Tuesday, August 14, 2012

“They never do this to men”: College women athletes’ responses to sexualized images

Published October 2014 in Women in Sport and Physical Activity Journal, 22(2), 92-99.

“They never do this to men”: College women athletes’ responses to sexualized images of professional women athletes

Tracy Everbach, Ph.D., associate professor, and Jenny Mumah, M.A.
University of North Texas
Mayborn School of Journalism
Denton, Texas  76203

            This study analyzed the reactions of college women athletes to mass media images of nude and scantily clad professional female athletes. Employing a qualitative process, the study sought to find how 18- to 22-year-old female athletes felt about the pressure on women to pose for sexualized photographs. This research is important because college female athletes represent the future of women’s sports and their opinions may shape societal perceptions of women in athletics. Using a feminist framework, the study found that viewing the nude photos prompted different reactions from college athletes, including the belief that mass media exploit women, the assertion that women who choose to pose nude have low morals, and acceptance of the Western mass media beauty ideal. Some of the college athletes rejected socially constructed concepts of femininity, others criticized the professional athletes for posing, and others accepted socially constructed standards of beauty. The research confirmed that college female athletes are aware “sex sells” and they understand the commodification of women’s bodies in American society. Several athletes said this phenomenon it is unfair and perpetuates double standards for men and women. However, some college athletes embraced the nude photos, maintaining they empowered women. Others reported that sexualized images lead to negative body image. This research suggests that young women athletes are conflicted by the images of femininity presented by mass media and react in complex ways to them.

           Serena Williams grimaces on the cover of the July 12, 2010 Sports Illustrated, muscles flexed, sweat glistening, tennis ball flying. But on another magazine cover, a naked Williams smiles invitingly at the camera. On the July 2010 ESPN The Body Issue cover, the tennis star’s skin shimmers. Her arms and legs are carefully placed.
            Williams, one of the top-ranked athletes in the world, joined a cadre of female athletes when she posed without her clothes. Female athletes often face a double bind: They are expected to excel at their sport, but also are pressured to be physically attractive. Their appearance is often as important, if not more important, than their athleticism. Take, for example, one of the biggest stars in tennis, Russian player Anna Kournikova. She has posed scantily clad for the Sports Illustrated swimsuit issue, FHM and Maxim. People magazine chose her as one of its “50 most beautiful people” more than once. Yet Kournikova never has won a major tournament. In fact, her athletic performance prompted ESPN.com to include her on its list of “The 25 Biggest Sports Flops” (ESPN, 2009). Still, she is a household name.
            This study examines sexualized mass media images of female athletes through the eyes of college women athletes. Because of a dearth of professional women’s athletics compared to men’s professional sports, many college female athletes play at the highest level of their sport. They also are at a time in life, at the beginning of adulthood, when they shape their professional image in their chosen careers. Their opinions on female athletes’ images are important since college women athletes often possess a strong work ethic, confidence and competitiveness. They also represent the next generation of professional female athletes. As leaders in their sports, they may play a role in forming images of future women athletes as well as girls’ and boys’ perceptions of women in general.
            This study asks the question, how do college female athletes perceive sexualized images of professional female athletes?
We examine perceptions of these athletes through a liberal feminist lens, taking into account the second- and third-wave perceptions of feminism. Liberal feminists strive for gender equality of opportunity and women’s accessibility to the public sphere of society. Women who enter the male-dominated realm of sports may struggle with socially constructed gender roles. Masculinity is stereotypically associated with competitiveness and aggressiveness, traits that are rewarded on the playing field. For female athletes to succeed in sports, they must take on roles stereotypically considered masculine: toughness, strength and confidence. Because of mass media pressures on women to present “feminine” public images or else be labeled unattractive, masculine or lesbian, they may internalize these roles and feel conflicted about their own femininity.
In sports, traits considered stereotypically feminine often are denigrated, exemplified by the feminine terms (such as “girl”) that males use to insult each other on the playing field (Kane & Greendorfer, 1994; Lindsey, 1997). Therefore, female athletes enter the sports world at a lower status than male athletes. They are considered inferior to men because of their physical biological makeup (Kane & Greendorfer, 1994). Many female athletes then feel pressure to conform to societal expectations of how women should behave (e.g., passive, weak), but that behavior conflicts with athletic performance, which is considered aggressive and strong. Therefore, to counteract such dichotomy, they may be portrayed in media as stereotypically feminine in sexualized poses that trivialize their athletic accomplishments (Kane & Greendorfer, 1994). Images that conform to the Western, socially constructed ideals of beauty could explain the success of Kournikova as a media icon while her performance categorizes her as a mediocre professional athlete. While second-wave feminists condemn the sexual objectification of women as degrading, some third-wave feminists embrace it as empowerment (Munford, 2004; Snyder, 2008). Since college athletes are part of the millennial or “Gen Y” generation associated with third-wave feminism, this examination takes into account third-wave approaches.
Literature review
News and sports media coverage of female athletes
            While participation in women’s sports has
increased tremendously since the 1972 passage of Title IX, media coverage still is nowhere near equitable to men’s, particularly at the professional level. Since 1972, women’s participation in college sports has increased 456 percent and girls’ high school sports participation has grown by 904 percent (Women’s Sports Foundation, 2012).  In contrast, research shows minuscule mass media coverage of women’s sports, except during the Olympic Games. The situation is not improving. A 2010 study of televised sports coverage showed attention to women’s sports was at its lowest point ever (Messner, Cooky, Hextrum & Nyad, 2010).  In the study, men’s sports received 96.3 percent of the airtime, women’s sports 1.6 percent, and gender-neutral topics 2.1 percent. Televised coverage of women’s sports has decreased since 2004, when 6.3 percent of sports airtime was devoted to women. Journalists’ coverage of women’s sports has been consistently low. The Women’s Sports Foundation at Vanderbilt University reported in 1997 that in three newspapers: The Tennessean, USA Today and The New York Times, women received only 11 percent of sports coverage. Another study of ESPN’s “Sports Center” and CNN’s “Sports Tonight” found only 5 percent of coverage devoted to women’s sports, especially individual sports (Lee & Choi, 2003; Tuggle, 1997). Also, by publishing fewer pictures of female athletes engaging in sport than their male counterparts, print and online media underrepresent women’s sports (Jones, 2006).
The disparity between mass media treatment of male and female athletes continues (Lopiano, 1996; Salwen & Wood, 1994) but is not surprising, since sport is considered one of the most significant cultural practices relevant in gender construction (Theberge, 1993). The underrepresentation of women athletes in news and sports journalism could give the impression that women are absent in sports; thus distorting reality and perhaps misleading girls and women to believe that fame requires something other than athleticism (Grau, Roselli & Taylor, 2007; Robertson, 2001, Tuggle, 1997; Wood, 1994). Based on findings from a study conducted in Ohio over a six-year period, Creedon (1994) asserts that audiences perceive women’s sports as less interesting than men’s sports. This may be because women’s sports actually are less exciting than men’s, or because a lack of media coverage gives these sports a lower priority, hence reduced status or importance. In American culture, men’s sports are considered the norm and women’s sports are outside the norm (Creedon, 1994). In a patriarchal society, women, particularly female athletes, also are perceived as the “other,” with a secondary status in society and in sports. They are trivialized and “symbolically annihilated,” as termed by Tuchman (Byerly, 2008). Symbolic annihilation refers to the absence from mass media of certain groups, such as female athletes, therefore rendering them unimportant, invisible or marginalized (Tuchman, 1978).
In addition, women’s sports bring in only a fraction of the money that men’s sports earn. As the number of audience members who consume sports indirectly through television continues to grow, so too does the revenue accrued from media franchises. Media contracts signed between media organizations and professional sports leagues reportedly account for half the annual revenue earned by the NBA, NFL and Major League Baseball (Lee & Chun, 2002). While most men’s professional sports are lucrative businesses, sports media tend to ignore lower-earning and lower-attended athletic competition. This practice, and the perception by sports journalists that audiences do not care about women’s sports, perpetuates a cycle that trivializes female athletes.
Female athletes for sale
Since money drives the sports business, advertising and product endorsements can be important to female athletes. In 2001 alone, U.S. companies paid $897 million to athletes, coaches and sports personalities for product endorsements (Boyd & Shank, 2004). While 11 percent of TV commercials feature athletes, women athletes appear only 3 percent of the time (Boyd & Shank, 2004). A 2007 content analysis of six magazines, including ESPN, Sports Illustrated and People, by Grau, Roselli & Taylor found that female athletes were used as endorsers in only 12 percent of the ads. Even when women are given endorsement opportunities, they are usually cast in stereotypical ways, such as carrying out leisure activities or in sexualized poses (Grau, et al., 2007). They are depicted this way even in female-dedicated publications such as the short-lived Sports Illustrated for Women and Shape (Cuneen & Claussen, 1999; Lynn et al., 2004).
            The study of six consumer magazines showed most of the female athletes depicted, 81 percent, were either suggestively or partially clad (Grau, et al. 2007). Some researchers have expressed concern that these types of images may influence young girls, who use popular media to make sense of the world, to believe that athletes’ looks are valued over performance, talent and skill (Bissell & Birchall, 2007; Grau, et al.). Ross, et al. (2009), however, argue that attractiveness is not the only factor influential in choosing a product endorser: expertise and trustworthiness also are important to source credibility (p. 207). Griffin (as cited in Media Report to Women, 2000, p. 3) writes that female athletes are pressured to declare -- instead of “I am a woman, hear me roar” -- “I am hetero-sexy, watch me strip.”
Some third-wave feminists argue that exposing the female body for commercial gain is not objectification, but is empowering and liberating (Carty, 2005). But from a second-wave feminist perspective, these nude poses are regarded as avenues that strip the athletes of integrity while marketing them as objects of “male fantasy” (Carty, 2005). Unfortunately for women who pose to draw attention to their sport, the practice fails to translate into game attendance or ticket purchase by men who look at images of sexy bodies (Blount, 2007).
Femininity and female athletes
American mass media, including advertising, entertainment media, news, and sports media, perpetuate idealized images of beauty. Beauty in American culture often is defined as light-skinned, blonde, thin and “feminine,” a phenomenon Jean Kilbourne has described as “cutting girls down to size” (Kilbourne, 2010). Kilbourne maintains that when girls reach adolescence, they are taught by culture and media that they should not be too large, “not take up too much space, literally or figuratively” (p. 145). They are not to outdo males or else they may be considered “masculine” or stereotyped as lesbian. In American culture, women and girls are valued primarily for their attractiveness, and the same standards apply to female athletes. Knight and Giuliano (2001) note: “Media tend to represent female athletes as women first (i.e., through focusing on their hair, nails, clothing and attractiveness) and as athletes second” (p. 219). A study of undergraduates at a small college in the U.S. Southwest found that when female athletes’ appearance was the main focus of a sports article, research subjects perceived these women as more physically attractive than women featured for their athleticism. “The same pattern was not found with male athletes” (Knight and Giuliano, 2001, p. 224).
Though all female sports participants have the potential to be stereotyped, those who participate in more traditional “feminine” sports (such as tennis, ice skating and gymnastics) are most likely to be depicted as “sporting sex symbols” rather than “powerful talented athletes” (Cunningham et al., 2008; Dutot, 2000). Maria Sharapova, a talented tennis player, is a classic example. After she won both Wimbledon and the U.S. Open in 2004, instead of focusing on her talent, mass media focused on her beauty. Maxim magazine recognized her as “the hottest athlete in the world” four years in a row, and she appeared in a six-page bikini photo shoot in the Sports Illustrated swimsuit issue (Bernstein & Galily, 2008).
As Dutot (2000) notes, “sports…. has become an institution that legitimizes the sexualization of women” (p. 17). In sports such as swimming, diving and beach volleyball, which feature minimal uniforms (swimsuits), sports journalists sometimes cover the action by embracing qualities of “soft-core pornography” (Duncan, 1990). Camera angles and shots of female athletes with parted lips, or their thighs, breasts and buttocks are examples of soft-core pornographic shots (Duncan, 1990; Duncan & Messner, 1998). On the other hand, athletes engaged in traditionally masculine sports, often team sports, tend to receive less media coverage and often are characterized as “unfeminine,” “dyke,” “unpretty,” “butch,” “deviant,” “mannish,” or “lesbian” (Bernstein and Galily, 2008; Cahn, 1994; Cunningham et al., 2008, p. 371; Dutot, 2000, p. 7; McDermott, 1996, p. 5; Plymire & Forman, 2000).  Lopiano (1996) writes that such characterizations are beyond the scope of the news and sports media’s duties, which are not “to sell heterosexuality or sexist images” (p. 74).
Some female athletes have chosen to pose nude or suggestively in order to prove their heterosexuality (Shugart, 2003). Nelson (1998) states that these women use femininity as a “shield” and defense” to accusations such as “man-hater” and “lesbian,” which, according to Carty (2005), are pervasive in the sports world. Some female athletes thus exaggerate or emphasize their femininity because they believe this “softens” the female athlete’s perceived gender role inconsistency (Carty, 2005; Knight & Giuliano, 2003; Plymire & Forman, 2000; Shugart, 2003).
Consuming sexualized media
Gender roles are constructed behavior learned through assumptions and social interactions with family members, schools, peers, mass media and other individuals and institutions, according to several socialization theories, including social cognitive theory, cognitive development theory, and gender schema theory (Lindsey, 1997). As part of the socialization of girls and women, the female body is seen as a sexualized element of the male gaze, to be viewed as “the primary site of sexuality and visual pleasure” (De Lauretis, p. 223). Research using media audiences seeks to find how individuals interpret meaning through journalism and popular culture rather than simply allowing researchers to interpret media texts (van Zoonen, 1994). Therefore, reception analysis is important to examine the interaction of audiences with media images and texts through a feminist framework (van Zoonen, p. 108). Radaway (1984), by speaking directly to consumers of romance novels, concluded women found pleasure in works that could be seen as upholding the patriarchal culture, but instead were engaging in protest against the culture (van Zoonen, p. 112). Though Radaway’s work has been challenged, it emphasized the mass media consumer rather than the researcher as the focus, as does this study of college female athletes.
In other studies examining girls’ and women’s perceptions of gender construction and sport, researchers found that societal constructs affect girls’ and women’s sports participation. Azzarito and Solmon (2009) surveyed public high school students about gender stereotypes in athletics and concluded that “girls are more pressured to participate in ‘appropriate,’ ‘feminine’ physical activity” (p. 185). They also found that girls who accept the socially constructed notion of gendered sporting activity are more likely to engage in “feminine” sports, such as dance, gymnastics, yoga or volleyball. Azzarito and Katzew (2010), in an ethnographic study of high school students, noted girls struggle with images of femininity that mass media present to them, which “often conflict with the socially constructed notion of gendered sporting identities” (p. 28). Girls “internalize meanings centered on slenderness, limited muscularity, and lack of forceful actions, skillfulness and athleticism” (p. 28). In reality, however, from a poststructuralist viewpoint, both women and men combine and blend so-called “feminine” and “masculine” notions of gender in sport and other societal facets. In a 2011 study of how girls interpret images of female college athletes, Barak, Ganoe, Krane, Lucas-Carr, Miller and Ross (2011) found that girls in club and recreational sports focused on college women’s athleticism rather than their perceived femininity. The researchers noted that younger girls developed their own identity as athletes rather than conforming to the stereotypical notions of beauty and femininity disseminated by mass media (Barak et al., 2011).
In fact, third-wave feminists, assuming that post-Baby Boomer generation women have more economic power and education than previous generations (Spencer, 2004), often re-appropriate stereotypes and disempowering language (such as the word “bitch’) and transform them into their own meaning (Heywood & Drake, 2004). Third-wave feminism also has encouraged more alternative images of women into popular culture, such as multicultural women of color as models, athletic women and other contradictions to the traditional image of beauty. Some third-wave feminists, therefore, may forge their own identities and perceptions of attractiveness contrary to the dominant male ideology.
            We chose a qualitative examination so the student athletes could freely express their feelings about sexualized photos of athletes and elaborate on why they held their opinions. After talking to female athletes we knew personally, we decided an online, open-ended questionnaire was the best approach to reach female student athletes at our university, whom we learned are wary of interviews. Our sources told us that coaches and sports information directors often instruct athletes not to talk to media representatives or others who approach them, even for academic research, and that they would prefer the anonymity of an online survey. We decided to present the athletes with an online questionnaire and offered them an option for a personal interview. We also sent emails to their coaches telling them of our plans and asking them to encourage athletes to participate.
 We developed the questionnaire with open-ended questions based on our research in the literature review. It featured two images each of three female athletes. The first image featured the athlete playing her sport and the second depicted the same athlete posing nude. Participants viewed and commented on the first image before moving on to the second image. The athletes were WNBA Seattle Storm forward Lauren Jackson, tennis champion Serena Williams, and soccer defender and midfielder Brandi Chastain of the Olympic gold medal-winning U.S. women’s soccer team. The university’s Institutional Review Board approved the questionnaire and subsequent in-depth interviews.
Photos of Lauren Jackson we showed to participants.
Photos of Serena Williams we showed to participants.
Photos of Brandi Chastain we showed to participants.
In November 2010, we sent an email to the coaches of each NCAA-sanctioned women’s sports team at a large university in the Southwest, informing them of the questionnaire and asking them to encourage their players to participate with a guarantee of anonymity. We identified every female team member at the university from the media guide roster, published online. We cross-listed their names with the university email directory. In December 2010, we sent an email to 153 female athletes in the university, providing a link to the questionnaire. We sent two more emails two weeks apart during the next four weeks as reminders. The teams were: basketball, cross-country, golf, soccer, softball, swimming and diving, tennis, track and field, and volleyball.
            By February 2011, 29 athletes had filled out the questionnaire. They did not identify the sports they played. Two of the participants did not appear to be university students so we eliminated them from the study, leaving 27 open-ended questionnaire responses. Although only a small percentage (18%) of the total athletes responded to the online questionnaire, their detailed responses provided rich description and insightful commentary. We speculated that the rest of the female student athletes ignored our because they either were too busy, were not interested in the issue, or were intimidated because of sports information officers’ warnings not to talk to anyone outside the athletics department.
Five student athletes, saying that discussing sexualized images of female athletes was personally important to them, indicated they would be willing to participate in face-to-face in-depth interviews. We interviewed these five athletes in person during sessions lasting between 30 minutes and 75 minutes. The in-depth interviews allowed the athletes to provide more detail and explanation to the answers in the questionnaire. During these interviews, the five athletes we spoke with revealed their sports: soccer, softball, volleyball and swimming and diving.
We analyzed the transcribed responses of all 27 student athletes as well as the transcripts of the five individual interviews from a grounded theory approach. We divided the responses into overall themes and categories based upon the female athletes’ opinions and impressions. Following the recommendations outlined by Hesse-Biber and Leavy (2011), we began by open coding, seeking patterns in the participants’ comments about the photographs. The open coding categories we developed were: feelings on appearing sexy/sexual, drawing attention to their sport, “femininity” vs. “masculinity,” appeal to the opposite sex and boosting self-esteem. Other open coding categories we identified were: sexual connotations of the photos, the common advertising concept of “sex sells,” lesbian/homosexual implications, and damaging self-esteem. Next, we analyzed these categories and reduced them into descriptive codes, as Hesse-Biber and Leavy advise (2011). We identified three overall descriptive codes: stereotypical feminine roles, double standards, and body image. In further analysis, we developed analytical codes within the descriptive codes that indicated in a more focused manner what the athletes were conveying through their words. For example, if a participant expressed that a nude photo of a professional athlete was “pretty,” we considered what societal factors and constructs would make her consider the woman in the photo attractive. The results section outlines these descriptive codes and presents the athletes’ comments in the context of analytical codes. As we continued our analysis, we considered our theoretical basis and previous findings of studies mentioned in our literature review to ensure our interpretation of the findings was consistent with previous work in the field (Hesse-Biber & Leavy, 2011).
Overall, the participants’ comments were detailed and descriptive. Themes we identified from their responses revealed conflicted feelings among the women about their own interpretations of gender roles and perceptions of femininity. Many cited a societal double standard about women athletes’ looks and appearance. Some of the athletes expressed concern about their own body image.
Of the 27 participants, a majority (85%) was white. Three participants (11%) were African-American and one (<1%) was Hispanic/Latina. In contrast, the university’s student body at the time was 60% white, 13% black, and 15% Hispanic (the rest of the students identified themselves as Asian/Pacific islander, Native American and more than one race). No ethnic data for student athletes was available. All five women who consented to face-to-face interviews were white. The participants ranged in age from 18 to 22. The overrepresentation of white participants is likely to have affected the results. A plethora of studies have found that in general, American Caucasian women are less satisfied with their body appearance than African-American women (for examples, see Akan & Grilo, 1995; Baird, Morrison & Sleigh, 2007; Baugh, Mullis, Mullis, Hicks & Peterson, 2010; Lokken, Worthy, Ferraro & Attmann, 2008).
Stereotypical feminine roles
            College women athletes discussed a stereotype that many female athletes face: an image socially constructed by mass media as “masculine” because they occupy a traditionally male realm. A handful of the women viewed the photos of the professional athletes playing their sports as “mannish” and interpreted the nude or scantily clad photos as “feminine.” Ten participants replied that they do not agree in principle with posing nude or scantily clad and 13 said the athletes looked “pretty,” “beautiful, “sexy” or “attractive” in their nude shots. Initial reactions to photos of athletes in action, particularly Lauren Jackson, the basketball player, included two comments of “lesbian” and one of “man.” Her sport, basketball, is construed socially as a “masculine” sport.
“[f]or some reason women’s basketball, compared to any other women’s sport (except boxing) makes me think these women are extremely masculine. I hate to say that because I played three sports in high school, volleyball, basketball and track, and I absolutely hated when people assumed all basketball girls were masculine or bisexual because I knew I wasn’t. But I cannot help the reaction I get when I first look at this image [of Lauren Jackson]. It makes me think that these women are similar in attitude and emotion to men basketball players. And it’s probably the fact that their uniforms are big and their shorts are oversized, just like men basketball players” (Athlete 21, personal communication, December 22, 2010).

One participant noted that if a woman poses for a sexual photo, she probably is trying to prove she is female, which is inherently unfair. “Women shouldn’t have to show their body off to make people know they are women just because they play sports,” wrote Athlete 5 (personal communication, November 26, 2010).
Still, nearly all of the participants reacted to the action photos with positive, supportive comments such as “it shows her intensity in her sport and hard work” (Athlete 3, personal communication, November 24, 2010), “there’s nothing better than accomplishing your goals on the field after all the time you put into it” (Athlete 4, personal communication, November 24, 2010), “this athlete is strong, determined and successful” (Athlete 11, personal communication, December 5, 2010), and “I want to be like this—athletic and driven” (Athlete 24, personal communication, December 23, 2010).
 Half of the college women scrutinized the athletes’ physical attractiveness. For example, one athlete wrote about Lauren Jackson’s action photo and nude photo: “I had no idea that those two girls were the same. She clearly looks prettier in this photo” (Athlete 22, personal communication, December 22, 2010). Another commented on the nude Serena Williams magazine cover: “She just wants to show that as an athlete she can still be beautiful because people think that women athletes are usually manly or more masculine than regular women” (Athlete 7, personal communication, November 7, 2010).
Twenty-two of the 27 athletes described the professional athletes’ decision to pose nude as negative, with economic gain as a motive. “It makes me think she is trying to sell sex instead of getting people to watch her play,” wrote Athlete 3 (personal communication, November 24, 2010). The responses were divided among those who saw the nude poses as reflective of poor morals, those who viewed the women as betraying their responsibilities as role models, and those who said the athletes were allowing themselves to be exploited in a patriarchal society. One student athlete wrote that “as an athlete, we are role models for young girls, and this is not a very good example for young girls. It is telling them that it is OK for men to look at them naked and gawk over them, it is not telling them to respect their bodies and be confident in who they are on the inside” (Athlete 3, personal communication, November 24, 2010).
About a third of the women blamed the professional athletes for promoting a promiscuous image. Wrote Athlete 6 (personal communication, November 26, 2010): “WHY DO THEY HAVE TO BE NAKED? It makes me think she’s a tramp, why can’t she just be in a dress?” Athlete 5 wrote of Lauren Jackson’s nude photo: “Gross. She looks slutty” (personal communication, November 26, 2010). And Athlete 13 wrote that the issue is self-respect: “I think these photos give people permission to disrespect them because they don’t respect themselves” (personal communication, December 7, 2010).
 Women who choose to appear in mass media face gender expectations to pose sexually, wrote Athlete 11 (personal communication, December 5, 2010): “A standard of feminine ideal is always applied to women, no matter how independent they are of that stereotype. It makes me feel uncomfortable that female athletes must have their feminine qualities enhanced and displayed by the media to appeal to the public.”
The commodification of women as sexual objects also was a recurring theme among the athletes: “Sex sells, and women I feel will always be seen as sex,” wrote Athlete 11 (personal communication, December 5, 2010).  Even those who try to craft a different image get caught in a trap, wrote Athlete 19. “They (female athletes) are always going to be placed under the female stereotype no matter how much ground they break or how many rules they defy” (personal communication, December 14, 2010).  
Double standards
            Did the professional athletes pose nude to prove their femininity and/or heterosexuality in the male-dominated sports world or did they do it for female empowerment? These college athletes articulated each perspective.
            “I think that if female athletes want to take sexualized photos, then just like any other person in the world, they should be able to take sexualized photos…I think it makes the public see that these women are women” wrote Athlete 21 (personal communication, December 22, 2010). Also, such photos allow female athletes to show, “I am a girl, too…for some they may want to prove, ‘I’m womanly,’ ” said Athlete 12 in her interview (personal communication, February 18, 2011).
            Athlete 29, in her interview, saw posing nude as a self-esteem issue:
If you are confident enough in yourself to take off your clothes and put your picture on the cover of a magazine, then go for it. If not, that’s also your choice. I don’t think it makes these women bad role models. If anything, they could be an inspiration. If you take care of yourself and stay healthy you can look like this (personal communication, February 18, 2011).

            Female athletes tend to possess self-confidence (President’s Council on Physical Fitness and Sports, 1997), so showing off their bodies could be a natural extension of their personalities. Mass media attention could be considered a magnet that draws audiences to the sport. Still, while “our attractiveness can easily attract more viewers, there’s a fine line, however, of drawing men in and being projected as a piece of meat,” wrote Athlete 6 (personal communication, November 26, 2010). Combined with a lack of public and media support for women’s sports, complaints from men about the “imposition” of Title IX onto college sports programs, and the lack of money women’s sports generates, “it’s going to be hard to change the perception” in the mass media that female athletes should be viewed as sex objects in order to attract audiences, said Athlete 6 (personal communication, February 11, 2011).
            The college women recognized a double standard between women and men when it comes to posing nude. Male athletes who pose in states of undress are seen as strong and sexy, while women are seen as objects. “I think it changes the way people see women,” said Athlete 24 (personal communication, February 25, 2011). “Some may think it’s empowering, but I think it’s degrading. I don’t see naked pictures of Michael Jordan or Tony Romo floating around on the cover of Sports Illustrated. I think it’s unfair.”
While some male athletes also pose naked or shirtless, their public image is not affected in the same way as women. “When David Beckham poses nude, he is doing it for eye candy, but there’s a difference,” Athlete 6 said (personal communication, February 11, 2011). “If a woman does it, she’s a whore. If a guy does it, he’s a sex symbol. Generally that is how it is in society…It gets amplified when a woman steps into a male realm of sports.” Women in general are devalued and marginalized in sport as compared with men, wrote Athlete 4: “I don’t understand why they turn female athletes into nude models. They never do this to men. This is just a way to sell magazines, but it is demeaning to the sport” (personal communication, November 24, 2010).
An inherent unfairness exists for women, Athlete 9. “I don’t think they’d be able to make the money like men if they didn’t do it…It’s not fair. Men don’t have to look sexy. I think that an athlete is not going to be famous unless they’re beautiful. Look at Anna Kournikova. Athletes who aren’t necessarily at the top of their game get attention” (personal communication, February 18, 2011). She and Athlete 18 expressed anger at the unfair standards: “I personally feel that female athletes posing for sexualized photos is degrading and is teaching our children, both boys and girls, that women are nothing more than sex objects” (Athlete 18, personal communication, December 13, 2010).
Furthermore, sexualized images don’t necessarily attract support and attendance for women’s sports, said Athlete 24. “When they (men) look, they don’t think about athletics, they think about what her body looks like” (personal communication, February 25, 2011).
Body image
Viewing the photos also prompted several participants to scrutinize their own bodies. Their comments revealed both body pride and negative body image. In a culture that focuses consistently on women’s bodies and body parts, this result hardly is surprising. Still, the level of self-criticism was disturbing, especially for athletic women who exercise consistently.
When asked whether they would consider posing for revealing photos, several of the participants tore apart their own appearances: “I don’t have as good a body as these women do. I’m still a self-conscious college female athlete,” wrote Athlete 17 (personal communication, December 9, 2010). “I’m too huge and my parents would be furious,” wrote Athlete 14 (personal communication, December 7, 2010). “When I walk around campus, I certainly don’t feel attractive like other girls who have makeup on and their hair done,” said Athlete 9 (personal communication, February 18, 2011). Athlete 24 wrote of the Serena Williams nude magazine cover: “It makes me want to lose weight and get as fit as she is!” personal communication, December 23, 2010).
            Clearly there is pressure among these women to conform to the slim, non-bulky image presented in mass media as beautiful. They said some of their coaches perpetuated the notion that they should not become too large. These results were revealed during the personal interviews, in follow-up questions we asked. Athlete 24 cited pressures on female athletes from coaches and other authority figures to attain perfect bodies, but acknowledged the impropriety of such reinforcement: “Some of the male coaches in particular say girls are getting fat. After hearing what the coaches say and seeing images like that, you feel bad about yourself. Some of the girls on my team work out extra and watch their weight ...When you see a Victoria’s Secret swimsuit model, people want to look like that and it’s an unrealistic ideal” (personal communication, February 25, 2011). Striving to be thin may even drive athletes to compromise their own health, Athlete 9 said. “There are lots of eating disorders. I was shocked at how many girls on our team had eating disorders. If you’re a college athlete, you’ve tried to reach a higher level, so you’re a perfectionist. You want to have a high GPA and you want your body to look good, too” (personal communication, February 18, 2011).  
            On the other hand, three of the student athletes said they take pride in their bodies and posing nude would be a way to show off their hard work in the gym and on the field. “I think it is an honor to be even asked. It shows that the magazine thinks you are sexy and a good athlete. They wouldn’t ask someone to be on their cover if that wasn’t the case,” wrote Athlete 7 (personal communication, November 27, 2010). “Athletes work extremely hard and as a result we have a great body. I would show it off and own it just like Serena is in this photo,” wrote Athlete 21 (personal communication, December 22, 2010). “I’m comfortable in my own skin and I have a great body. Please send Speedo my way,” wrote Athlete 9 (personal communication, November 30, 2010).
Discussion and conclusion
Clearly this generation of women is familiar with the culture of “sex sells.” Yet, not all young women think this concept is right, nor do they buy into it. Some athletes viewed the sexualized images as demeaning and unfair, others labeled them “slutty,” while still others thought they were “pretty” or “classy.” The range of reactions reflected this generation’s conflicted feelings about mass media’s sexualized depictions of women:
The notion that mass media exploit women.
The accusation that women who choose to exploit themselves have low morals.
The acceptance of the mass media beauty ideal that thin and “feminine” are attractive.
Therefore, some rebelled against socially constructed concepts of femininity and beauty, others judged, and still others accepted the standards.
A segment of the college women felt the images unfairly emphasized the professional athletes’ appearance rather than their athletic abilities. They lamented the fact that the women received attention only by conforming to socially constructed standards of beauty and femininity. Athlete 24, Athlete 18, Athlete 9 and Athlete 4 pointed out the inherent unfairness and double standard to which women are held. “They (female athletes) are always going to be placed under the female stereotype no matter how much ground they break or how many rules they defy,” wrote Athlete 19 (personal communication, December 14, 2010). Athlete 18 expressed anger that mass media are “teaching our children, both boys and girls, that women are nothing more than sex objects” (Athlete 18, personal communication, December 13, 2010). These college women athletes acknowledged the unequal standards applied to men’s and women’s sports by the mass media and the public, despite advances Title IX has offered women. They felt pressured to either accept society’s options, rebel against them, or remain neutral and support the status quo. None is a particularly attractive or empowering choice.
Another reaction came from the participants who judged the professional athletes for posing nude, thereby accepting a societal construct that women who display their sexuality are “sluts” without self-respect. However, these college athletes failed to acknowledge the double standard for men and women who appear in mass media sexualized poses: that men who pose unclothed are praised for being masculine. Unlike many male college athletes, college female athletes face a dearth of popularity and lack of media coverage of their sports. They know they are likely not to play professionally. They also know women in American society receive attention from heterosexual men by taking off their clothes. However, they are aware that if a woman chooses to pose naked, she risks being labeled “slut” or “whore.” They are conflicted over their public image and how to handle it. Should they pose nude to get recognition and attention? If they pose, they might become famous, but not for their athleticism. Myths about sexual desirability and success may hold back some girls and women from participating and excelling in sports.
A third response from the college women indicated some believed the Western beauty ideal that slender women with not too much bulk, styled hair, makeup and unflawed skin are beautiful. An example is Athlete 22’s comment that Lauren Jackson looked “much prettier” in the glamorous topless photo in which her hair is loose and she is fully made up than in the action photo of her on the court. Athlete 7 commented that female athletes pose for such photos because they want to show their femininity, which apparently is not conveyed through playing their sport. These athletes also were confused by perceptions of femininity and the culture’s reliance on tired stereotypes. Despite women’s and girls’ huge increase in athletic participation, some female athletes still are labeled as mannish or lesbian, although their sexuality has nothing to do with sport. These anachronistic generalizations about women’s place in society often are perpetuated in mainstream mass media (Cahn, 1994; Cunningham et al., 2008, p. 371; Dutot, 2000; Kilbourne, 2010; McDermott, 1996, p. 5; Plymire & Forman, 2000).
In addition, the constant scrutiny of female athletes’ bodies may lead some to develop eating disorders or at least negative body image, according to these college athletes. Others show pride for the hard work they have done to attain beautiful bodies, but their acknowledgement of achievement is not for athletic performance but for appearance deemed “beautiful” by socially constructed norms. As we postulated at the start of this study, young women athletes apparently struggle with socially constructed gender roles. Some of them are conflicted on how to balance their own femininity with the masculine values of the sporting world. Some rejected these values and forged their own identities. But others clearly felt inadequate, most likely because they had accepted the mass media version of what makes a woman attractive. Some of the college women, those who rejected or rebelled against the social constructions of femininity, showed opinions in line with third-wave feminist ideas of appropriating ideas of femininity and forging their own identities. In this way, some female athletes may be able to reject hegemonic norms and create their own perceptions of what it means to be a woman and an athlete.
In the mainstream media, until and unless sports journalists, entertainment producers and other purveyors of mass media pay more attention to women’s athletics and cover the teams and individual performances the same way they cover men’s sports, the pressure on female athletes to pose nude likely will remain. And as long as the public judges women first and foremost by their looks, adjusting to stereotypical notions of femininity, the emphasis on their bodies is unlikely to change as well. This sets up some female athletes to feel degraded, marginalized and left out of the game.
The male-dominated sports journalism industry, with its lack of women in leadership and management jobs and its heavy emphasis on the big three men’s professional sports: football, basketball and baseball, also leaves women with a lower status and lack of power. Men’s pro sports command higher status, usually leaving women’s athletics relegated to the back pages of newspapers, or at obscure times on sports TV channels, when they actually garner airtime. As an economic force, women’s professional and college sports carry little clout, also setting up a power imbalance for female athletes. And in an era in which media organizations are cutting staff and resources, the gender inequity in sports coverage seems unlikely to change anytime soon.
So what can women’s sports advocates do to help rectify the situation? Blogs and websites dedicated solely to women’s sports may be one avenue, but are unlikely to attract the large audiences of mainstream media organizations like Sports Illustrated or ESPN. Rather than trying to challenge and change the media system, those who want change might work within the athletics industry, encouraging female athletes, coaches and athletic directors to end scrutiny and judgment of athletes’ bodies and appearance while emphasizing teamwork and performance on the field or court. Universities could ensure athletes receive training on media literacy, healthful eating habits and body-image issues. Values learned in sports such as cooperation, striving for excellence, discipline, goal-seeking and good health can translate into productive and valuable qualities in the workplace and life in general. Athletic participation also can provide girls and women with higher educational achievement and better physical and mental health, including self-esteem and self-confidence (President's Council on Physical Fitness and Sports, 1997).
Research into sexualized images and their effects on athletes should continue. Future projects could concentrate on a larger pool of athletes that is more ethnically diverse. The fact that few of the participants were women of color may have influenced our results. Other studies could focus on journalists’ attitudes or on male athletes’ perceptions of such images.
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