Media Portrayals of Female Athletes

By Katie, 5:53 am

*Warning: Some photos NSFW.

I recently came across a comparison of the following two Sports Illustrated covers. Notice a difference?



I probably don’t need to say anything else, huh? But I will anyway. Notice how Roger Federer is portrayed first and foremost as a tennis player, naturally.  Anna Kournikova, on the other hand, is portrayed first and foremost as a sexual woman.

This got me thinking: do magazine covers, advertisements, and other media images usually portray female athletes as athletic or as sexual? Which aspect is usually emphasized?

Not surprisingly, I did a search and came up with a lot of ads and covers like these:





Apparently this is how the Florida State University website portrays its female basketball team:


Now, I’m not saying that because they’re athletes, these women aren’t also beautiful and sexual. I’m just tired of only seeing them portrayed in a sexualized manner. The truth is that their bodies are amazing – hello, Serena Williams! – and they have absolutely incredible athletic capabilities. That is what I want to see more of, that is what I want to celebrate. Not what they look like in a bikini or how good they are at doing the standard “come hither” look. They’re athletes, so I’d like to see them portrayed engaging in their sport – that shouldn’t be too difficult!

To me, it boils down to this: if we want to teach girls that women are valuable for more than just their sexuality, then we need to start celebrating women for more than just their sexuality!

Of course, it isn’t all bad. Here are some more positive portrays of female athletes, bodies included!


Sure, this one plays on the whole “sexualized female athlete” theme, but it’s funny because it’s acknolwedging that trend.



Game face!



I know I’m not breaking new ground here. I know that many women, regardless of their profession, have trouble being taken seriously as more than anything but a sex object. And I want to change that.

But here’s the thing. As I’ve been thinking about this topic, I’ve realized that I’m part of the problem. Because besides the Olympics, I don’t watch any women’s sports. I don’t. Granted, I don’t watch many sports in general, but the ones I do are men’s. Because those are the ones talked about around the water cooler at work. Those are the ones broadcast on national television. Those are the ones that are hard to ignore. So yeah, I might have to make a little effort to watch women’s sports; that doesn’t mean I shouldn’t do it.

Basically, I’ve realized that if I want female athletes to be taken seriously in our society, then I as an individual need to start taking them more seriously. I need to start giving them the attention I feel they deserve. If I want to change the world, I’ve got to start with me.

What do you think of the way female athletes are portrayed in the media?

Do you watch any women’s sports?

37 Responses to “Media Portrayals of Female Athletes”

  1. Love this post. I think one reason why these women were photographed making their “come hither” face is that a photograph of a female athlete making her “game face” is supposedly too off-putting for a standard audience — you know, in the sense that competitive women are stereotyped as being overly aggressive, threatening, etc. So, although a game face would make OBVIOUS sense in the context of an article about a female athlete, the editors (or whoever) think that typical audiences won’t like that look. Which is also just… ridiculous.

    • Katie says:

      Good point! It says a lot about what marketers think the typical audience is like…I agree that they probably assume that a female athlete in her element would come off as too “aggressive.”

  2. I think this brings up a great point, I would like to see these women in active shots. What is more beautiful than a strong, active, and capable woman??

  3. It’s funny because I’m not into sports of any kind, but seeing the top images of the athletes really kind of ticks me off! It’s sad that men can be appreciated for their athletic skill while women seem to only be appreciated for their bodies. I give kudos to Nike and to the other companies and magazines who make an effort to treat female athletes for what they are — athletes!

  4. Julie says:

    Agree completely with what Jennifer said. Look at Danica’s picture. How awesome is that? And with that “yes, she can” it passes such a strong message. Also, +2 for Bethany. A man making a “game face” is considered impressive and virile, while a woman would be considered un-lady-like and unelegant – cause we all know women are supposed to be sitting pretty with a gentle and caring smile, or showing their thighs with a ferocious “come over here, stud!” look. Right? ;)

    I don’t watch sports in general, never had, but I see absolutely no reason for women’s sports to have such a small space under the spotlight. It’s like society is afraid of non-fragile and dependant women. That’s the message that comes across when we see pictures like the first ones on the post – that women are only acceptable if they’re cute and vulnerable. A muscular woman, sweating and showing her physical power is nearly a taboo.

    On the bright side, there *are* some great pictures out there, as you have pointed out. Those last six are great! The fourth even has a game face! \o/

    • Katie says:

      Julie, I think you are spot on with what you said about society being afraid of strong, independent women. It says so much about the “boxes” women are supposed to fit in, and how difficult it can be to break out of that.

  5. Great post. Sports have always been a huge part of who I am. I love watching women’s sports in the Olympics, and I try to make a point to follow women’s college basketball final four stuff, but there isn’t that much else. I will even make a “pool” for the women’s basketball and get everyone signing up for it before they realize it isn’t the men’s…but then they follow it more because they put money into it. :)

  6. Holly says:

    Loved this! Danica has always bothered me (more so because she was rude to a family friend I know – a child!) because she is SO talented. Yet, most people think of her sexual image when they hear her name. Yes, she IS sexy – but why is that always the focus? That said….I do feel a bit hypocritical because I wouldn’t mind seeing Peyton Manning on the cover of a mag, shirtless. ;-) The difference is that the focus for male athletes isn’t always their sex appeal….

  7. kell says:

    while i think you make some great points, i am still a bit torn on this one. i sort of love that the world is accepting that women can be strong and fit – and confidant and sexy all at the same time. at least a step up from the demure, unheathly models we see in some of the more high profile fashion magazines . . .

    i also love that these female athletes themselves feel confidant enought to choose to participate in these shoots. i think most women do want to feel beautiful – and being athletes – these women probably jump at the chance to feel girly and beautiful for a day. i think they also inspire other women to see that strong doesnt mean ‘not feminine.’

    i think our views may be skewed too, because, as you say, most of us are not watching the female sporting events – so we only usually get to see them as they grace the covers of magazines. maybe if we saw them participating in their sport on a more regular basis, getting ‘down and dirty,’ we wouldnt view the mass media as the “only” way these women are portrayed.

    . . .and honestly i have also seen several male athletes “sexed up” for some photo shoots and i have never minded :)

    • Katie says:

      Excellent, excellent point. I completely agree that my view would be different if I were watching these women play their sports regularly.

  8. Shaun says:

    You don’t watch women’s sports because, really, besides college basketball, the Olympics and seasonal beach volleyball broadcasts there are hardly any women’s sports televised by major networks. The WNBA got some NBC air-time when they first debuted but since then I honestly can’t think of any women’s sports that are regularly aired on non-local channels besides major national events that don’t occur to often.

    Also, kudos to TIME for taking Dara Torres, who is, because of her sport, wearing a two-piece and not sexualizing her automatically. The ones that get it right are usually the ones that get everything right. Magazines like ESPN or SI gear their things so much towards the cliched oversexualized men so that even the ads for razors have an element of sex in them.

    • Katie says:

      “The ones that get it right are usually the ones that get everything right.” AGREED! I wish I had written more about “considering the source.”

  9. Great post. I can’t help but think about the message the media (and us because someone’s buying these magazines/products with the sexualized pics instead of the athletic pics) is sending to little girls…

  10. Never thought of it that way. I’m not much of a women’s sports watcher either. Except for college gymnastics. I do only watch college football besides that though.

  11. This actually made me a little angry! (not in a I’m not happy you posted it kind of way, though :) ). I just hate how women are always portrayed as things, especially these amazing athletes!

  12. Katie, you bring up such an important topic – as always! :) These images can be confusing to girls, because on the one hand, we’re showing these powerful women, but on the other hand, they’re being portrayed as sexual objects. Like it’s only OK to be powerful if you can be sexy and “girly” too.

    I do think it depends on the magazine. For instance, Sports Illustrated regularly shows provocative pics of women, because they cater to a male audience supposedly. Either way, it’s something that does need to be changed. And again, your message here is a critical one and something to take seriously if you’re a parent.

    Personally, I don’t really watch sports at all – unless I’m with Brian or his family. But usually I’m watching shows like Fringe or the Housewives on Bravo (don’t judge).

  13. Sportsgirl says:

    Not a sport watcher, but a sport player :-) I play soccer and take part in strong(wo)man and powerlifting. If they had more women’s sport of television I might watch it. Whenever they televise tennis here I am more interested in watching the women play than the men. Come to think of it, when the Olympics are on I prefer to watch the women compete than the men too.

    I love that Time cover with Dara Torres; she looks awesome!

  14. [...] This post was mentioned on Twitter by The Illusionists and Boston NOW, Katie McLaughlin. Katie McLaughlin said: Media Portrayals of Female Athletes [...]

  15. As the mom of a (once) teenage son, he had many Anna Kournikova sexy shots in his room (and on our ‘puter,) and I’m okay with the idea that young men (and women) need some eye candy as they work out their own developing sexuality. Girls have pinups too (Justin Bieber anyone? Shaun Cassidy?) I felt happier that my son focused on Anna K – who was, at least, an athlete – rather than Brittney (sp?) Spears, another vapid celebrity, or the Playmate of the Month. Son was also an athlete, himself, and spent a fair amount of HIS time going to support the HS girls basketball team, and we went to see the WNBA play in person. He also was a dancer, had great respect for how hard the girls he partnered in dance worked. (And as a straight guy who knows how to dance, he was and IS in great demand among young women!)

    I think it’s the attitude – is there RESPECT? For a long time, it was presented as a CHOICE – as a girl, you had to choose between being sexy, OR athletic, OR smart (and maybe you could be two of the above, but not THREE.)

    That said, I’d like to find a way so that young girls don’t feel QUITE so much pressure to be pretty/sexy, or else. There *are* women and men who simply aren’t that physically attractive, and it’s unfortunate that most people (and I admit, I’m one of them) sometimes have a problem seeing past initial “unattractive” appearance to a person’s true value.

    • Katie says:

      Thank you for sharing your own experiences! I really like what you said about respect; I think that’s key.

  16. I think this is a case of both/and versus either/or. I think most women like to be valued for their talents/skills/intellect AND they like to be feminine/sexy. I want both, to be honest. I want, for example, my husband to respect me and my career, AND I want him to lust after me. I think the problem is the mixed message that one is bad and the other is good. Both are good. :-)

    • Katie says:

      Agreed! I think that another part of the problem is that society as a whole still has a very prescriptive definition of “sexy.” Who says these women aren’t sexy WHILE they’re engaging in sports? Who says that posing in a bikini is the definition of sexuality in the first place?

  17. Jannifer says:

    You always write about such great and important topics. Things like this always bother me because the media puts so much emphasis on women’s bodies and their sexuality. There is nothing wrong with women feeling sexual and being sexy but it’s hard when it seems that is all the media cares about.
    I am an avid sports fan. I watch most sports and I also played sports in high school. But, I hate to say it, there are few sports that women play that I find to be entertaining, just because men are naturally much better. In my opinion, tennis is the women’s sport to watch and occassionally college basketball.

    • Katie says:

      Very good points. My husband was saying something similar when I was thinking of writing this post. He said that he often prefers to watch men’s sports just because the level of play is much higher – partly because of men’s physical abilities, and partly because their sports have been around much longer.

  18. I absolutely love this post. I totally agree. Women need to be portrayed in a more appropriate way. Many magazine covers portray women as “things,” when in actuality they are precious, sacred, and beautiful. We need to take the emphasis off of sexuality. Female athletes should be honored for how they play and respected for their femininity, not for how sexual they are.

    Yes, my family likes watching Women’s basketball, softball, and Volleyball. Nevertheless, as you mentioned, what is usually on ESPN is Men’s sports. Even when our city’s Women’s basketball team won a championship, they weren’t on the front cover of our newspaper — not even on the front cover of the Sports section!! The Men’s football was, and they had LOST!!!! What would the Women’s Rights Association think if they heard that? ;)

  19. I’m glad you brought this up! I have mentioned this on my blog but not done a separate post about it. But since I’ve been into bodybuilding for years I find it really disturbing how many bodybuilding/fitness women sexualize themselves. Great post!!!

  20. Great post, as usual, Katie! The SI covers are striking. I find it so sad that women are continually sexualized, their value reduced to their appearance as opposed to their athletic prowess or their talent. The Florida State pictures are pretty telling, as well. Seems like they might be trying to increase the size of their basketball audience by making the women appealing for reasons other than their on-court skills.

    • Katie says:

      Very true. It’s a shame that their athletic talent isn’t enough for some audiences.

  21. [...] probably already guessed this – especially in light of such posts as “Media Portrayals of Female Athletes” and “Phenomenal Woman” – but I’m pretty passionate about [...]

  22. Sarah S says:

    This is my first time here and I just wanted to stop by to say hello everyone.

  23. Sarah S says:

    hello everyone, wanted to say Hi! Well back to my online gun auction

  24. Alexis says:

    I don’t watch men or women sports cus to me sports are boring. I do think they have to sell these women as sex objects cus that’s the only way men will pay attention to them. Standard man/woman rules.

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