What comes to mind when you think of a female exercising or playing a sport? There’s a likelihood that you will get a whole plethora of mental images, ranging from strong, skilled women to a lady running through a field in a tennis skirt. More than likely, an image of a scantily clad (sporty clothes, but still not much of it) woman flashed through your mind regardless of everything else. Or you might immediately think about the phrase “run like a girl/throw like a girl”, or any of the gender projecting stereotypes about the athletic skills women might have. These are strongly embedded cultural attitudes about female athletics, which strongly effect the choices that both young, old and everything in between, female decide to make about what to do with their bodies.
As a female who’s always been into sports, I’ve been told, culturally and directly since I was a little kid, that I will never as good as men at sports. Many women’s sport leagues are considered a laughing stock. When was the last time someone got excited about a WNBA (women’s basketball) game, for instance? Can you even name a WNBA team if you tried? They play these games on national TV channels like ESPN, but if you watch a game, you can clearly see empty bleachers. What sort of message does this send to our young girls about the importance of women’s sports? A popular trope in comedy movies is for a female to pose as a male in order to be able to play competitive sports, such as in 2006’s She’s the Man starring Amanda Bynes; but the concept is rarely explored on a more serious level.
Another form of media in which you may discover a startling bend to female athletic ability is in popular magazines for young women, such as Cosmopolitan or Seventeen. It’s quite easy to find the exercise section. They typically present you with photos of fit young girls, and then provide you with terrible exercise and diet advice. They promote and push the concept of “toning up”, which in the world of exercise, is actually considered to be a falsehood. I remember as a teen girl, doing hundreds of crunches with my girlfriends in hopes of obtaining that ever-elusive perfect hard and flat tummy. Of course, I couldn’t, because I just wasn’t aware of the amount of work that goes into having a perfectly fit body. These magazine articles skirt around the idea that women are strong, and can have muscles too. Women are encouraged to use cardio equipment and eat salads. The truth of the matter is, women are just as capable of doing anything at the gym a man is, even if they can’t lift (quite) as heavy weights ultimately, and if they want to have a perfect fit body, then they should do more then a few simple exercises a day.
Beyond the doubting of whether a female can acquire a skill, there is also the complete dismissal of skill entirely. What I’m speaking of here is the sexualization of female athletes; the long legs, flat stomachs, tight tan skin, and the skimpy outfits that no doubt accompany them. While thinking about this, I performed a simple experiment and typed in several different queries into YouTube that had to do with female athleticism, such as ‘female runner’, ‘female athlete’, ‘female tennis’, etc., and every single query included results in the first 5 results that included the word ‘sexy’; in fact, the “sexy” results dominated the search results each time. These videos typically contain up close videos of the women, focusing on particular body parts or actions (butt, breasts, up skirt, for instance), and pay little mind to what sport is at hand, much less whether the woman at hand has true talent and skill. Most of the time, if you watch these videos, you won’t have any idea of any athletic accomplishments by the time they’re finished playing.
I think it is difficult to separate out sexy from female athlete in our minds. It’s pretty far spread throughout our culture that the two go together. There are plenty of situations where the athletic skill of a female athlete is completely ignored in favor of discussing her body or overall attractiveness. There are even female sports that seem to exist purely to titillate the audience viewers, for instance, one may think of that as cheerleaders, completely disregarding the actual skill, talent and time it takes to become a major league cheerleader. In a short documentary about female athletes by Challenging Media (mediaed.org), the researchers at hand discuss some of the reasons for this type of sexualization of female sports. They hypothesize that male sports viewers typically view male sports as a competition and a way to vent stress, even if they are not personally involved. So for them to watch female sports, it wouldn’t engage the same competitive or stress relieving feeling, and they are more likely to project sexual feelings on to the females, rather than how they would normally feel about male sports. However, this explanation is not strong enough to explain why the sexuality of female athlete’s is so pervasive.
All that being said, there are people trying to change the way we think about and approach females in sports. Lately, there has been a strong push for women to just get out there, exercise and be healthy. Both the media, and just individuals are realizing the necessity of being active, and that encouraging women to just do some crunches and run on a treadmill isn’t necessarily effective. This is encouraging, because it means some women will find their way into sports that never otherwise would have considered it. And these days, it is common to go to the gym and see women using free weights and all different sorts of equipment, not just limiting themselves to a certain way of exercise. Furthermore there is a growing voice that already being slim and fit is not a prerequisite to being active; participating in sports and exercise is something that transcends body shape and size.
However, there are still some icky feeling sexism to fight. For instance, that feeling that I mentioned in the beginning of this of inferiority, compared to male athletes. I grew up feeling inferior to male athletes, and I know many other girls did as well. People would assume my skill would be sloppy and uncoordinated. It was insulting for a boy to be told he throws like a girl. I constantly felt like I had to prove myself. As an adult, these feelings really aren’t present; I know I am strong, and capable. However, as a young girl (think age eight to eleven), it often came as a strong self-esteem blow. I would refuse to wear pink clothes and wanted my hair short. I wanted to play male-oriented sports, like football and hockey. I really didn’t want anyone tell me I couldn’t, but it was still pervasive.
During the Superbowl football this year, Always maxipad brand aired a commercial that attempted to fight that particular stereotype and phrase. “Like A Girl” interviewed a few different females and males of varying age on their opinions of the phrases “Run like a girl”, “fight like a girl”, etc and discusses how much this can effect young girls, and how we should change the phrases to mean something positive versus negative. I liked the message behind the ad a lot. I’m all for things that might challenge how people think. However, there were several issues with the ad that makes it less effective. First of all, it never even mentions that it is an ad for menstrual products, which inherently suggests that there is something shameful about female bodies and should not be mentioned, and secondly, the people they chose to show in their ad are exaggerations (for instance, a teen girl gets worried about her hair). These are just little things I noticed that bothered me, pushing me to think the ad is not as open-minded as it may seem.
Overall, we have come a long way, but a lot of pervasive stereotypes and representations pervade in our culture and media. I think that a big difference will come when we start to value female talent over looks in athletics other than the big leagues like the Olympics. After all, a woman shouldn’t have to be a superstar athlete in order to get noticed for talent. I personally hope to see sports uniforms that focus less on exposing the midriff and shaping the bottom, to more on functionality, as well. As our culture continues to fight gender stereotypes, we will also see more young girls willing and able to be active and sporty beyond just stereotypically female oriented activities. We should encourage these girls to further their skills, and not compare them to their male counterparts. While we cannot change what the media says or does, we can all take a little part in fighting the misrepresentations, even if, for instance, you don’t take a personal interest in sports.
- Always. (Jan 29, 2015). Always #LikeAGirl – Super Bowl XLIX. Video File. Retrieved from https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=yIxA3o84syY
- ChallengingMedia. (October 4, 2006). Playing Unfair: The Media Image of a Female Athlete. Video File. Retrieved from https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=luadmO7Cugc
- Liang, E. (2011). The Media’s Sexualization of Female Athletes: A Bad Call for the Modern Game. Student Pulse, 3(10).
- MerkinMurffly. (July 20, 2012). Alenka Bikar – OMG, what a body !. Video File. Retrieved from https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=aQTxAjw7IjU
- She’s the Man [Motion picture]. (2006). United States: DreamWorks.
- This Girl Can. (Jan 12, 2015). This Girl Can. Video File. Retrieved from https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=aN7lt0CYwHg