Everywhere I go, people are talking trash about Sydney Leroux’s fake eyelashes. To be fair, I’ve been in Canada, where she’s particularly reviled. I get it, she turned her back on you, Canada. You’re hurt. But through the pain, I beg you, do not bring her eyelashes into this. Because let’s be real: those eyelashes are amazing.
Female soccer players have long balanced their athleticism and femininity. And at least in the United States, they’ve long balanced it the same way, with a ponytail and a pink headband. Or some variation thereof. (An aside: I was at a bar watching the USWNT beat Colombia on Monday, and two different men asked me what the pink headbands were made of. It’s pre-wrap, guys). In the eyes of many, anyone who does too much more or too much less is doing it wrong; Leroux, with her long fake lashes, is doing it particularly wrong. Obviously, this is bullshit.
The critique is clear enough: makeup is for girly girls, and Leroux can’t possibly be a “serious” athlete in those lashes! She must not be thinking enough about soccer. She must be too preoccupied with her looks. And so she must—in essence—knock this shit off and comport herself exactly as she’s told. It’s retrograde policing of a woman’s body and her femininity disguised as fandom. It’s not recognizably different from Stephen A. wondering whether if women just don’t want to mess their hair up. But why the tentacles of annoying gender norms are sliding into modern women’s soccer is far more complicated than a gesticulating TV chauvinist farting into a microphone, and it’s becoming more so as the women’s game gains momentum.
Before we go further, I will confess I haven’t found any specific proof that Sydney Leroux’s eyelashes are fake. By which I mean, there’s no interview, Instagram or Tweet (that I can find) in which she talks about them being fake. The first thing that comes up when I Google “Sydney Leroux eyelashes” is a Quora question, asking whether she wears fake eyelashes during the games. No one has answered.
In a Q&A with Sports Illustrated, she did talk about her eyelashes, but not explicitly about using fake ones. When asked what part of her body she likes the most, the striker answered: “I think I like to take care of my eyebrows. And a few teammates and I get our eyelashes done together, and it’s like our thing.” I can only assume that getting eyelashes done means having eyelashes applied onto her eyelashes, but to confirm, I called up a makeup artist.
“She probably has individual fake lashes, which you get at the salon and lasts two or three weeks,” Christina Vega, a makeup artist based in New York City told me. It turns out there are two kinds of fake eyelashes—individual, and strip (they’re both exactly what they sound like). Individual lashes last way longer than strips, Vega says, but you have to be careful with them. “You can’t put mascara on them, and you’ve got to be careful how you sleep, you don’t want your face in the pillow. Otherwise you’ll wake up with eyelashes on your pillow.” Vega says that Leroux’s stylist probably uses special, waterproof, long lasting glue to get the lashes to stay in place. “You have to be careful how you pull them off too,” she says, “because they’re really in there.”
Vega says that the way to tell if lashes are the long-lasting fakes is to check whether they look the same each game. I spent some time looking at highlight reels, to check on Leroux’s lashes, but honestly, it’s kind of hard for me to tell.
Anyway. Even without definitive proof, I am going to run with the premise that those heavenly lashes are not god-given. And people have noticed. Which isn’t really any surprise. Any time a female athlete is in front of a camera, people are going to talk about what she looks like. She’s too manly, she’s too feminine, she’s too big or strong or whiney or whatever it is. As usual, there’s no real way to win. And as usual, women bear the brunt of this strange kind of image dissection.
The obvious problem with this type criticism—beyond the obvious problem, that is—is that it’s lazy. Do you really have so little to say about Leroux’s play, do you really know so little about women’s soccer, that it’s the eyelashes you’re going to talk about? For a lot of people (some announcers included) the answer seems to be yes. “You don’t have a technical analysis of her play,” says Brenda Elsey, a professor of history at Hofstra University who’s writing a book about the history of women’s soccer. “Which is what happens all the time in women’s soccer, there’s not enough scouting there’s not enough writing about women, journalists don’t know how to write about women so they say awkward phrases.”
Women’s soccer is in a weird, interesting place as it gains more visibility, and more people begin to pay it more attention. Networks in the United States are actually covering the games (other countries, not so much), which means players are now on camera—on big time camera—all the time. “They’ve got closeups on them and their face and I think for them they have a whole new level of scrutiny to the way they look,” says Elsey. “And they may respond to that in very different ways, depending on their own self image.”
This has led to more fans being exposed to women on the field in general, and some predictable, unfortunate responses to some appearance. But some of the most vitriolic comments about players like Leroux who don’t look like the poster-girls for the 1999 World Cup—your Mia Hamm, your Julie Foudy, your Brandi Chastain—often come from women, from fans deeply invested the women’s game.
“There’s a subculture of fans of women’s soccer that started really avidly following in the early 90’s,” says Elsey, “and they tended to be feminist, they tended to be athletes themselves more, and a lot of them embraced openly gay stars. Abby Wambach is kind of a long time stud of that community.” (This is not to say that Wambach didn’t face her share of hate for not being girly enough, which we’ll get to.) This group loved the fact that bare-faced women took the field and battled hard for 90 minutes. Which is, of course, a great thing. But a space for strong, fast women to be on TV without makeup isn’t the same as boxing out any women who want to wear makeup or lashes, or at least it shouldn’t be.
Leroux isn’t the only woman wearing makeup this World Cup. Ali Krieger, another American player, was nicknamed “Warrior Princess” in college in part due to her use of mascara. Some teams (looking at you France) are full of women playing in full face. Leroux’s eyelashes are just one very specific example. “The fake eyelashes are interesting because it’s an excessive femininity,” says Melissa Forbis, a sociologist at Stony Brook University. “It’s not just saying “I’m athletic but I’m still feminine” it’s saying ‘this sort of femininity is kicking ass here.’” Forbis points out that there is something fitting about Sydney Leroux, an aggressively physical, gritty player, wearing eyelashes that are aggressively feminine.
The sword cuts the other way too, of course. Players who don’t look girly enough are still criticized for being “too manly.” Abby Wambach was long the brunt of stupid, terrible jokes about her looks. Even while working her way towards the most international goals scored by a player of any gender (184), Wambach didn’t look right. She was too tall and too strong and had the wrong hair. People want their players to be women, to be feminine, but, god forbid not too feminine.
Forbis, who is also a competitive power lifter, says there are some parallels in her world. She points to a movie called Pumping Iron II: The Women, as an great example. Its predecessor, Pumping Iron was the world’s introduction to Arnold Schwarzenegger. Released in 1977 the docudrama followed Schwarzenegger in his quest to win the Mr. Universe and Mr. Olympia competitions. Pumping Iron II: The Women is, unsurprisingly, about the women’s side of body building, focusing on the 1985 season. And by all rules of the sport, the person who should have won that year, the woman who had the most defined muscles, was Bev Francis. But she lost, because her competitor was seen as more beautiful and feminine.
Also, shut up: men are criticized for their looks, but the phenomenon here is specifically gendered. People poke fun at men’s magical magnetic necklaces or their stupid pre-batting rituals. People talk about men’s hair (well, mainly men of color’s hair; nobody cares what pattern Wayne Rooney is balding in). But even when they’re analyzing whether Neymar’s blonde poof suggests he’s trying to be white, or whether Pogba’s ever changing hairstyles are delightful or distracting, they’re rarely questioning whether that player deserves to be on the field. Nobody asks whether Neymar’s blonde hair or Ronaldo’s dong ads mean they aren’t serious players. People don’t point at Jon Lester’s stupid Phiten necklace and say “that man clearly doesn’t take baseball seriously enough.” And further, men are allowed to look good for the camera without anyone even noticing. Many NBA players have a personal barber follow them around and get a haircut before every game; let a woman try that mess and see how it lands.
Look, I get it. I remember being a mediocre high school soccer player and facing off against girls wearing makeup. I thought they were ridiculous. I thought they should care more about how well they played and less about how they looked. (Maybe some of them should have!) But it’s hard to look at someone like Sydney Leroux and seriously say that she doesn’t care about how she plays.
So, my dear Canadians who kept asking, “Why the hell is Sydney Leroux wearing fake eyelashes?” I have an answer. “Because she looks great and wants to.” Or, in the words of Deion Sanders, “If you look good, you feel good. If you feel good, you play good. If you play good, they pay good.” Women’s soccer might not have that last part down just yet, but perhaps one day we’ll get there.
Never change, Sydney Leroux. Never change.
Rose Eveleth is a writer, producer, and designer based in Brooklyn, New York. She’s dabbled in everything from research on krill to animations about beer to podcasts about fake tumbleweed farms. In her spare time she makes weird paper automata and daydreams about hanging out with a pack of foxes.