The International Chess Federation, the game's governing body, is facing intense criticism from female chess players and others after announcing that a company that makes breast implants would sponsor women's chess events.
The federation, known as FIDE, announced late last month that it had reached a "landmark partnership agreement" with Establishment Labs, a medical technology company that makes breast implants sold under the brand name Motiva.
FIDE called the partnership “the first-ever corporate sponsorship agreement specifically aimed at supporting women’s chess events”, and said the sponsorship would continue into 2022, which the federation has designated as the Year of Women in Chess.
The announcement touched off an immediate backlash among some players in the highest echelons of the game, where women have long complained of unequal treatment and misogyny. Jennifer Shahade, a two-time US women's chess champion and the women's programme director at the US Chess Federation, said she did not believe that the company should sponsor women's events.
“It’s not like breast implants are categorically bad,” Shahade said. “It’s just another example of the ways in which women’s looks are often given more attention than their moves and minds.”
She said the sponsorship also clashed with the burst of interest in chess, particularly among women, that followed the success of The Queen's Gambit, a Netflix series about a troubled chess prodigy named Beth Harmon who navigates the male-dominated tournament world.
“We are at such a great moment for women and chess now that we should be focused on that inner beauty and intellectual bravery that are under-represented in our culture,” said Shahade, the author of Chess Bitch: Women in the Ultimate Intellectual Sport and Play Like a Girl! Tactics by 9Queens, which promote women’s advancement in the game.
In a statement announcing the partnership with Establishment Labs, FIDE’s managing director, Dana Reizniece-Ozola, emphasised the benefits of breast reconstruction for cancer survivors who undergo mastectomies.
“At FIDE we value Establishment Labs’ commitment to women’s health and well-being,” Reizniece-Ozola said in the statement. “The company supports expanded access to breast reconstruction and has been a pioneer in offering technologies that can improve the outcomes for these women.”
Establishment Labs said in a statement that its sponsorship “highlights our core commitment to respecting and promoting confident and independent-minded women who are unobjectified and fully capable of making their own decisions without being labelled, judged or disparaged”.
“We are committed to changing the perception that women make decisions out of insecurity rather than empowerment and self-love, and are disappointed in any commentary suggesting otherwise,” the company said.
The statement from FIDE did not say how much the sponsorship was worth. The federation did not respond to requests for further comment.
Debate about the partnership came as the FIDE World Women's Team Championship, the first event sponsored by Establishment Labs, was being held in Sitges, Spain.
Fiona Steil-Antoni, a top chess player from Luxembourg, told Chess.com that the only promotional material from Motiva that had been distributed at the tournament discussed how to perform a breast self-exam.
“Nowhere did I see anything about breast implants/augmentation, nor is it the plan for this to be promoted within this sponsorship,” Steil-Antoni said, adding that she was “personally involved” in the partnership.
Some prominent chess players said the sponsorship could help elevate women in chess, where they have long been underrepresented. As of last year among the more than 1,700 regular grandmasters worldwide, only 37 were women.
Jovanka Houska, a nine-time British champion, told Chess.com that it “could be a very exciting sponsorship deal, but it’s highly dependent on how FIDE promotes and frames it.”
“As pointed out by many, breast reconstruction surgery is a very worthwhile cause,” Houska told the website. “I also want to stress that women should not be scorned/ridiculed for electing to have breast enlargement surgery. I say this because there does seem to be a rather judgmental undertone on social media.”
Chess.com, which covered the tournament in Spain and covers other women’s competitions, said that it would “not be promoting Motiva as a sponsor in our broadcasts of these events” .
“We do recognise the importance of reconstructive surgery and supporting breast cancer survivors, and we also respect that elective plastic surgery is a personal and positive choice for some,” Chess.com wrote. “However, as a company Chess.com does not feel this sponsorship association is positive for women’s chess or an appropriate marketing promotion to the broader Chess.com community.”
Beatriz Marinello, a past president of the US Chess Federation and a past vice- president of FIDE and the first woman elected to both positions, said it had been "extremely difficult" to find sponsors for women's events. "We haven't been prioritised," she said.
While Marinello said she was not personally offended by the partnership with Establishment Labs, “my only concern is targeting teenagers or girls who don’t have any medical condition and may decide to do this to make them look better”.
“Women, we are constantly being bombarded by all the propaganda about how our bodies should be. And it has nothing to do with chess.”
Sabina-Francesca Foisor, the 2017 US women’s chess champion, cautioned against a rush to judgment.
“Whether we like it or not, chess at its very top is dominated by male players, thus I can relate to those who find this partnership a result of a ‘male gaze,’” she wrote in an email. On the other hand, alcoholic beverage companies often sponsor sports events “and that never stirs any controversy”, she said.
“So, as FIDE struggles to find sponsors for traditional events, maybe we should just see how FIDE promotes the sponsor and what kind of message will be conveyed through this partnership,” Foisor wrote. “From what I was able to read so far, the message they want to convey seems to be a positive one.” – The New York Times