these talks in private, and those are important. But what’s more important is having these discussions in public. I hope people know that words matter.”

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