Sex Objects or Athletes? The Fallout of Sexy images of Female Athletes

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by Sim Badesha, Cross-posted with permission, Battered Women Support Services

Previously, I commented on the fact that media represents many famous women athletes as sexual objects. I shared Daniels (2009) statements of how these athletes are controlled by the media to devalue them. If you haven’t been able to read Daniels research you might be thinking “how does this affect me directly?” In this blog I will share the effects of media images of sexy athletes on women, continuing with Daniels research (one of the few of its kind!) and sharing some personal experiences.

So the media reinforces its patriarchal domination over women by controlling female athletes’ images. By making strong, talented females objectified, they take away the women’s’ athleticism. This makes this of lesser value than male athletes. After all, sports are projected as a ‘man’s thing’. BUT how does this affect you, if you don’t really care for women’s sports? Whether or not you like it, you are exposed to up to 3000 images from the media daily (Joanna Chiu, 2012). Some of those images are going to stick, and psychologically affect the way you think about things.

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Above: Pool player Jeanette Lee. Although I love art and see the body as natural and beautiful…my own attention goes to Lee’s body rather than wondering about her ranking as a pool player.

According to Daniels (2009) there is a difference between looking at regular pictures of female athletes and sexualized images. The regular images, called ‘performance athlete images’, had a positive effect on women. Females that looked at these images felt empowered and were able to see what their bodies can do (rather than pose in bikinis). When looking at sexualized images of athletes, females felt they had to look like the female. Remember, these are athletes. They’ve put in years of work on their bodies through exercise and proper eating. When shown wearing skimpy outfits, women may begin to think that’s how they’re supposed to look; ignoring the time and effort spent on the body. Also, these women look this way because it’s their career. You’d look the same too if you had to practice your game five hours a day with a trainer. What’s more troubling is that the athletes are made to look feminine when sexualized. This gives girls and women the ideas of what’s feminine. In their article, Jones and Greer (2011) stated that “individuals make sense of society by developing expectations or schemas. They then internally and externally attempt to fit into the societal norm and base stereotypes on such schemas”. As a child I use to think that female athletes had to look like Anna Kournikova to be successful. When Maria Sharapova became a star, I was convinced this was true. How harmful would this have been to me if I was a young tennis player?

Amy Jones and Jennifer Greer (2011) found that participants rated basketball players “more likely to have muscles, be “butch,” and be “bigger girls” than volleyball players”. Men followed gender schemas strongly by preferring to see masculine female athletes in masculine sports, and feminine female athletes in feminine sports (i.e. volleyball). They found female athletes participating in basketball to be perceived “by the media audience to be more masculine, than female athletes participating in volleyball”. One of the conclusions that Jones and Greer (2011) made was that “male media consumers are repelled at the thought of masculine female athletes participating in feminine sports, based on the negative media portrayal of masculine female athletes”.

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While waiting in line at an athletic store I could not help but hear the conversation behind me. The two females were complaining that the sporty clothing for women wasn’t sexy enough. I decided to keep my ears open to random chatter about this topic the next time I went shopping in such a store. Sure enough I came across young women complaining about the amount of “weird” (aka sporty) pants. They wanted pants that fit tight and sexy. Another time a girl wanted short shorts to make her summer outfits sexier. I can’t help but wonder where these women got the idea that they’re supposed to look sexy while working out. Or worse, some of them wanted the tightest pants they could fit into, to wear as normal clothes. You have to admit there’s no denying that there’s a connection from what they see through the media and what they begin to think is normal. You aren’t supposed to look like a model when you work out. There’s nothing wrong with looking or feeling sexy. What’s wrong is telling girls and women that they’re supposed to look a certain way in yoga pants.

Sim Badesha is participating in Violence, Media Representations and Families  a media literacy program joint initiative between Kwantlen Polytechnic University Sociology Department, First Voices and Battered Women’s Support Services

Editor’s note: Sports Illustrated wasn’t always so bad. In the late ’90s accomplished women athletes, who happened to be wearing swimsuits, were shown actively engaging in their sport or in powerful poses.

 

Julie Foudy won two Women's World Cups in soccer. She also played in three Summer Olympic Games, winning two Olympic Gold Medals.

Former professional soccer player, Mia Hamm scored more international goals in her career than any other player, male or female, in the history of U.S. soccer.

Compare to the images above it’s hard to know if the ‘glass-ceiling’ shattering athletes below are even into sports. Contorting their bodies into “insert here” poses, highlighting their boobs, butts and crotches, ready and waiting for the male gaze and his sexual advance.

 

Despite posing as a hood ornament, Danika Patrick is the most successful woman in the history of American open-wheel racing, being the only woman to win in the IndyCar Series. She currently competes in the NASCAR Nationwide Series.

Is this a soft porn model? Or, Lindsey Vonn, alpine ski racer with the U.S. Ski Team, who's won four World Cup championships and Winter Olympics' Gold Medal?

 

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Comments

  1. @ Julian

    The “sexualization” of male athletes isn’t really sexualization at all, though, but rather a play on a man’s idea of power. Woman don’t ogle the naked male like men ogle the naked woman, and it’s almost universally agreed that a naked women is much more attractive than a man. (Most) women don’t look at a naked (or half naked) man and say, “I’d like to have sex with that.” Instead, it’s, “I’d like to stare into his eyes over a romantic candlelit dinner for hours.” (Again, this is obviously a generalization, and there are bound to be outliers, but in many if not most instances, woman search for emotions, men search for sex. It’s hard wiring in the brain.)

    That being said, those half naked pictures of Michael Phelps don’t necessarily portray a side viewers see as “sexy”, but rather “powerful.” Because much of sports media is aimed at men, those preparing said media aren’t going to “sexify” a man. That’s counterproductive. This is the same concept behind the appearance of superheroes; Females are oversexualized, representing a sexual dream to the male audience. On the other hand, males wear more clothing and rarely pose nude.

    It’s not sex in that case – it’s power.

    It’s why there’s not a lingerie football league for men. It’s why it’s perfectly acceptable for Misti May to wear a too small bikini for beach volleyball, but men wear shorts and tanks. Sure, football players wear tight pants, but that has a purpose. It’s a hell of a lot harder to grab on to skin tight pants than it is to grab onto baggy pants. Misti May’s bikini offers her no protection or advantage except a male audience.

  2. That’s Brandi Chastain, not Mia Hamm

  3. Hi, I really liked the topic of this article. It is very timely since the Olympics are on their way and I’m sure we will be seeing many photographs of the athletes. I wanted to mention the woman in the photograph with the soccer ball is Brandi Chastain. She is the soccer player who scored the game winning goal (penalty kick) in the 1999 Women’s World Cup and ripped off her jersey in celebration (a commonly seen celebration in the men’s games). I remember this causing ridiculous conversation and controversy in the popular media.

  4. In a discussion like this, i think its worth noting male athletes get sexualized also.I mean, Phelps has posed shirtless on many magazine covers. Not saying you can’t have a point, but i just think its worth pointing out male athletes sometimes pose in skimpy outfits too

  5. Wow, it’s amazing that high profile athletes would degrade themselves like that! Gives me no respect for them. Hot yes, but not at all honouring. Disgusting that it is an issue in our culture! We need to be teaching women they are worth more than to be oggled at. Self respect & honour to other women and men!

  6. This phenomenon occurs accross the whole spectrum of any work place for women. Sexualized females are less threatening because men are supposedly dominant sexually. Men prefer to dominate in every aspect as a facet of control. Have you ever heard a man say “I would’nt want to be with a woman who could beat me up”?

  7. “I decided to keep my ears open to random chatter about this topic the next time I went shopping in such a store. Sure enough I came across young women complaining about the amount of “weird” (aka sporty) pants. They wanted pants that fit tight and sexy. Another time a girl wanted short shorts to make her summer outfits sexier. I can’t help but wonder where these women got the idea that they’re supposed to look sexy while working out. Or worse, some of them wanted the tightest pants they could fit into, to wear as normal clothes.”

    It’s possible you may have misunderstood their intentions, it sounds like they wanted sporty shorts that were tight fitting not for working out but for a style of fashion to wear in summer? My impression is that they aren’t actually working out in that clothing. What kind of shorts were they? I know here in Australia quite a few women wear booty shorts (70′s is comin back) and the sports labels are extremely popular, such as Roxy, Billabong, ADIDAS, and other beach and sport brands.

    It could be that they are trying to look sexy also to “pickup” whilst out running in the afternoon. Sports wear I see here in Australia tends to be quite gendered with women wearing stuff like capris, above midthigh cut shorts or bikini bottoms + scoop and U neck tops, bikini tops or midriff cut tops. The guys usually wear board shorts, “speedos” (budgie smugglers), bike pants, printed tee’s or topless, “muscle shirts” and singlets. Although there is a new trend here for the rashy style highly uv protective (extremely important as we have very BAD levels of skin cancer) and jellyfish protective shirts and shorts, or full stinger suits (especially for surfing and diving since jellyfish here can kill).

    It seems in the outdoors and sports a lot of us are still quite fashion conscious so that might be something to consider, but I totally agree that no one should HAVE to look sexy, or feel a pressure to be sexy when playing sports. I think the most important things for sporting clothes is protection (especially UV if outdoors), freedom of movement, comfort, breathable/cooling or warming and odour reducing fabrics (for comfort)and quality fabrics which can last.

    What really bugs me is the skimpy clothing and sexualization in sporting magazines, how is it even related to sports? I as a male want to see the women in their sporting outfit just as I see the men, skiiers in the warm clothing, swimmers in their swimsuits (the full body lowfriction suits look awesome), hockey players with their sticks and gear.

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  1. [...] Sexualized photos of female athletes may be affecting your self-image, even if you’re not an athlete yourself. [...]

  2. [...] Barbie has a must-read article, Sex Objects or Athletes? The Fallout of Sexy images of Female Athletes, which I encourage you to read even if you don’t follow sports. This is a subject that has [...]