The potentially harmful effect of ultra-thin models and air-brushed female celebrities on the body image and self-esteem of women is well-documented. Could the increasing participation of women in professional sport prompt the media to portray female role models in a different, more beneficial light? Anecdotal evidence suggests not. To take just one example, prior to the 2010 Winter Olympics, female Olympic skiers and snowboarders appeared on the cover of Sports Illustrated in - you guessed it - bikinis. A new study of 258 US school girls and 171 female undergrads by Elizabeth Daniels has investigated how women and girls feel when they see sexualised images of female athletes.
The participants were allocated to one of three conditions - they either looked at five images of female athletes in a sporting context in their full sporting attire (the basketball player Anne Strother; the skateboarder Jen O’Brien; the tennis player Jennifer Capriati; the surfer Lisa Anderson; and the football player Mia Hamm), or they looked at five images of female athletes in a sexualised context with lots of flesh on display (the basketball player Lauren Jackson; the ice-skater Ekaterina Gordeeva; the swimmer Jenny Thompson; the softball player Jenny Finch; and the tennis player Anna Kournikova), or they looked at five images of bikini-clad magazine models given random names.
After looking at the first and last of their five allocated photographs (this was Lauren Jackson and Anna Kournikova in the sexualised athletes condition and Anne Strother and Mia Hamm in the sporty athletes condition), the participants were asked to write a paragraph “describing the woman in the photograph and discussing how this photograph makes you feel”.
The key finding is that the girls and undergrads who viewed the sexualised athlete images tended to say they admired or were jealous of the athletes’ bodies, they commented on the athletes’ sexiness, and they evaluated their own bodies negatively. Some also said they found the images inappropriate. The participants who viewed the bikini-clad glamour models responded similarly, except they rarely commented on the inappropriateness of the images, as if they’d come to accept the portrayal of women in that way. Daniels said that sexy images of female athletes “are no more likely to prompt viewers to reflect on their own physical activity involvement or appreciation of sport than sexualised model images.”
By contrast, participants who viewed the female athletes in a sporting context tended to comment on the athletes’ determination, passion and commitment; they wrote about feeling motivated to perform sport; and they reflected on their own sporting participation or sports they followed. “Infusing more performance images of female athletes into the media may be helpful in promoting physical activity among girls and young women,” Daniels said. “Currently, female athletes are largely absent from magazines targeted at teen girls.”