The Myth of the Perfect Figure Skater


The Myth of the Perfect Figure Skater

An iridescent gliding myth glistens in the distance.


A stark glazed horizon. Suspended anticipation.
An iridescent gliding myth glistens in the distance.
In less than a breath, it pierces the silent air and takes flight.


But who are they really?

The world of figure skating currently hibernates as lockdown laws swiftly pressed pause on the sport. While other contact or team sports were allowed to proceed, skating rinks were closed. Training sessions were cancelled. Those that were on their way to competing and representing their country now have to adjust and find other ways to stay on track. Some have resorted to roller skates.


The approach to figure skating compared to other sports during COVID has highlighted how isolated it still is. Normally, it resides in a preserved dome of conservative values and white middle-class comfort. When we do get to peer into this world, it is presented to us through a pre-designed narrative of the ‘ice princess’. First popularised by Sonja Hernie who competed in the 1920s and 30s and later became the Hollywood ice princess film star, this narrative was then further embedded into television coverage of the sport to increase ratings in the ‘80s and ‘90s.


If we pierce through the fairy tale gaze, we see that figure skaters are like any other athletes. You can perform and compete in several different categories. For example, show skating, pairs, or in ice dance which is a whole other side of skating.


Figure skaters are marked on their short program and long program, their artistic expression and athletic ability. Artistic ability scoring tends to be more subjective, but also is vital for becoming the ice princess. The idea of the ice princess is a marketable commodity to the masses. By conforming to gender normative roles, a female athlete can invade the male domain of sport when disguised as a fragile princess, which satisfies the middle-class mind, soothed by the familiar.


While this ice princess narrative is commercially intelligent and marketable it is limiting. 


North London figure skater Teyha Muramoto described “there are fairy tale aspects to skating but presenting it with this narrative doesn’t show the rawness involved… it used to be the same with cheerleading but then the Netflix documentary Cheer was made…there are girls at my rink who are on Weight Watchers at 11. The fairy tale narrative doesn’t show this side to skating”.

Not only does the ice princess stencil mean only one type of person can really progress and succeed in the sport – a woman who is the ‘right’ height and weight, graceful and pale-skinned. It also leaves no place for other genders to hold such strong narratives. Where is the space for gender non-conforming, intersex or trans skaters? Where is the space for skaters who are Black or Brown?

Katrina (Kat) Atienza, began skating out of her own choice and grew up performing and competing in California. Kat has Filipino heritage and was first attracted to skating because of its blend of athleticism and the performing arts, but she fell in love with skating because it allowed her to express herself in a completely different way. Being surrounded by mostly other young women at the rink made her feel at home. However, having darker skin meant that often she was type-casted for competitions. She explained to me “in the last few years I feel more comfortable being Filipino and now when I look back at the characters I was selected to play, they were often because of my skin colour, like Jasmine or Pocahontas.” She wanted to express herself through her skating, but her ethnicity meant her self-expression was controlled. 


This fairy tale narrative not only limits skaters and their opportunity for success on an individual level but it also limits the community as a whole. The industry is following narratives that are outdated.


There is also frustration that figure skating is not treated the same as other sports, it’s not considered a real sport and its competitors and participants are not treated as the athletes that they are. 

Another North London figure skater, Allie Bunyan expanded “I’d say it’s almost like 50% is your skating and 50% is how you look…figure skating is only becoming more inclusive as Disney movies do because of the links that Disney movies and figure skating share with fairy tales.”  The more range in the casting of Disney princess, the more skating becomes inclusive. This is still not genuine inclusivity though, it is merely extended typecasting.


Maybe if we finally distanced the mainstream skating narrative from this fairy tale plot, skating could become more inclusive. Maybe if we moved away from such a rigid narrative, skaters would come to be known for what they really are: powerful, strong athletes who blend the performing arts with athleticism to self-express. 


The cherished fairy tale narrative is now holding the figure skating world back. Skaters should no longer be seen as porcelain dolls but exhibit a plethora of human expression.



Image sources: The Cut, Kalamu & Quartz