by Mackenzie M.
The image women display in sport is often considered negative by fans, society, and other athletes. Women in general face sexism, lack of opportunity, stereotypes, and social expectations. Women in sport face all the same issues with the addition of a constant internal battle regarding what they are willing to sacrifice and compromise in order to further their competitive career. It is well known that female athletes tend to pose in magazines for campaigns or products in order to receive adequate financial compensation in their athletic profession; however, this leaves them open to sexual objectification and shifts the focus from their chosen sport to their physical appearance. Unlike men, women are rarely pictured in a manner that involves the sport they compete in. In the few photos women are featured in a sport context, the pictures are highly sexualized with the intention of making the athlete sexy and appealing.
Many would argue that if women wanted to be taken seriously in sport, they would not subject themselves to this kind of publicity; however, sports leagues do not pay women a tenth of what they pay their male athletes. This leads to women looking for other compensation options, which involves posing nude or in minimal clothing a majority of the time. One study declared “when sportswomen were given a choice regarding self-representation, they emphasized their physical power, strength, and athleticism” (Kane, LaVoie, & Fink, 2013, p.273). Some of the ways women modify their appearance involves maintaining a feminine appearance, avoiding aggressive behaviour, and establishing a heterosexual reputation (Davis-Delano, Polock, and Vose, 2009). Female athletes are aware that these elements can further their career, lead to endorsements, and increase their publicity; therefore, they expose themselves in this way. Anna Kournikova and Danica Patrick are two talented athletes that have benefitted from their physical appearance. Being physically appealing has garnered them more public support and more attention. Other female athletes are criticized for their overly muscular physique and displaying more masculine behaviour. Women are considered either too muscular for a female athlete or too thin to play competitively.
Sexuality also plays a role in the image female athletes portray to the world. Many women feel they must act especially feminine in order to avoid being called butch or gay. As a society, we make assumptions regarding the sexuality of individuals based on their body or image and female athletes are no strangers to these presumptions. Female athletes are more captivating to the public when they exhibit heterosexual actions. One opinion is that negative outcomes for women can be minimized if women adhere to hegemonic femininity (Butler, 1990). This version consists of “submissiveness, dependency, concern over physical appearance and emotional ability” (Hardy, 2015, p.155). It is also stated that in sports with a male majority, women have a higher chance of being labelled with masculine attributes. Simply participating in sport regardless of physique automatically subjects women’s image to evaluation. Despite their objectives to become great athletes, their task also includes looking desirable to the audience, in particular men, in order to be relevant in sport discussion. The need to focus so much time and attention on femininity becomes a deterrence for many female athletes; therefore, their desire to participate decreases. Unfortunately, our society is so obsessed with image, and as a result it has directly affected female participation in sport.
Sport in its purest form encompasses athletic ability, skill, and performance; however, as a society we have corrupted it and altered its primary focus to appearance whether on or off the field. In today’s sport, the trend consists of the most popular and successful athletes being the most attractive; however, in men’s sport appearance is rarely correlated with the success of their career. For women, success in sport is not only dependent on the hours they commit to training or the skills they develop, but on how the world sees them. Their careers can often be at the mercy of public opinion. This also sends a negative message to young girls who often look up to female athletes. They are left with the concept that beauty is necessary to be successful in sport and that athleticism, talent, and hard work come second. Women in sport should have the opportunity be seen as strong, capable, talented athletes while also being allowed to display a feminine or masculine image. “Samantha, a basketball player, chose to be photographed in a dress while standing in the gym as a way to combine her athletic and female identities” (Kane et al., p.273).
Image should be irrelevant in sport. As someone who played competitive hockey growing up, I quickly became a fan of watching the sport on TV and going to live games. The enjoyment I received from the sport was from witnessing teams go head to head to outperform one another in aggressive competition. My interest in hockey was not contingent on the attractiveness of the male athletes on either team, it was based on the amazing skill they possessed. Women are also fierce athletes who unfortunately have to deal with their skills being constantly overshadowed by their physical appearance. Attention does not always get paid to the best hockey, soccer, or rugby player, it is often directed to the athlete with the complete package. The athletes with a certain image that can sell merchandise or promote companies are the ones consistently talked about and supported. While playing girls hockey, I also witnessed the assumptions girls made about other girls in regard to their appearance. They would judge players on other teams based on how long their hair was, the clothes they wore, and how aggressive they were. Unfortunately, men are not the only ones who use image to attribute certain characteristics to individuals, women are also guilty of this. As athlete’s women endure endless scrutiny and face stereotypes; therefore, they must support each other and the decisions they make in their athletic career in order to break down the image barriers they face and redirect the focus of female sport.
Davis, L.R., Pollock, A., Vose, J.E. (2009). Apologetic behavior among female athletes: A new questionnaire and initial results. International Review for the Sociology of Sport. 44(2-3), 131-150. DOI: https://doi.org/10.1177/1012690209335524
Hardy, E. (2015) The female ‘apologetic’ behaviour within Canadian women’s rugby: Athlete perceptions and media influences. Sport in Society,18(2), 155-167. DOI: 10.1080/17430437.2013.854515
Kane, M.J., LaVoi, N.M., Fink, J.S. (2013) Exploring elite female athletes’ interpretations of sport media images: A window into the construction of social identity and “selling sex” in women’s sports. Communication & Sport, 1(3), 269-298. DOI: 10.1177/2167479512473585