The Arsenal fullback never set out to challenge gender norms in the sport. But the scrutiny of his personal life, and the backlash to seemingly innocuous lifestyle preferences, have come at great personal cost.
Héctor Bellerín turns heads. On the pitch with Arsenal the 23-year-old Spanish right back is a blur, constantly in motion over the course of a match and earning his reputation as one of football’s fastest players.
Off the pitch, he’s an avowed fashionista with a deep interest in art and style. He poses for editorials in clothes he sewed, appears on trend panels, and embraces art as a means of self-expression while using his platform to speak to societal issues at large. He doesn’t perform masculinity in the way sporting culture demands, opting instead to explore his interests in things deemed less favorable simply because women like them.
Wealth, fame, and athletic prowess aside, Bellerín is neither the average man in his early 20’s nor does he possess the average footballer’s persona. In short, he refuses to be pigeonholed by what’s expected of a footballer.
“I feel like the football industry is an industry where we have to be really quiet and play,” he told Arsenal’s website in an October interview. “As I always say, we have so much time and we’re humans so we have issues and worries. We should push these things.”
His refusal to play by the sport’s unspoken and ever-changing social rules is as refreshing as it is rare.
It also makes him a mark for vitriolic abuse both in person and online.
“The problem is that people have an idea of what a footballer should look like, how they should behave, what they should talk about,” he told The Times in September. “You act a little differently and you become a target.”
The code of acceptable masculine behavior in football culture is, at its heart, rooted in misogyny. Violations— in other words, acting or appearing feminine in any way— must be punished. Bellerín undermines the code by casually disregarding the heteronormativity it upholds, and the culture responds in turn: everything, from his personal style to his infamous long hair, is scrutinized and attacked.
Even his diet isn’t off-limits. Bellerín went vegan at the beginning of the 2017-2018 season. Following Arsenal’s semi-final Europa League exit in May, pundit Alan Brazil blamed his performance on his eating habits and declared Bellerín needed to “get a steak down him.” In other words, be more manly by going out and eating that most stereotypical of masculine food, a raw dripping hunk of meat, and success will follow.
Using one’s hair as a public declaration of identity or affiliation is nothing new. Neither is having some fun with it on the pitch. Just ask Ivan Perišić, who shaves and dyes his hair to suit his patriotic fancy, or Neymar Jr., who rocked four different looks during the 2018 World Cup. Even the man bun (or as we like to call it, a bun) isn’t unheard of, as Gareth Bale and Zlatan Ibrahimović show. Yet Bellerín’s hair draws ire.
“People have called me ‘lesbian’ for growing my hair,” Bellerín confided to The Times. “There are other kinds of homophobic insults. I have learned to grow a thick skin but it can affect you.”
Calling someone a lesbian for growing their hair long may seem like an odd choice of words considering the stereotypes around butch and androgynous women. It circles back to misogyny: men aren’t supposed to have hair like that, only women do. Bellerín’s unmistakably a man, but his hair puts him outside of what’s considered appropriate in football’s particular incarnation of acceptable masculine behavior.
It’s worth noting masculine performance shifts over time and takes on the essence of culture at large. There’s no gold standard of acceptable masculinity, there’s a globe’s worth of distinct practices that vary all over the world. In elite football, that masculine performance borrows from Western cultural tenants and combines them with sporting expectations like stoicism and the stiff upper lip ideology to make something new.
Using a female-marked attribute against him is the ultimate insult within football culture’s lexicon, because not only is he said to resemble a woman, he’s being marked as a woman who’s displeasing to the male gaze and is therefore worthless.
Bellerín is candid about the abuse taking a toll. He disabled his social media accounts for a time and then returned, still refusing to cut his long hair, still talking about his vegan diet, still being himself.
Instead of reaffirming his heterosexuality as most men of his ilk would do when faced with homophobia, Bellerín reflected on what life would be like for an openly gay footballer in the Premier League.
“It is impossible that anybody could be openly gay in football,” he said. “Some fans are not ready.”
It’s a sad sentiment, even sadder because it’s true. A gay figure skater is one thing. A gay footballer would shake the culture to its core. Coming out as a gay man on the world’s stage would take confidence, self-awareness, bravery, and grit. It’s ironic that these traits are valued on the pitch yet derided when they manifest in Bellerín’s self-expression.
Meanwhile, the NWSL has numerous openly LGBTQ+ players. That female athletes in contact sports are allowed a different kind of leeway in their gender expression than their male counterparts is nothing new. They embrace some of sport’s most male-coded characteristics, like competitiveness, aggression, drive, and physicality. Queerness and its relationship to culture at large is fluid and ever-evolving, but the gendered stereotypes around gay men and lesbians are still prevalent. Gay men equals feminine equals bad, lesbians equal masculine equals good. Ah, misogyny.
Breaking the code of acceptable masculinity and dissecting its innate prejudices is critical in making football a more inclusive space. Héctor Bellerín is one player in the world’s biggest sport. He won’t singlehandedly change the culture. But by holding up a mirror to its flaws and refusing to look away, he spotlights the work that’s yet to be done.
Meredith Foster is an accidental sports fan and Nordic women’s hockey writer who got interested in football during the 2018 World Cup. She writes web content by day and whatever she feels like by night. She lives with a plush dragon collection and a rescue cat called Russet. She tweets her observations on life, the universe, and everything at @fosterwrites.