Female Athletes and Media

Initially, I just wanted to take Pop Culture for my Sophomore Inquiry class because I thought it would be an easy A, yet interesting at the same time. This class has actually turned out to be very hard, but very beneficial. Through Pop Culture, I have learned the importance of thinking critically and questioning what I am seeing or reading. These skills were utilized while analyzing how the media portrays a certain part of my identity, an athlete, and also while analyzing different perspectives on a subject and the psychology behind advertising.

Individuals are made up of their many different identities. I am a daughter, sister, student, barista, athlete and shopaholic. I chose to focus on media’s portrayal of female athletes for my essay. When female athletes are portrayed in the media, the focus is on feminine characteristics, especially regarding appearance, and sexualizing them instead picturing them as strong, accomplished athletes they are. Aimee Lamourex summarizes my main point very well in her blog post on WordPress: “Girls also see a double standard in covering women’s sports. When male athletes receive media attention, such coverage is primarily focused on their skills and performance. When female athletes receive media attention, the media is much more likely to focus on their physical attractiveness or non-sport-related activities” (Lamourex).

One example I found of media’s tendency to focus on physical attractiveness is a photo shoot of MMA fighter, Ronda Rousey for Sports Illustrated Swimsuit Edition.Ronda1


How are these pictures showing her as an athlete when they nothing do with the fact that Rousey is number one fighter in her weight class? This is where the problem arises: focus on sex appeal, rather than athletic achievement.

Matthew Curtis, who wrote his entire college thesis about the portrayal of US athletes in the Olympics, summarizes the qualities that were focused on in women’s sports were “emphasized aesthetics- grace, form, and beauty” (Curtis). I found a similar example of this on the cover of ESPN’s Body Issue 2015.


The US Olympic Swimmer, Natalie Coughlin, is shown above. Is one supposed to infer that she is a swimmer just because she is sitting in water? Here, ESPN is not advertising Coughlin as an athlete, but advertising her body instead.

Finally, what I think is the ultimate example of the sexualization of women’s sports is summed up in the following clip: Lingerie Football League:

Link: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=XUI5NdGVVlw

Why do female athletes allow themselves to be portrayed this way? Some possibilities are more money, increased popularity, branding, and it may just be their form of self-empowerment. I think the main reason female athletes are portrayed this way is because provocativeness attracts the most attention in a day where attention spans are so short. It gives them exposure and popularity, something that is sometimes hard to come by in women’s sports, but does it really make them a more credible athlete? No; it may increase their popularity, but decrease their reputation, especially amongst other women. These athletes have an opportunity to be role models for thousands of girls and women; however, by allowing the media to portray them this way just sends the message to girls that they have to take their clothes off to be popular.

To accurately access media’s representation of female athletes, it is vital to consider their role in how they are portrayed as well. In the paragraph above, I mentioned that some woman display themselves, such as the ones pictured above, because it empowers them as women. Because these women do so much with their bodies every single day, showing it off might not seem like a big deal. It’s a way of celebration and showcasing their success. Swimmer Ashley Tappin echoes this saying “We’re healthy. We’re fit. And we are not just cute; we do good things with our bodies. They are functional. Why not show them off?” (Sexploitation). Women in athletics face the challange of balancing their femininity and their athleticism, so sports are a question of “how do you maintain femininity?”. While some female athletes want to show off their bodies, the marketing and branding of a female athlete is a game of who is sexy enough to be advertised. Some choose to capitalize on this, and some don’t. Some athletes are okay with using their bodies for exposure; it is just an individual decision.

The bottom line is, these women shouldn’t have to make this decision: media should advertise these women based on what they are: athletes. As much as provocative advertising can help these women become more recognizable, it doesn’t actually increase their popularity or following as athletes. So, it is not sex, but talent that sells. (Fagan).

Some companies are beginning to recognize, and respect this. Nike, in particular, encourages women empowerment, not through showing off their bodies, but showing off what their bodies can do. One famous example of this is Nike’s ad featuring tennis star Maria Sharapova. Sharapova is famous for being one of the pretty faces of the tennis world. The ad mocks the way media has focused on her appearance, and shows why she is really famous: her talent.

Link: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=au17YpGAa-s


Additionally, there is coverage of women athletes that don’t mention a word about their appearance.

Link: http://www.bustle.com/articles/64938-the-lindsey-vonn-foundation-empowers-girls-sets-an-excellent-example-of-overcoming-obstacles

Olympic skier Lindsay Vonn started a charity called the Lindsay Vonn Foundation to help support programs that help empower young girls and increase their self-confidence.

Learning Moments

This brings me to one of my biggest learning moments for the term: considering both sides of a story. This importance of this became especially apparent when analyzing news and current events in week 5. One of my classmates exhibited this very well, using the example of the Portland housing market. I never even considered that someone could think it was anything but terrible:

*…As a person who is easily influenced by information, I think my consumption of news hinders my perspectives and actions. For example, my step-dad is a housing developer in Portland and has been responsible for the demolition of many homes in the city. Having just read a strongly worded, biased article from Willamette Weekly about the destruction, the evils of gentrification, and what kind of city Portland is turning into, I spoke to him about my concerns. I was very surprised when I was met with an entirely different point of view and set of facts that the article did not include. Although I am still on the fence about whether or not housing development is good for the city, it was an important conversation to have with my step-dad because it reminded me to always ask questions, stay curious, and not let any one person or source determine your belief in something. Even your own parents.

The comment posted by my classmate helped me realize the importance of considering both sides of a story. I never even considered that someone could think different. I think this experience will prevent me from being so black and white about certain subjects in the future.

Another significant learning moment of mine was when we analyzed John Berger’s “Way of Seeing”. This was probably the biggest wake up call of the class. Not only did the tactics he described help me analyze advertisements more effectively for my mirror insight, but also he stated the all too real truth of the psychology behind the advertising/purchasing pattern. I think he encapsulates my whole response process to media and advertisements perfectly. At the root, everyone wants to be glamorous and beautiful, to be envied, to have status…. That is what drives me to continue to buy and buy and buy. As bad as it sounds to some people, appearance will tell you a lot about a person (which is why I think way the women athletes pictured above bother me so much). I want to appear as someone who has it all together, that is fashionable and confidant and most of all, worthy. These are the feelings advertisers prey on. They tell me “if you use this perfume, it will make you sexy”, “if you have this kind of jeans, it means you’re classic”, “if you pose in this bikini, guys will give you more attention”… The list goes on. The difference is, and what I learned from Ways of Seeing, was that I can analyze these messages advertisers are trying to sneak into their ads, and respond to them less emotionally and more rationally.

Analyzing how media portrays parts of my identity, gave me a better perspective to why these parts of portrayed this way, the effect it has on me, and the effect it has on others. From my research, I have learned that female athletes are objectified, the focus on their aesthetics and physical appearance, rather than athletic ability. Despite this, there are efforts to counteract this kind of advertising. Companies, such as Nike and Under Armour, are focusing on empowering women and rather than displaying them. Through this essay and significant learning moments, I have learned to interpret media messages more effectively, in turn making more rational decisions and not just being comfortable accepting the way media shows something, but analyzing the reasons it might be shown the way it is.


Curtis, Matthew K. “America’s Heroes and Darlings: The Media Portrayal of Male and Female Athletes During the 2014 Sochi Games.” BYU Scholars Archive. Brigham Young University, 31 May 2104. Web. 7 Nov. 2015.

Fagan, Kate. “Sex Sells? Trend May Be Changing.” ESPN. ESPN Internet Ventures, 15 Oct. 2014. Web. 29 Nov. 2015.

Lamourex, Aimee. “How the Media Portrays Female Athletes.” How the Media Portrays Female Athletes. 22 Apr. 2012. Web. 7 Nov. 2015.

“Ronda Rousey Swimsuit Photos, Sports Illustrated Swimsuit 2015.” Sports Illustrated. 1 June 2015. Web. 30 Oct. 2015.

“Sexploitation: Helpful or Harmful in Female Athletics.” The Communique. University of California, San Diego. Web. 28 Nov. 2015.

Stanek, Becca. “The Lindsey Vonn Foundation Empowers Girls & Sets An Excellent Example Of Overcoming Obstacles.” Bustle. Web. 8 Nov. 2015

Williams + Hirakawa. Natalie Coughlin- Bodies We Want 2015. N.d. ESPN Body 2015. ESPN GO. Web. 28 Mar. 2015. <http://espn.go.com/espn/photos/gallery/_/id/13174028/image/37/natalie-coughlin-bodies-want-2015&gt;.



6 thoughts on “Female Athletes and Media

  1. Hi Maddy, your post really got me thinking about how sexist our society still is. It hurt me to see those magazine covers of Ronda Rousey and Natalie Coughlin, when the skills and talents they’re famous for are not even remotely being portrayed in the photos. When you mentioned all the reasons there are for female athletes to participate in that kind of exposure, it helped me understand why they would do it, but it was interesting to read your thoughts on how others perceive those photos. Because you’re right, the women’s popularity will rise with the men, but many women will look at the female athletes and think they’re only in it for money and fame. But it is important to consider that maybe they do it just for self-empowerment…if it’s a good type of self-empowerment or not, I’m not sure; I’ve never been in that situation. But your whole post was inspiring and eye-opening for me, because I had never realized how advertisers and media treat female athletes as pretty faces and sexy bodies. Actually it reminds me of the phenomenon going on in Japan and Korea right now: there are many pop idol groups that are becoming more and more popular. The girls in these groups aren’t allowed to date, because they’re supposed to be seen as virgin pure girls that men can idolize and fantasize about. It’s not fair how our world still treats women, and I really hope we can get past this patriarchal society soon.

  2. Hey Maddy, I think that you bring up a good point how unlike male athletes women are put in positions that have nothing to do with their sport. I remember reading this when we were paired and ever since then I have been noticing this more and more. I think you showing Ronda Rousey half naked in a pool best shows this because it has nothing to do with MMA.

  3. Hey Maddy, I think this was a great topic to choose for the blog post. Women, especially in sports, are seen as sex symbols and are advertised as so. The images that you posted of Ronda Rousey were some of the stronger images I think you posted because if you have ever watched one of her fights or one of her interviews, that’s not her. When it comes to traits like that and being good at sports or athletic or just having the confidence to go out and do these things, the media portrays it as masculine qualities rather than chalking it up to being female empowerment and confidence. There are some serious gender roles going on and that shouldn’t be the case, an athlete is an athlete whether male or female. Going back to Ronda Rousey and the masculine qualities that are portrayed in the media, I feel as though she felt like she needed to do the Body Issue to show that she is still female and is just like any other women out there. There is actually a quote in the movie Entourage from her along the lines of no guy under 250 pounds will go near her and that she has issues meeting guys because they are scared of her. I don’t mean for this whole reply to be about her, but I think she is a strong symbol in the female athlete community and an be the image for change. Overall great post and you had some extremely valid points in it.

  4. Hello Maddy, I find your topic very interesting. As I agree with your point of that female athletes are focus on their appearance in media rather than their skills. I like how you used Ronda Rousey as an example because I think she is a great fit to support this. She is known for her fighting skills and arguably the best female fighter of all time but yet she appears in portrayals of her naked. That tells you how female athletes are being portrayed in the media which is by their appearance.

  5. Hi Maddy,
    This glimpse at the portrayal of women athletes in pop culture really brings attention to many of the flaws that exist in our society. I feel that women should feel empowered by their bodies, and do not personally think less of a woman who feels confident in her body, but it does appear that this is not the case in these scenarios. I cannot imagine that we would see an entirely nude cover photo of a male MMA fighter or swimmer — rather an action photo of the athlete succeeding at what they do. The only counter argument I could think of to justify the portrayal of these women’s feminine qualities is the fact that for much of history, successful female athletes were seen as boyish and masculine much of the time, so by the use of their bodies in this manor they are highlighting feminine qualities that may not be revealed so much in their athletic performance. Interesting read!

  6. Maddy,
    I am a female athlete and I have totally agreed with your essay. I feel like I have always felt weird competing with other boys because if I was better then he would feel weak, but if I was worse than him/they, it would be normal if I wasn’t better than them. I also felt weird having muscles because it is considered masculine and not pretty. I try not to let stereotypes and ones from media effect me. So I just do what I like to do and continuing on sustaining the role of a female athlete.

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