Female Athletes and Their Portrayal in Media

Article by Ashley

Edited by Jasmine and Audrey

“Wife of a Bears’ lineman wins a bronze medal today in Rio Olympics” (Chicago Tribute), “Simone Biles, the Michael Jordan of gymnastics” (People Magazine); these are only two of the thousands of inadvertently sexist quotes from major news outlets about female athletes. How come a female athlete’s only newsworthy attribute is to whom she is married? Why must Simone Biles be compared to a man to prove her value? In the mass media, female athletes are not only unrepresented but also misrepresented as sexual objects—as if to whom they are married and how they look matters more than their athletic accomplishments.

In professional sports, female athletes make up 40% of all competitors. However, they only receive 2-4% of media coverage, causing them to struggle to gain recognition for their achievements.

Take Sports Illustrated, for example. In 2017, the sports magazine came out with forty-two covers, but only six of those covers featured women. The mere 14.3% of the covers featuring a female highlights the lack of representation of female athletes in the media.

However, some individuals may point out that the dramatic differentiation in media coverage reflects an accurate depiction of the popularity of female sports; this is a misconception. In numerous circumstances, female athletes drew more of audience than their male counterparts. The softball Women’s College World Series averaged almost 440,000 more viewers than the baseball College World Series. Moreover, the US Women’s National Soccer Team is more popular than the men’s team due to their recent successes: the 2015 Women’s World Cup averaged 25.4 million viewers in the United States alone. Despite the fact that female sports are highly successful and draw in big audiences, they still receive little to no media coverage.

Lack of representation isn’t the only issue female athletes face in the media; they also must deal with how they are portrayed. The Sports Illustrated covers below are an example of the unequal portrayal of male and female athletes. Three out of the six covers presented females in a sexualized way. Not only this, but those covers do not even feature female athletes; they featured supermodels. In the eyes of the magazine, the ideal woman looks like a supermodel- not an athlete. Within the remaining three covers only one of the female athletes had a solo cover, while 20 different solo covers featured men - clearly indicating an inequity between the amount of coverage received by men versus women.

Taken from Sports Illustrated, 2017.

Oftentimes in the media, female athletes will be portrayed in unathletic stances and in formal attire instead of uniforms. Even when athletes are in uniforms that does not mean that those athletes are photographed in action shots. For the 2015-2016 season for the University of South Carolina women’s basketball team, their media guide cover featured the team doing their hair, compared to the men’s team which showcased their basketball moves. Even this small bias promotes the idea of a gender stereotype, and encourages female athletes to believe that all they need to do is look pretty.

Having supermodels on a cover of a sports magazine creates unrealistic body standards. It creates the idea that athletes need to have the stick-thin supermodel body. A survey that was conducted by BT Sport found that “of the [female] athletes that responded, 80% stated that they felt pressure to conform to a certain look and body.” (BT Sport). But the fact is that not all athletes look the same and when magazines push the concept of the “perfect body”, it has negative side effects. It causes female athletes to think that they need to be skinnier when that is not the case for their sport. This drive to be thinner causes many athletes to develop eating disorders. For one athlete, this drive had severe consequences, reaching the point where she put being skinny above being able to perform her best. Unhealthy body standards are becoming the social norm, and only get worse by the media’s representation of what an athlete should look like.

Say her name! Corey Cogdell-Unrein is the female athlete who won bronze at the Olympics. She is the one who put in all the hard work to win that bronze medal. It should not matter who her husband is. She should be able to be appreciated for her athletic ability and not her looks. Female athletes should be equally represented in the media. In addition, the little coverage that female athletes do get should not be sexualized or about their looks only about their talent. There is absolutely no reason to sexualize female athletes and to have supermodels on the covers on sports magazines because it only has negative consequences. Supermodels present the idea that all athletes should be skinny when that is not the case for most athletes which creates unhealthy standards that young athletes want to conform to. Athletes should just be athletes without being judged on what they look like but instead on their athletic ability.











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