Earlier this week, FIDE, the International Chess Federation, announced a sponsorship for women’s chess with Establishment Labs, a company producing and marketing a breast implant product line branded as Motiva®. This is the first-ever corporate sponsorship agreement specifically aimed at supporting women’s chess events. FIDE cited this sponsorship as extending through 2022, a year they have designated as “The Year of Women in Chess.” This sponsorship has surfaced important discussions around sponsorships, financial support for female players, power dynamics, body image, and other delicate topics.
Chess.com is actively covering the World Women’s Team Championship and will cover the upcoming Women’s World Chess Championship and other major women’s chess events but will not be promoting Motiva as a sponsor in our broadcasts of these events. We do recognize 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. We recognize the importance of financially supporting women’s chess and that FIDE believes this was their best option to financially support women’s chess. 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.
The sponsorship announcement and associated PR campaign has primarily focused on the angle of reconstructive surgery based on breast cancer. WGM Dana Reizniece-Ozola, FIDE’s Managing Director and the most senior woman among FIDE’s leadership, provided the following statement in the release:
“One in eight women will develop breast cancer in her lifetime, and in most of the world, the number of women receiving a breast reconstruction is less than 10 percent with waiting times as long as eight years,” Reizniece-Ozola, said. “Many women undergo mastectomies as part of their treatment. Though lifesaving in many cases, a mastectomy may cause cancer survivors to feel mournful after losing an essential part of their body. Breast reconstruction is not only about repairing physical damage but also about repairing and even preventing psychological trauma.”
While Reizniece-Ozola’s statement focuses on reconstructive surgery and breast cancer, the Motiva website focuses on aesthetics and surgery to optimize aesthetics, using “Breast Augmentation” and “Safe Breasts Enlargement” as their website’s HTML title to optimize their placement in searches for these operations. The majority of implants made by Motiva are sold for those purposes.
Breast Augmentation and Plastic Surgery are deeply personal topics, and Chess.com is not in the best position to parse the nuances of that discussion. We do recommend Netflix’s episode on Plastic Surgery from their Explained series. In it, Heather Widdows, the author of “Perfect Me: Beauty as an Ethical Ideal” summarized: “Individually, I think it could be oppressive or empowering, [but] ideally we need to live in a world where we don’t need to cut up our bodies to be our best selves.”
Ideally we need to live in a world where we don’t need to cut up our bodies to be our best selves.
FIDE says that it finds itself in a challenging position. They want to support women’s chess. They want to financially reward the players. And the players also want to be rewarded for their hard work. FIDE claims that there are huge challenges in getting financial sponsorships for chess in general, and in particular, for women’s chess. They are spending millions of dollars each year in prize funds and event production for the Women’s Grand Prix, Candidates, and World Chess Championship. Where is that money supposed to come from if not from sponsors? Motiva has been one of a few sponsors who have stepped forward to provide funds. This is perhaps why none of the actual players in the ongoing Women’s Team Chess Championship have vocally opposed the sponsorship: they would rather have the event, with compensation, than not.
There may also be other reasons that players in the event have not been more outspoken. It is impossible to consider this issue without being aware of the power imbalance between female chess players and FIDE representatives. Few active female competitiors have been openly critical of this sponsorship. However, when privately and anonymously contacted by Chess.com, the majority of women who responded felt that the sponsorship was negative. Responses ranged from annoyed to outraged.
Responses From Female Chess Players
Chess.com reached out to several female chess personalities to share their opinions here.
Speaking as an individual and not on behalf of US Chess Women, two-time U.S. champion WGM Jennifer Shahade stated the following:
I think a breast augmentation company should not be a sponsor for a women’s chess event, though there could be some positives if breast cancer awareness and reconstructive surgery is the focus (which thankfully seems to be FIDE’s plan according to the press release). October is breast cancer awareness month and I’ve personally lost a very close family member to it (RIP Aviva) and with another beloved childhood friend sick with it.
I think a breast augmentation company should not be a sponsor for a women’s chess event.
Breast implants are not categorically bad. In my view, they are a symptom, not a cause, of a society steeped in an obsession with perfection, especially female perfection. To me, we got to get to the root of the problem, our cultural obsession with appearances that can go beyond a genuine interest in fashion/makeup/sex.
In an art project totally unrelated to this specific scandal, created a decade ago, I shot a video with my husband imagining two stepsisters playing a poker heads-up game for breast implants. The point of the art was to show how much appearances are valued in our culture that it could even make sense to play such a match. The piece also spun off the original “Cinderella” tale, in which the stepsisters deformed and cut off pieces of their feet to fit into the glass slipper (that part was removed from Disney.) How life imitates art!
Our culture is looks-obsessed but this can be even more extreme in chess since there are so few women and the male gaze becomes a male magnifying glass. For me, the best way to resist this is not just outrage (though I 100 percent respect women, especially the players, who may feel differently to lean into their own outrage) I’d like this to open up the discussion of what we value and how that can make women feel alienated or pressured in our (chess) world. And finally, to identify more sponsors who can bring women and chess to where it can be!
Nine-time British champion IM Jovanka Houska, who is a commentator for the Meltwater Champions Chess Tour, commented:
I think this could be a very exciting sponsorship deal but it’s highly dependent on how FIDE promotes and frames it. Done in the right way this could be very empowering for women.
As pointed out by many, breast reconstruction surgery is a very worthwhile cause. 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 judgemental undertone on social media.
Women should not be scorned/ridiculed for electing to have breast enlargement surgery.
For me, a more pressing problem is the poor treatment that too many females receive from their national federations due to both a lack of interest and funding.
Our third respondent is a female chess player and streamer who preferred remain anonymous:
I would not have had as major an issue with this sponsorship, if not for FIDE’s bad history around the topic of sexism in chess. Viagra has sponsored sports events in the US before, and that was rightfully seen as empowering to men impacted by erectile issues, despite Viagra’s reputation as a sex drug. Breast implants are more long-term and unchangeable than popping a pill, though can still be empowering especially to women who have undergone a mastectomy.
But FIDE does not have a good history in empowering women. They are using the legitimate medical purpose of breast implants as a smokescreen to deflect from the questionable ethics of a company aggressively targeting the cosmetics market, and isn’t even FDA approved. Because of FIDE’s past, I can’t assume good faith with them on this, and find it degrading and humiliating that such an intellectual game is being sponsored by a company which primarily profits from women’s insecurities. I highly doubt FIDE would bring the men’s game into disrepute by having the World Championship sponsored by a penis enlargement company.
And, of course it also looks bad for attracting other sponsors. Sponsors generally look to see if they’re a match with other sponsors for a brand, which I’ve learned from my streaming. Many brands will not want to risk the negative PR or simply just not be a good associative match for being linked to a breast implant manufacturer. It’s just such short term and unstrategic thinking from FIDE. I wish I could say I was surprised by FIDE, but I’m not.
Of course, these are my private views. In order to not be punished by FIDE, I will have to be at least neutral publicly. A shame because no change will ever come this way.
In order to not be punished by FIDE, I will have to be at least neutral publicly.
Seven-time U.S. Women’s Chess Champion Irina Krush and two-time U.S. Women’s Chess Champion Jennifer Shahade shared further thoughts during commentary for the Women’s Team Chess Championship.
Responses From FIDE
We asked FIDE some followup questions regarding the sponsorship. One question that Chess.com had about this sponsorship was: were women involved in this decision? FIDE has responded: “The sponsorship agreement was made by FIDE’s marketing department. Motiva had been organizing women’s events since 2015, and that caught our attention: there are not many private companies supporting women in chess. We got into talks with them almost one year ago, and we are happy that this has turned into the single largest corporate sponsorship ever signed specifically for women in chess. The FIDE marketing department is composed of professionals. We make judgements and decisions based in objective criteria, and I want to believe that our sex doesn’t affect our judgement. Anyway, there are two women working in marketing plus three more in the communications department (the line between the two is very thin), and the project was shared beforehand with several other stakeholders, including the WOM Chairperson and Secretary, FIDE’s Managing Director, and FIDE’s Treasurer. The contract was discussed by both the Management board and the FIDE Council, two bodies where women have a wider representation than they do in the chess community as a whole.”
When asked if FIDE encourages plastic surgery, they responded: “FIDE is not encouraging plastic surgery, but if an adult freely makes this choice, our organization endorses Motiva, a company that has demonstrated its strong commitment towards women.”
When asked if FIDE has heard any negative responses from women, they replied: “I would like to add that these days me [David Llada] and my colleague Marco Verdoia (Marketing Director) are both at the World Women’s Team Championship, surrounded by some fifty of the top women players in the world, and their overall response has been very positive.” They then provided a list of 21 top female players they claim to have “given an interview to Motiva and have actively participated in the activities organized by them. While not an endorsement, I think the list reflects the position of a majority of top women players.”
Chess.com recognizes that this is a controversial issue. When asked privately, most women who responded to Chess.com expressed opposition to this sponsorship. When asked publicly, players in the Women’s Team Chess Championship, the first event supported by this sponsor, have not been openly critical and have expressed appreciation for any sponsor supporting women’s chess. The power dynamics and financial implications at play almost certainly impact this discussion.
Most people agree that a less controversial sponsor would be much better, but where are these sponsors who can properly support the players? Chess.com has offered to help solicit positive potential sponsors for the next cycle of women’s chess events. At Chess.com, we are committed to having a positive role in organizing, sponsoring, and promoting women’s chess.