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The Sexualization of Female Sports Figures

January 3, 2012

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.

13 Comments leave one →
  1. January 3, 2012 2:19 PM

    Hi interesting topic!

    But I think sportsmen are sexualised just as much,if not more than sportswomen. I’m influenced by the work of Mark Simpson and his concept of ‘sporno’ – a mixture of sport and porn that reflects the advertising work of e.g. David Beckham

    I am sure there are gender inequalities in pay in sports, as there are everywhere (to a varying degree). But men rely on sponsorship and product placement/advertising as much as women. Nadal has turned down playing tennis in the UK this year (apart from wimbledon I think) because he loses too much in tax from his advertising work.

  2. January 3, 2012 2:30 PM

    I think the link between women and sex runs through all of society and so it’s little surprise that we see it rearing its head in women’s sports.

    You may find this article of interest. Certainly linked to what you’re talking about. Can women really only make it in ‘men’s sports’ by exploiting their sexuality?

  3. January 3, 2012 4:13 PM

    Like I said, men exploit their sexuality in sport too, so the issue is complex.

  4. January 4, 2012 12:00 AM

    I completely agree with you, creativetendency. It seems close to impossible for women to exist in spaces that have nothing to do with sexuality.

    It should be noted that the effort to make female athletes’ uniforms skimpier is done at the highest level of sport (by the overwhelming male officials that run international sports federations). The International Volleyball Federation (FIVB) introduced maximum bikini sizes to female beach volleyball athletes in 1999; the Badminton World Federation (BWF) attempted to introduce mandatory wearing of skirts (with a defined maximum skirt length) to their female athletes in 2011; now AIBA is trying to impose skirts on female boxers at the London 2012 Games:,0,6764070.story

    When are we going to begin actually valuing female athletes for what they are? That is, athletes!

  5. January 4, 2012 5:06 PM

    you’re all ignoring my points!

  6. Anon permalink
    January 10, 2012 8:15 AM

    Quiet Riot Girl you are right, men also do this. For example the new advert for Lindt chocolate with Rodger Federer – the women are making sexual innuendo’s and then demand a strip search. It does go both ways, but it most certainly does not make it right.

    • January 10, 2012 9:39 AM

      Sex sells, I don’t think anyone is claiming it’s only women that are exploited in this way.

      The fundamental difference is that, whilst they are being sexualised, often more so than their male counterparts, sports women are also suffering from a lack of respect and support, combined with low media coverage in a respectful manner.

      Sportsmen get significantly more respect and media attention than sportswomen. One only has to look at the BBC Sports personality of the year line up to see that.

  7. Anon permalink
    January 10, 2012 12:09 PM

    Which I totally agree with also. I think its healthy to recognise it from both sides and I didn’t want Quiet Riot Girl to think her comment was being ignored just because she mentioned that men also face the sexualisation problem in sports! But yes, one even could look at shows such as Gladiators and the skimpy outfits given to the programmes athletes – all for television and ratings.

  8. January 13, 2012 10:26 AM

    Hi all- no offence taken. I like that Federer advert it’s funny!

    I think there are some gender inequalities in sports, but I don’t think they relate to objectification.

  9. LadyMcScamp permalink
    January 15, 2012 11:41 AM

    I work for a sports organisation and chatting to men within the organisation about the lack of female sports personalities & why, I’m mostly met with responses about their ‘hotness’ – this doesn’t ever happen to men funnily enough! It is a problem, female sports personalities are missing out on media representation & funding resulting in female athletes being unable to take part in their chosen sport due to lack of finances and then accusations of not being good enough or lacking commitment.

    I disagree that it’s the same for men, yes they are objectified to some extent but then again this is also used as a negative towards women who choose to be involved in sport. They like football? No they don’t they just want to ogle all the men!

    Women aren’t taken seriously when they choose to partake in sport and some choose to trade on their looks to get sponsorship, which in turn makes it harder for other women to get any attention or funding unless they happen to also be willing to take part in objectifying themselves – this doesn’t happen to men in sport, men in sport get media attention, sponsorship deals & respect regardless of the way they look or choose to portray themselves.

    • January 15, 2012 12:25 PM

      According to Forbes ( , women make up a third of the people watching the major American sports events, and just under 50% of those watching the Super Bowl. I can’t find any figures for Europe or the UK (they should be out there, but a few minutes on Google hasn’t thrown anything up!)

      So, with that in mind, it’s not as if women sports viewers shouldn’t be taken seriously, they make up a good portion of those watching sports in general.

      Question is, who is it that doesn’t want to watch women playing sports? Is it the women, who could be pushing it, or the men, who are the majority sports viewers? Or is it simply down to bad decisions by the media on what the public want to watch?

      Oh and btw, there is now a petition to get AIBA to stop their efforts on making female boxers wear skirts –


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