Constraints to women participating in leisure and sport by the perception of others

By Meggie S.

Due to the way that female athletes are perceived by others, many are conscious of the way they look both on and off of the field, court, or whatever playing surface to which their sport belongs (Ridgers, 2007). There are social pressures for girls to uphold a certain image even in the sport context. Female athletes are being perceived as thin, lean, muscular women with perfect and almost flawless skin. But this isn’t true or possible for many women in multiple sports.

The tricky part with female athletes is they want to come across as if they don’t care what they look like. They want to portray a certain image of effortlessness, when in fact it takes us quite a while to get this look. Many girls that I have played with in my career have taken tremendous effort getting ready for a game or training session. There will always be spectators at a session, and many girls need to have the confidence of looking their best to play at their best. I am guilty of this myself. I cannot play my sport unless my hair is straightened, because it looks better in a ponytail than when it is curly. Many of my teammates in the past liked to have their hair in a “messy bun” which will look effortless, but it will have actually taken them a number of attempts to get the bun looking just right.

I read in an article that boys grow up having the opportunity to have many male athlete role models. There are a variety of looks that these athletes portray. Girls, however, did not get the same opportunity to have many female athletes as role models. The media was also very selective of the female athletes that were promoted. They were also wary of how they promoted these women; they had to look beautiful no matter what their sport was.

If women don’t feel they fit the ideal image of beautiful athletic women, they may choose not to participate in sport. The way we promote female athletes in society does not help women overcome this self-consciousness. It is quite common to hear female athletes complaining about how big their thighs are or how they need to lose weight. If we are talking about sport specific body image issues, many athletes have big thighs due to their powerful quadriceps muscles which they develop through their sport. And even though these athletes may feel they are “too fat” to fit the athletic look, they are, realistically in most cases, the ideal shape and nowhere close to being overweight.

I know many of my friends growing up have stopped playing their sports because of how they felt they looked in shorts or training gear. They did not want to be judged by spectators at an event not fitting the look that is marketed of female athletes.

This principle does not just stop at sports unfortunately. Women are too afraid to go swimming whether it be a pool party or a day at the beach, because of how they feel they look in their swimsuit. I have heard many older women in my life exclaiming that they have to lose ten pounds before they go buy an outfit for some big event coming up.

Women should adopt the mindset of most men. They let on, at least, that they are comfortable with the way they look. In sports participation, it seems that no matter what their shape, nothing will interfere with their level of participation. From my own observation in the senior recreation leagues in Nova Scotia, there are a number of men from every type of fitness level, shape, height, and weight playing together on teams. With the women’s league, however, it is seldom that you see any variety in fitness level or body types on the teams.

In conclusion, I think society needs to be aware of the way girls feel their own body image is a barrier to participation in recreation and sport. With advertisements for female athletes like this going around, who could blame them?


meggie photo


Ridgers, N. D., Fazey, D. M. A., & Fairclough, S. J. (June 01, 2007). Perceptions of athletic competence and fear of negative evaluation during physical education. British Journal of Educational Psychology, 77, 2, 339-349.

How the Media Portrays Female Athletes

How Women’s Athletic Wear is Portrayed in the Media


7 responses

  1. This article gives great perspective on how females perceptions of their own body can play a large role in their athletic performance. It is without a doubt that media influences women of all ages whether it is intentional or not. Media often leads women to believe that the ideal body image portrayed can be attainable by all, when in reality 99% of female bodies are not being displayed within print and television. As stated within Maggie’s article, athletes work hard to prepare for a season, then relate their athletic image as effortless rather than admitting to all the sweat and time put into it. Such behavior can be attributed to how magazines lead readers to believe that women’s beauty is effortless. Articles cause women to admit to a flaw and then encourage them to fix such a problem in order to achieve happiness. When in reality it is a constant struggle to attain the ideal body image and keep it up. It is important that coaches and leisure providers disencourage the female ideal image and pursue athletes to see their bodies as functional rather than a visual entity.
    Great article Maggie,
    Kaitlyn Willis

  2. Maggie, great post!
    I feel the same way about these types of ads. Women get the impression that as an athlete, they also need to fit the slim ideal that is portrayed in the media. Body image is a struggle for many women, especially athletes. For the Body image discussion group we talked about this extra struggle for female athletes; that they need the muscle to perform in their sport, but they are also bombarded with the images in the media of an extremely thin body. That is why there is such a high prevalence of eating disorders for female athletes, even more so than non athletic females. They struggle with seeing the functionality of their “thunder thighs” and end up focusing on and comparing them to the tooth pick legs of a non-athlete. I honestly don’t think this is going to change anytime soon, unfortunately.

    Hannah Monteith

  3. Great post Maggie,

    I can relate very well to this topic. In synchronized swimming our bodies are on display all the time. I have larger thighs because I have a lot of muscle, because I train around 14 hours a week. I should be proud of my muscle and what I can accomplish with it. But because of the media and how they portray female athletes, I hate my body. The way the female athletes are portrayed in magazines is unrealistic. Normal healthy athletes do not look like the ads that are displayed, but yet that is the ideal that most women strive for. Even knowing that the body in the magazines is unrealistic, I still have the little voice in my head telling me I need to look like that.
    This is a huge issue for all females not only athletes. The media has a great amount of influence on how we view our bodies, and right now they are not doing a great job at boosting out self esteem. Women should embrace their power and muscles and should gain confidence from what their bodies can accomplish.

    Emily McKim

  4. Good post Meggie!
    I enjoyed reading your post because I have witnessed and been a part of these situations. As some others stated, this was a topic in our discussion group, how some athletes or non athletes could lead to having eating disorders because they are muscular and training, but stop eating because they want to be thin like the “ideal image”. There have been girls that I played with on sport teams that had to wear their bangs down, and nobody could understand why they wanted to do that because it just singled them out from the rest of the group as everyone was staring at them and they were perceived as not being an athlete because they wouldn’t put their hair up. I didn’t understand because I hate having my hair on my face or neck while exercising, but now I have an understanding that some girls have body image issues and have to look a certain way while playing a sport. I have also witnessed girls that dropped out of a sport because they didn’t like they way their body looked in the uniforms. It is sad that the media is portraying this image because even if girls come to the realization that if they want to be athletic then they won’t typically have the same body that is in the media, they are still going to continue to look at these images and wish that they looked the same.
    Sarah Holt

  5. Nice post Meggie,
    I agree with what you posted 100% about women and their perceived body image. Having trained at the YMCA, it wasn’t uncommon for me to see older men regardless of fitness level participating. During the recreational swim, there were only 2 women and far more men. In the weight centre the same trend seemed to unfold. Regardless of age or fitness level I saw elderly men wearing muscle shirts and old school tennis shorts clearly disregarding any looks that may have come their way. Whereas the women I saw working out were more covered, they wore athletic training pants and long sleeve shirts. Having trained in sweats and long sleeve shirts, I can say it is not very comfortable. It is very unfair the way we market women in sports to be flawless wether it be that they are lean and fit and immaculate skin. Sport should have nothing to do with how you look. Again, look at the vast majority of pro hockey players, they have so much acne and missing teeth and stitches and bruises and they just look beat up but that is ok. I somehow think that if that were the case for a female athlete we would be hearing about it which is definitely not ok. We should hold the same standards for athletes regardless of sex. Those standards should be, regardless of what you look like, if you are a great athlete and great role model, that should be good enough. It is a full time job being an elite athlete, there should not have to be any worry or time spent into looking good while playing sports.

    Great Read,

  6. This is an interesting perspective! As a woman, I can also appreciate the opinion of girls who worry about how they look while playing sports. I used to horseback ride in middle and high school and the attire was usually breaches (tight stretchy pants), but jeans were also acceptable. I remember being self-conscious wearing breaches, but they were the most comfortable and practical to ride in, so I wore them anyway. It is unfortunate to hear of girls who quit their sport because of the clothes they had to wear. At least in my case, I had the option of wearing jeans if I did not feel like wearing the tight pants.
    I am reminded of a conversation from the discussion group about the lack body checking in women’s ice hockey. There has been research that presents the hypothesis that women are not allowed to body check because this would allow them to display aggression and power and this can be threatening to hegemonic masculinity. There is perceived threat of women entering the traditional male domain since aggression and strength are associated with masculinity. I believe the same concept applies here. The media continues to portray female athletes as having flawless bodies, perhaps so women in sport continue to believe that they must achieve this standard. This media tactic can be seen as a way for them to keep women in their womanly domain and men in their manly domain.

    – Amanda B.

  7. Nice one Meggie.

    You did an awesome presenting this information whilst throwing in your own opinion. It is a great subject to get into as it seems to be one of those “silenced” problems. It is extremely unfortunate that women have these problems. However, media representations do the exact same for men as well. I have friends who do not go into the pool without a shirt on and others who feel as if they are “too big” to come out and shoot hoops with the rest of the guys. Media plays a huge role in that as we turn on the T.V or read a magazine whereas all the men are in top physique.
    I think we do need to change the way we represent men and women in the media. However I think it is more important for us to EDUCATE one another and learn to be happy with our bodies. We must take time to understand that the bodies represented in the media are looking to support hegemonic masculinity or total femininity.
    Great job again Meggie,
    Alex H.

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