Women represent forty percent of professional athletes, but women only receive representation in 4% of sports media content. When the players are highlighted, it is usually for their bodies over their skills. The sports media industry slates the news and stories surrounding female athletes to focus on their bodies rather than their accomplishments and they use women as means to generate profit.
A prime example of this is the magazine “Sports Illustrated.” The most popular and best-selling issue of the magazine is the swimsuit edition which features famous female athletes posing in bikinis on the cover. Some of the women who have been featured include Megan Rapinoe, Lindsey Vonn and Simone Biles.
All of these athletes have had incredible careers and instead of highlighting that with an image of them with their sporting equipment, a medal or them competing in their respective fields, they are encouraged to pose half-naked to emphasize their bodies for the sake of convincing people to buy the magazine. In fact, only one male has ever made the finalists for the swimsuit magazine and it took until 2021 for that to happen while the issue has been published since 1964.
These women of course are not forced to participate in these shoots and choose to pose for the magazine, but they should not feel the societal pressure to expose their bodies for recognition when their accomplishments should speak for themselves. The media has created a world where sexual appeal and ideal beauty standards are the focus of much of the public's attention.
The magazine would likely either drop in sales or completely shift audiences if they eliminated the swimsuit issue and replaced it with an issue highlighting female athletes with more sports-related covers. Many people who purchase the magazine are typically not reading it to learn about how many awards the athlete has won; they want to see what they look like underneath their uniform.
In considering apparel worn in competition, female athletes have historically worn more revealing outfits than men. It is unfortunately the staple of some sporting competitions, including beach volleyball.
In 2021, the Norwegian Beach Volleyball team tried to take a stand against uniform sexism in their sport by requesting to wear shorts to the competition and were rejected. They ignored this and wore shorts instead of bikinis and were threatened with a fine. The actual regulations stated, “Women should wear a bikini where the top should be a tight-fitting sports bra with deep opening at the arms. The bottom must not be more than ten centimeters on the sides.”
The reasoning for this rule possibly had to do with ratings. Handball competition organizers across the world likely feared that the implementation of less revealing uniforms would drop the viewership of the sport. Thankfully, the mandate was changed in November of 2021 and bikini-style uniforms are no longer required.
Sports media has created a culture where most female sporting events receive less attention and recognition. People claim it has to do with physical limitations and barriers amongst the different genders, but this is just another excuse to ignore the accomplishments of women.
In an attempt to maintain interests in the sport of handball, the solution had been to have competitors wear revealing uniforms. This all takes away from the grandeur of what these women are accomplishing and compromises the integrity of their sports.
All of this also leads to unhealthy obsessions relating to weight for female athletes and the younger generation of girls in sports looking up to them. Although being featured on a cover of a magazine might seem like a confidence boost, it can make the athletes wonder what they are truly recognized for.
If an athlete does not have the ideal body, they will undoubtedly receive less recognition and potentially be considered incapable because of the standards set by those in the media. For children, especially young girls whose role models are female athletes, seeing their role models sexualized in the media will lead to them believing that women are only worthy for their bodies.
As a domino effect, this can cause eating disorders and mental health concerns for younger generations as well as current athletes. In an attempt to be seen as acceptable by sports media platforms, women will strive to be skinny. In fact, 45% of female athletes struggle with an eating disorder. Instead of working towards their athletic goals through natural methods, they could potentially turn to unhealthier methods for a “quick fix.” Disorders such as anorexia and bulimia will continue to be an issue, especially in younger athletes, because of over-sexualization by the industry.
Women are also underpaid when compared to the salaries of their male counterparts competing in the same sports as them. The average NBA salary is $6.4 million while WNBA players earn around $71,635. Although this is a completely separate issue not necessarily related to sports media coverage, it does put into context why female athletes would be more willing to participate in campaigns that continue the sexualization of them. Posing for photo shoots, which are mostly focused on the sexual appeal of a woman's body, could be a way they choose to compensate for their gap in pay.
Female athletes are not getting the recognition or pay equivalent to the men and they want to feel validated. Although well established female athletes may not need this, younger athletes just starting to get recognized for their abilities may quickly be sucked into the cycle of profiting off of their bodies for a large part of their income.
The double standards for sports coverage by the media is appalling before even considering the athletes’ individual representations. Men’s sporting events receive much more coverage already, and when individual men are highlighted the focus is on the type of game they played recently and not what their body looks like.
Some male athletes are praised for their weight even when it is considered over healthy dimensions because it’s considered appropriate for a male athlete to be more bulky. Football is a great example where this happens regularly, because it’s actually better for athletes in certain positions to be heavier, and their higher weight is highlighted positively in articles about them.
Unfortunately, women with high weight measurements are considered less athletic than their smaller counterparts. And if a woman has any type of muscle, she is considered unfeminine. It seems impossible for a woman to live up to the standards created by the media industry when the scale constantly teeters between “too strong” and “too weak” with no clear definition of either.
What is scary is that there seems to be no end in sight. The sports media world chose this path of representation for women in sports. The public quickly bought into these narratives within the media, and now there is seemingly no looking back. Until women are seen as equals and praised for more than their bodies in every facet of life, the sports media industry will simply be another outlet for their sexualization. The hope is that the new generation of female athletes and sports journalists will take a stand and help the public realize that women are more than “eye candy” and highlight their athletic prowess over their figure.
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