Thursday, 29 March 2012

How do women and girls feel when they see sexualised or sporty images of female athletes?

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."

Daniels, E. (2012). Sexy versus strong: What girls and women think of female athletes. Journal of Applied Developmental Psychology, 33 (2), 79-90 DOI: 10.1016/j.appdev.2011.12.002

Post written by Christian Jarrett for the BPS Research Digest.


Daniel said...

Out of curiosity, are there any similar studies that look at men on the topics that they compete on, such as images of successful men, fancy cars, extreme talent, and many women lusting after them, and see what that does to men's self-images (and what effects those self-images have)?

I'm curious if this sort of thing is related to topics that each gender tends to compete on, or is it that men don't suffer any self-image problems at all (in comparison), or do men tend to hide their self-image problems?

Anonymous said...

When I see celebrities I start hating myself and keep wonndering 'WHY'? I see athletes and think to myself they look like men but they have the packs and are quite toned so in both ways it really intimidates me its when you see magazines as well airbrushed or not it still gets to me and maybe I should know they are being airbrushed but I know that there are people much older to me who still idolize celebrities and no wonder they come on supersize and superskinny they starve themselves and why because of today's models. In a way they should be putting normal people in magazines or wherever else. I do blame the media for this if only they knew this is what goes on if your too skinny eventually you'll die I'm sure they know but what they do but it's all about fame and wealth.

Juice said...

It encourages me to get off my duff and get to work. I know their pictures are touched up. It is like the comic strip violence...I know it isn't real. I get it. But I am smart enough to figure out that I need to work out not blame a photographer because I'm fat or the woman in the picture that looks great. I just have to get busy.

Anonymous said...

I just reach for the cream buns.

Loquacity said...

But there's the problem, right there. You see images of good-looking women (touched up or not), and feel as though you need to get active in order to achieve that image yourself. At what point will you be happy with the body you have?

Lara4444 said...

I have discovered that I have the strongest, most damaging reaction to the women I see who look more like me. It makes me angry that they are thought of as being sexy yet I can't feel that I am. It is not them, or the media, or anyone else I am mad at - it is me. I wrote a blog post explaining this mindset -

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