The Sexualization of Female Sports Figures
Guest Post: Emily Matthews is currently applying to masters degree programs across the U.S., and loves to read about new research into health care, gender issues, and literature. She lives and writes in Seattle, Washington.
Do a Google search for “female athletes” and the first three hits are likely to be as follows:
- The 25 Sexiest Female Athletes to Watch for in 2012
- 10 Hottest Female Athletes of 2011
- Hottest Female Athletes
Similar results will come up in a search for “male athletes,” with one exception: scroll down on that first page of search results about female athletes and you’ll find various links to stories about eating disorders and extreme exercise.
What does this say about what our society finds valuable in its female athletes? Is a woman’s athletic ability less important than her physical appearance? Most sports require a good deal of exercise and a nutritious diet, a requirement that should leave the body fit and healthy. Yet some of the best-performing women compromise their health by falling victim to eating disorders or the urge to exercise compulsively. By limiting the fuel that their bodies need to function, the athletic abilities of these women suffer. They are also prone to menstrual dysfunction and premature osteoporosis, among other ailments.
So why do many female athletes feel the pressure to perfect their bodies beyond the fitness level provided by their respective sports? One possible cause is the underrepresentation of women’s sports in the media. Major television networks devote less than two percent of their airtime to women’s sports. Less than eight percent of all media’s sports coverage, both TV and print, is devoted to women’s sports. The old advertising adage that says sex sells applies to sports, as well. If the competitions themselves are not interesting enough to draw in viewers, making the players into sex symbols is sure to do the trick. Associations and teams sometimes go as far as putting players in skimpier uniforms just to attract an audience.
Because of the relative apathy shown to women’s sports by the general public, female athletes have more difficulty finding the multi-million dollar contracts so frequently offered to their more sought-after male counterparts. Women agree to endorsement deals with big names like Nike or pose on the cover of magazines like Playboy because they feel that they must capitalize on their sex appeal to extend their professional life which already lasts shorter than that of many other fields. Their talent on the field alone is simply not enough to bring in the kind of revenue offered to men. And while the talent of male athletes is highly prized and scrutinized, finding photos or analyses of the actual athletic talent of women is nearly impossible.
Some ad campaigns featuring female athletes claim to emphasize traits not often possessed by models and actresses: curves, health, physical fitness. But the images of female athletes that circulate around the internet, television, and in print are clearly sexualizing women. The emphasis is not on the ability of the athletes, but on their appearances. The message put forth by this trend is damaging to both the athletes and the girls who wish to emulate them.
What do you think? Do you watch women’s sports? How do you see these athletes portrayed? If you are or have been an athlete, how have these social pressures affected your own body image? Let us know in the comments.