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Boobs, Butts, and Bodies: the Sexualization of Females in Sports
What distinguishes one athlete from another — their strength, sportsmanship, perhaps their salary? Formula One driver Lewis Hamilton is known as one of the best drivers of all time, but the most successful female driver, Danica Patrick, is known as the sexiest driver. Although being the best athletes in their profession, it is evident that they are treated and portrayed differently. Mary Jo Kane, Director of the Center for Research on Girls and Women in Sport states “Female athletes are sexualized either overtly, by portraying them as sexual objects, or more covertly, by overemphasizing their physical attractiveness.” When women are treated based on sexual valuability rather than their talent, it devalues athleticism and skill, leading to an overwhelming number of young women either leaving sports or never taking up a sport. The portrayal of women in sports is one that pleases the gaze of heterosexual males while ignoring the cries of female athletes.
In sports broadcasting, men are often congratulated for their skills and when they fail, the focus is on the efforts of their competitors. Compared to the limited coverage of women in sports, there is a clear difference. Women are deemed lucky if they succeed and are condemned for their lack of commitment and skill if they lose, with the media often referring to their marital status and age. When American trap shooter Corey Cogdell-Unrein won bronze at the Rio de Janeiro 2016 summer Olympics, an article was titled “Wife of a Bears' lineman wins a bronze medal today in Rio Olympics”. In 2009, there was 1.6% female sports coverage, down from 8.7% in 1999. In the 2016 Olympics, Canadian sports broadcasting featured women’s sports 4% of the time, with approximately 11% of the coverage devoted to sports that featured both genders such as equestrian sports.
There have been attempts to broadcast female sporting events in hopes of garnering more attention and funds. However, of women’s sports broadcasting, coverage is often more suggestive than in men’s sports. Through a camera angle analysis of beach volleyball in the 2004 Olympics, it was seen that in a match between the women’s team USA and Sweden, of the total 144 camera shots, 45 of them were close-up tight shots of individual players’ body parts, with 32 shots focusing on the player’s chests. The majority of photographs taken of team USA were also when they were not in play, often getting ready or cradling the volleyball between their thighs. Although some say that player’s uniforms help depict beach volleyball as a fun sport, many find them derogatory, with gender differences in uniforms used to hypersexualize players. Research conducted by Kane et al. reveals that 47% of people pick soft pornography to “increase interest” in female sports. This belief can be observed in most, if not all sports. Soft or soft-core pornography, the name given to forms of media that contain implicit or explicit portrayals of sexual content, has been used to describe the way female athletes are depicted, and for good reason. Sports Illustrated, a former sports magazine, is known for its swimsuit issues, which sell 10 to 15 times more than its average issues, sexualizing women for their monetary value. Women in Sports Illustrated are portrayed in non-athletic poses 16% more often than men. These depict young models with little to no clothing and catchphrases such as, “Kate Upton Goes Polar BARE,” resembling restricted media rather than a magazine that is available at grocery stores. This not only shows females as sexual objects that are obtained through the means of payment but also steers females away from sports. For Canadian athlete Jennifer Heil, inspiration to be an athlete came from the first time she saw a woman on the cover of Sports Illustrated pictured performing the sport she was known for. Of the total 52 covers of Sports Illustrated at that time, 4 pictured women and only 1 pictured a woman in an athletic pose.
Even the most decorated female athletes must put up with body critiques. Having been dubbed “scary” and “manly” by Russian Tennis Federation President Shamil Tarpischev, Serena Williams is incessantly under fire for her race and athleticism. A woman of god-like physical strength, Williams has 23 Grand Slam singles titles; but is treated as inferior compared to other female tennis players. Besides having 16 fewer majors and losing to Williams 18 times in a row, Maria Sharapova earns $5 million more in a year. Presumably, because Williams, who had blond hair at a point, is “not the right kind of blonde” for corporations who are looking for socially attractive women to please heterosexual men. To them, she is useless as a marketing asset. In 2018, after having her first daughter, Williams suffered multiple blood clots and needed medical attention to prevent them from blocking main arteries. Less than a year after, Williams played at the French Open wearing a compression catsuit to combat any blood issues. Although there had been no rules indicating that female tennis players must wear dresses and skirts, there was an unwritten code hammered into women’s tennis; and Williams caused a shock by going against it. Bernard Giudicelli, the French Tennis Federation president, announced later on that, “One must respect the game and the place.” Although the catsuit was inoffensive and was worn for health reasons, Williams still had to wear a different uniform. These uniform rules often feminize the sport for women to encourage soft pornography. A similar trend can be seen in the industry of badminton, with skirts or dresses being compulsory for women during matches The problem is not women wearing skirts or men wearing shorts but rather that it was compulsory. Syed Naqi Mohsin, the senior vice president of the Pakistan Badminton Federation expressed concern over this rule and stated that the religious beliefs and norms of Pakistan go against the idea of women wearing skirts while playing a sport. 60 days before the 2012 London Olympics, the rule was withdrawn by the BWF due to backlash and criticism from the media and many badminton federations. The comeback from the BWF was “[They] just want them to look feminine and have a nice presentation so women will be more popular.” The BWF may have had good intentions in their actions but their action to set the rule was miscalculated and unnecessary.
To say women are not paid in sports is not entirely false. Even on a world-renowned team such as the United States Women’s National Team (USWNT), players make a fraction of what their male counterparts make despite being undeniably more successful and winning championships when the men's team is unable to even qualify. The United States Soccer Federation (USSF) argued that the pay differences between male and female players is not due to sex discrimination but that pay is, “based on differences in aggregate revenue generated by the different teams and/or any other factor other than sex.” In 2016, USWNT generated $1.9 million more than the men’s team and according to Fox Sports, 22% more Americans watched the 2016 Fédération Internationale de Football Association (FIFA) Women’s World Cup Final compared to the FIFA Men’s World Cup Final. Nike has even stated that the USWNT jersey “is now the number one soccer jersey, men’s or women’s, ever sold on Nike.com in one season.” Despite pressures made by the USWNT, FIFA has not decided to take further actions to eliminate gender disparity in football. Currently, when a women’s team wins a world cup qualifying game, they make $3000 USD less than when a men’s team loses. It is safe to say “US Soccer has been using sexism at the FIFA level to justify at least some of its own gender discrimination.” While players in the United States are at least guaranteed pay, some female football players in other parts of the world make 33% of what they were promised and almost half do not earn anything. In Brazil, home to Pele, is Santos; one of the most renowned teams in the world. Caitlin Fisher, who moved to Brazil when the US Women’s Pro League closed due to financial strain, recalls that, “Sometimes we only had money to buy bread and butter or cheese—not much when you train seven hours a day, seven days a week…” The lack of compensation for female athletes contributes to the idea that they should be advertised in a sexual fashion. Fisher recalls receiving uniforms so tight-fitting that they limited movement. A year later, she was asked to pose naked for photographs. This request came 11 years after Sepp Blatter, FIFA president, proposed for female football players to show more skin as, “in volleyball, the women also wear other uniforms than the men.” In a crude way, FIFA is encouraging women’s football and covering matches, but only when players conform to being sexualized. Promoting women’s sports by demonstrating players' physical attractiveness does not involve young girls taking up the sport but instead, panders to those who are less likely to watch for the actual sport.
Women's sports are not only sexualized in professional settings, but young athletes are also taught social standards of beauty through uniforms and coverage, causing issues of self-esteem. In 2004, a study conducted on Canadian female youth volleyball players showed that athletes disliked their uniforms due to the fact that they were tight-fitting spandex and showed off their bodies. But what was the need in the first place to show off young girls in a sexual manner? The sexualization of female athletes, by reminding them of social standards of beauty through uniforms and coverage, results in psychological implications. Athletes as young as 16 were seen to use techniques like diuretics and laxatives, as well as calorie counting to lose weight, contributing to rising eating disorders numbers in young people. Athletes are at a risk of eating disorders relating to over-exercising and not intaking enough calories in hopes of maintaining an ideal body, such as anorexia nervosa, with young female athletes being the most prone.
Yet even with the sexualization and lack of coverage of women's sports, young girls continue to get involved in sports. In the United States, between the 2009-2010 and 2018-2019 school year, participation of female youth in soccer has increased by nearly fifty thousand youth. Around the world, there are almost twice the amount of youth leagues for soccer, and USWNT is a major factor for this increase of interest. Girls are able to see female role models on television and in the news, which encourages them to continue to stay in sports. As Mary Jo Kane has said, “Sex sells sex, not women’s sports.” Despite soft-porn increasing interest in women’s sports from young males, “they also stated that such images did not fundamentally increase their interest…” Kane explains that many sports industries such as the WNBA embrace father-daughter relationships, as seen with the late Kobe and Gigi Bryant, and questions how, “fathers would accept the notion that support for their daughters’ sports participation would be increased by having them pose nude in Playboy?” Sexualizing female athletes is counterproductive to the creation of the appearance of women's sports as powerful and uplifting. The idea of marketing women’s sports as being a reality, however, is difficult to start. Many female athletes do not have adequate salaries and resort to sexualizing themselves. If the sports broadcasting industry were to discourage sexualizing female athletes, this may result in many female athletes being unable to afford to play. Nevertheless, when an adequate salary is established, alongside being able to play, women would also be able to put more time into their sport rather than focusing on a second job. With the portrayal of female athletes catering towards young males who want to see “heterosexy” females and not towards young girls, where will the future of the female sporting industry come from?
Although girls are legally allowed to play sports, they are only accepted in the professional sporting community if they fit the prototype of a feminine woman. These unrealistic expectations of appearance are heightened for female athletes; they must be tall but not too tall, strong but not too muscular, and look like a magazine model while still being able to compete at professional levels. Women are told to expect, even enjoy, the male gaze; yet when men are surveyed and their behaviours are watched, only then do they dislike it. Although the percentage of soft porn in sports coverage has declined it can be argued that it is, in part, due to the fact there is a continuous lack of women’s sports coverage. This, in turn, leads to female athletes not being paid the same as male athletes while performing at the same calibre. They are forced as a result to resort to advertising their bodies rather than their skills with many young female athletes being deemed “good enough” if they are thin enough. The consumerism of sports media has placed a lens over women's sports that distorts its perception while defending their actions by arguing they are trying to promote it. Promotion of women in sports is exclusively done if profit can be made through the heterosexual male. Simply put, sex sells.
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