As the start of 2014 Winter Olympics is fast approaching, we are beginning to see many athletes we rarely hear about. For female athletes, the Olympics are a chance to gain visibility that usually eludes them. Indeed, the 2014 U.S. Olympic team brings more equality in sports than we have ever seen, with 125 men and 105 women participating. For the first time, women can now compete in ski jumping (kudos to Lindsey Van, pictured, for fighting so hard for that equality), signaling the first year in Olympic history that women can compete in all the disciplines. Now men are more excluded from activities than women, as the summer’s synchronized swimming and rhythmic gymnastics are for women only. This gender equality in the Olympics reflects the growing participation of girls in sports. Before Title IX was passed in 1972, only 1 in 27 high school girls played a sport. Now 1 in 2.5 do (National Federation of State High School Association, 2010).
And girls playing sports is a good thing. When girls play sports, they are less likely to drink, smoke, be depressed or anxious, get pregnant, or think poorly about their bodies. Keep in mind that recent studies show that 12 percent of 10- and 11-year-old girls want to be thinner, 27 percent of 11- to 16-year-old girls have drunk so much that they have been sick or out of control, and more than 35 percent of 16- to 21-year-old girls admit to having unprotected sex. Playing sports reduces these numbers.
Despite the increasing number of female athletes at all ages, there is not increasing media coverage of women in sports. Except for the few weeks of the Olympics, female athletes rarely get regular sports coverage. For example, ESPN’s SportsCenter discusses men’s sports 20 times more than women’s. In 2009, coverage of women’s sports took up 1.4% of sports broadcast time (Messner et al., 2010). The argument for the lack of media coverage is that people simply aren’t very interested in female sports.
One thing people are interested in: Sex. It is a well-known adage that sex sells. And apparently sex is now how we sell female athletes. The American Psychological Association established a task force to study the sexualization of women and girls and documents consistent sexualization of female (bit not male) athletes.
If you Google “female athletes”, you immediately get an article titled “Meet the 10 Hottest Women of the Winter Olympics.” Female athletes are often more well-known for their attractiveness rather than athletic prowess. Anna Kournikova, for example, was the Internet’s most searched for athlete, despite never having won a major tennis tournament. Lindsey Vonn is a champion alpine skier, having won the downhill gold medal at the Vancouver Winter Olympics and multiple World Cup championships. She is equally famous, perhaps even more so, for her bikini shots. Danika Patrick is shown more frequently in a swimsuit than her racing gear (the popular 2008 Swimsuit Edition of Sports Illustrated being only one example).
Indeed, Sports Illustrated is part of the problem (or maybe is just an easy way to illustrate the problem). Since 1997, they have featured female athletes on the cover of their Swimsuit editions. Men don’t have a comparable special section. Even among their regular editions, analysis of their coverage found that 66% of photos of men showed them actively engaged in their sports, whereas only 34% of photos of women showed the same.
Because there is so little media coverage of female athletes, despite the many girls who play sports, how they are covered (or rather, not covered) is extremely important. Athletes who are women are typically converted from strong, fit, and athletic to sexual objects. They are rarely shown participating in their sport, more frequently scantily clad and passively posed. So, even though male athletes are also sexualized (think David Beckham in his underwear), men’s sheer amount of coverage overall means there is a lot more variability. Women, if covered at all by the media, are almost always sexualized.
Why does this matter? As Elizabeth Daniels, assistant professor of developmental psychology Oregon State University–Cascades and an expert on sports participation for girls, says, “Athletics for girls can be both a solution and a problem.” Sports participation is a solution, but the sexualization of female athletes is the problem. Her research has shown that the way that female athletes are portrayed impacts both boys and girls.
In one recent study, Daniels showed college-aged girls pictures of female athletes wearing bathing suits (a la the Danika Patrick Sports Illustrated Swimsuit Edition), pictures of performance athletes engaged in their sport (Jennifer Capriati playing tennis and Mia Hamm playing soccer), and non-athletes (both models and regular women). The researchers found that the images of performance athletes positively impacts girls. When girls saw female athletes engaged in their sport, they described their own bodies in terms of their physical abilities (such as “I am strong”) instead of just their appearance. When they see these performance images, they are more motivated to play sports and be physically active themselves. Images of athletic women also impact boys. When college-aged boys see a performance athlete engaged in her sport, they tend to focus on her strength and physical competence rather than just her looks.
In contrast, girls do not like seeing the sexualized athletes. When they saw pictures of sexualized athletes, they were more likely to make negative comments about their own body’s appearance.
Boys as well were more likely to focus on the sexualized athlete’s appearance rather than her abilities. Focus groups of college students found that sexualized athletes are perceived as “hot,” but seeing those images doesn’t make anyone want to watch more sports. A woman hard driving a basketball down a basketball court did.
Women's Sports Foundation (WSF) issued a set of questions that those in the advertising and media should ask themselves when preparing to run a photo shoot of female athletes:
The reality is that most images of female athletes don’t fit these guidelines. And young girls are paying attention. They are playing sports in increasing numbers, but they are not seeing that athletic strength and prowess represented in the media. The effects of seeing only sexualized athletes directly counteracts all the great benefits that sports participation brings.
For additional reading:
Daniels, E. A. (2009). Sex Objects, Athletes, and Sexy Athletes How Media Representations of Women Athletes Can Impact Adolescent Girls and College Women. Journal of adolescent research, 24(4), 399-422.
Duncan, Ph.D., Margaret Carlisle. GENDER IN TELEVISED SPORTS: NEWS AND HIGHLIGHTS SHOWS, 1989 – 2004. Amateur Athletic Foundation, July 2005. Web. July 2012.