by Kimberly Belmonte

Just the other day I was browsing The Huffington Post catching up on my celebrity gossip (I know, I know—feel free to roll your eyes!), and I found an article about the upcoming ESPN Magazine “Body Issue”—it’s a special issue filled with photos of famous athletes posing naked for the camera. I was like, Excuse me?! Why do you need to have a naked athlete issue?

Right away, I looked up previous issues of the magazine, and I was pretty shocked.   The “Body Issue” contains stripped-down images of both men and women athletes, and some of the photos are beautiful, artistic, powerful images of muscular bodies. However, most of the women are posed in objectifying positions, staring coyly or sexually at the camera.  Looking at these images, I was incredulous: Why would you take the top women athletes in the country (Olympic athletes, professional athletes) and portray them as sexual objects instead of photographing them as the impressive athletes that they are?  Why can’t you just show athletes doing, you know, athletic things like playing tennis and basketball?

In previous blogs, we’ve written about how girls and women are constantly sexualized and objectified in the media—that is, women’s bodies are portrayed as sexual objects on display for [male] pleasure. So I guess it’s no wonder that the same seems to be happening for how women athletes are portrayed.  I did a quick Google image search for “photos that show women’s athleticism” and the first three results were of sexy female athletes—*groan. *  The same search for “photos that show men’s athleticism” turned up hyper-masculine images of bodybuilders and men playing basketball.  Meanwhile, sexed-up photo shoots of female athletes are gracing the pages of magazines like Playboy and Maxim and the objectification of women in sport is even happening in the endorsements that female athletes get—like the 2009 “got milk?” ad for swimmer Dana Torres where she’s pictured in a skimpy bikini with the suggestive tagline “lap it up.”

Since Olympic athletes are intended to be role models for girls and women,  researcher Elizabeth Daniels decided to find out how sexualized images of athletes affect how young women think about their own bodies as objects (e.g., how I look) vs. subjects (e.g., all the amazing things my body can do)[1]. In other words, she wanted to know if seeing sexualized images made girls and women think about their own bodies in sexualized ways (self-objectification). In her study, she selected images of women portraying (a) sexualized athletes, (b) performance athletes, (c) sexualized models (e.g., non-athletes), or (d) non-sexualized models.  The images were taken from popular media outlets like Sports Illustrated, Sports Illustrated for Women, Glamour, and Marie Claire.  All the athlete photos were of famous athletes and were labeled with their names and sports. Similarly, the non-athlete models were labeled with fake names and occupation: model.  All of the images were of women with clothes on (unlike the ESPN article I was talking about before!)

The 350 girls (ages 13-18) and 225 college women (ages 18-22) who participated in her study were randomly selected to view images from one of the four categories above. Then, to measure self-objectification, the participants filled out a worksheet about themselves by completing the statement, “I am _____” twenty times. They could say anything they wanted about themselves in the blanks. Daniels and her research team then examined the “I am” statements for the number of beauty/appearance-based statements (e.g., “I am pretty”), statements focused on  physical activities and skills (e.g., “I am a soccer player”) or non-body statements (e.g., “I am easy going,” or “I am good at math”).

Wonder of wonders, Daniels found that the girls and women who had looked at images of athletes doing athletic things self-objectified much less than those who saw the sexualized images. The reverse was also true: the participants who had viewed sexualized images made more sexualizing and objectifying statements about themselves than those who had seen the performance-based images. Another really cool finding was that the young women who saw the performance-based images wrote more physicality statements and those statements were mostly positive in tone (e.g., “I am good in some sports”). It seems like looking at images of women playing sports made girls more aware of what their own bodies could do rather than simply how they looked – which is super awesome!  On the other hand, girls who looked at the sexualized images (either of athletes or models) were more likely to describe themselves in terms of their beauty or appearance and these descriptions were often negative (e.g., “I am ugly”)

So what new things does her study tell us? We already know that seeing sexualized images over and over again can be bad for girls. BUT the good news here is that seeing women engaging in sport—whether it’s mastering the high jump or swimming the butterfly—can inspire girls to appreciate what women’s bodies are capable of. As we’ve reported in other research blogs (like June, 2011, March, 2013, and May, 2013), other research shows that constant exposure to this type of imagery is linked to girls viewing their own bodies as sexual objects, which means girls become more concerned with how their bodies look than how they feel or what they can do. And this study shows that when we look at other women who are being active and doing amazing things (rather than just looking sexy), we think about the amazing things our own bodies can do.  Now, maybe we just need to tell that to ESPN magazine: we want more women athletes in action, not posing nude!

[1] Daniels, E. (2009). Sex Objects, Athletes, and Sexy Athletes, How Media Representations of
 Women Athletes Can Impact Adolescent Girls and College Women.  24(4), 399-422.