Participation in female athletics has skyrocketed in the past two decades and continues to be on the rise. The passing of Title IX in 1972 required all federally funded programs, including athletics, to provide equal treatment and opportunity for participation for men and women. High schools and public universities subsequently were required to spend equivalent amounts of time and money for male and female athletes (Curtis & Grant, 2001). Because of this law, more women began to participate in athletics. In 1971, only 1 in 27 girls participated in high school athletics, whereas in just 20 years, 1 and 3 girls participated (Women’s Sports Foundation, 1998).
Although female athletic participation increased, the media still objectifies their bodies. The popular magazine, Sports Illustrated, portrays male and female athletes very differently. In 1997, Sports Illustrated started using female athletes in the Swimsuit Edition. This had the potential to show the athleticism of female athletes. Instead, female athletes are posed exactly like fashion models; they show no athleticism in their photos. Similar to models, female athletes are portrayed to showcase their looks rather than their athletic talent.
Psychologists Barbara Fredrickson and Tomi-Ann Roberts proposed a theory explaining why women are portrayed as sex objects. The objectification theory proposes that women’s bodies are looked at, evaluated, and always potentially objectified. They believe people view women as bodies and evaluate them through a sexual gaze, specifically for their own pleasure. The American culture spotlights women’s bodies and body parts, causing viewers to have an implicit sexual gaze. The pictures in Sports Illustrated, in particular, show how the media targets women’s bodies for sexual objectification significantly more than men’s bodies (Fredrickson & Roberts, 1997). A previous study compared the female athletes in Sports Illustrated Swimsuit Edition to the models in the same issue within 4 categories: photo location, hand placement, body pose, and facial expression. Researchers found few differences. They also discovered that female models were underrepresented in general coverage and over represented as sexual objects (Kim & Sagas, 2014).
Building upon this study, I looked at seventeen issues of Sports Illustrated, ranging from December 2015 to April 2016. Of these seventeen issues, five had women on the covers. Of these five, three were female athletes and two were models (swimsuit editions). The covers that were female athletes portrayed minimal athletic ability and depicted more femininity. Descriptions of the pictures are as followed:
Help me, Ronda?
The May 2015 issue has UFC fighter, Ronda Rousey, on the cover. Around her says “Worlds Most Dominant Athlete.” She is in fighting attire. However, her blow-dried, long, light brown hair is down and placed perfectly around her face. In the picture, she has on light pink lip-gloss, her cheeks are perfectly blushed, her stomach is showing, and her breasts are visible. On the page of the article, she is dressed in a short, navy blue skirt, a white, laced, see through shirt, and high, strappy, red heels. She has on bright red lipstick, and has her hair down in a more messy fashion. Her hand is on her hip, like a teenage girl often does, her back is arched so her breasts stick out, and she is stepping on strong men who are on the ground. In the corner of the image it says, “Help me, Ronda?”
“We got this dance.”
The March 2016 issue has University of Connecticut’s women’s basketball player, Breanna Stewart, on the cover. She wears black eyeliner and mascara. Her long, straightened, reddish-brownish hair is down. Her eyebrows are perfectly arched and photo shopped to complement her face. Her hand is also on her hip, and she is wearing earrings. A basketball sits on her arm. Her blue eyes pop right out of the page and right above her, the words, “we got this dance” are shown. Last time I checked, basketball had nothing to do with a dance.
Tennis in a leotard?
Lastly, in the December 2015 issue, the cover shows “Sportsperson of the year,” Serena Williams. This picture shows no signs of athleticism; rather it shows multiple signs of femininity. Serena is posed to seduce the reader. Her long, black, shiny hair is perfectly curled; she has on dark red lipstick and has pink blushed cheeks. She wears a black, laced, partly see though leotard with black high heels. She sits sideways in the chair; one leg is up over the armrest, and the other is on the floor. Her legs are extremely shiny. Her face is seductive, serious and her cheekbones are very defined. The article is about her tennis ability…yet the picture has nothing to do with tennis.
I bring these examples to your attention because on every other magazine cover, there is a picture of a male athlete. These pictures are all action photos of the male playing his sport, showing masculinity, athleticism, and strength. Female athletes, on the other hand, are depicted as weak, feminine, sexy, and having no athletic ability.
What is the big deal…?
Depicting female athletes as sex objects reinforces gender stereotypes and stresses femininity rather than athleticism. The media already creates false expectations of female beauty with models. These gendered images and expectations can harm younger girls’ mental and physical health. In a study conducted by Fredrickson and Harrison (2003), sport magazine reading led to increased body shame and disordered eating for adolescent girls. Adolescent boys have plenty of athletic male role models to look up to, due to how they are portrayed by the media. Female adolescents, however, see the skinny, perfect looking models all over the media and think that is who they should look up to. How about we start providing real role models for young girls to idolize.