Michelle Jenneke enjoys running, robotics, riding quad-bikes and posing in bikinis, and she doesn’t care if you have a problem with it.
The Australian hurdler has been breaking the internet since 2009 with her pre-race hip wiggle. She’s tall, muscly and “no girly girl”. Where society sets up gender barriers, the athlete jumps them with ease.
For a day job, Jenneke, 22, trains for the 2016 Olympic games. In her spare time (cough), she studies mechatronics at Sydney University. She also enjoys posing for men’s magazines for fun, despite the inevitable criticism.
“There will always be people who don’t like what you do. I don’t let that get to me,” she tells The New Daily.
“Women, when they choose to do modelling, they definitely can be criticised. In saying that, women can be criticised for doing all sorts of different things. Some women are criticised because they go into engineering, for example.
“That’s just the way our society is.”
As an expert confirms, women like Jenneke face conflicting stereotypes. They are sexualised, while being shamed for being sexy. They’re told to cover up while also expected to show more skin. Stereotyped as ‘dumb blondes’ but deterred from studying science and maths. Expected to be skinny and “girly” and adhere to society’s neat little boundaries. Without even trying, Jenneke breaks the mould.
She credits her willingness to stand out to her upbringing.
“There is that sporty side of me. There is also a little bit of a nerdy side. I love robotics. I’m a big Mac nerd.
“No-one ever told me growing up that I couldn’t be both.”
Of the 50-odd students in her engineering course, Jenneke is one of eight women. After Sally Pearson, she is Australia’s fastest female 100m hurdler ever.
She has tentatively secured one of three spots in Australia’s hurdling team for the Rio Olympics and hopes to compete in the 2020 games as well. Beyond that, her training in electronic and mechanical engineering will come in handy. “I like to think long term,” she says.
Jenneke fits no stereotype and claims to shrug off the negative comments. To the haters she says: “You don’t know me.”
Sadly, even in 2015, being a woman carries expectations, limits, barriers, shame. That’s according to Dr Kirsten McLean, a senior lecturer in gender studies at Monash University.
Dr McLean praises women like Jenneke who “break ground”, both in academia and with their sexuality. After all, “it’s her life”.
“People say it’s inappropriate for a woman to do a hip wiggle or to do photoshoots and sexualise themselves.
“When they’re in a highly technical course, they often cop a lot of flack for being a woman, for not knowing, for not being technical enough, for not being scientific enough.”
Such criticisms are dangerous, according to Dr McLean, because they limit women, who should be able to do what they like.
“It’s really easy for people to say you’re buying into the male gaze,” says the academic. “For instance, if they’re a real feminist or a real woman, they shouldn’t sexualise themselves.
“Whether it’s posing for a magazine or posing at a barbecue, we’re imposing this idea that that kind of behaviour coming from a woman is inappropriate and I have a real problem with that.
“It constrains the behaviour of women by telling them there are certain things they can do and certain things they shouldn’t.”
When Jenneke first went ‘viral’ in 2009, wiggling her hips before a heat, she believes it wasn’t her appearance alone that caught the internet’s attention. Perhaps it was also her infectious smile and the fact she was willing to do something “a little bit different”.
By standing out, Jenneke hopes she can help everyone, men included, challenge the norm and live their dream.
“I think sometimes women feel pigeonholed into certain categories. I don’t even think it’s women. I think everyone, they get pigeonholed into certain categories and then think they have to behave in a certain way.
“I like to think that I prove that wrong.”