In a historic moment for female athletes, Sports Illustrated named tennis star Serena Williams its 2015 Sportsperson of the Year. As a new year dawns, it’s a good time to look both forward and back at women in professional sports. How much progress have we made in women’s access to athletics and their portrayal in the media since the passage of Title IX in 1972? What still needs to be done to erase disparity in the way female athletes are treated compared to their male counterparts?
Feminine or Masculine?
Historically, women’s bodies have been viewed as beautiful objects. Artists have turned them into works of art in paintings, sculptures, photographs and film. Women participated in this view of themselves through the clothes they wore and the attention they paid to their skin and hair. Yesterday’s corset became today’s shape wear.
From the first Olympic games in 776 BC, athletic competition has been seen as the height of physical prowess. Athletes are worshipped as human gods, and pictures of male athletes frequently feature their shirtless torsos, muscles sharply defined and glistening in the light. So when it comes to female athletes, do we view their physiques as feminine or masculine? Is there a “right” way to look?
In Serena Williams’ world of tennis, athletes of both genders tend to be slimmer than those in other sports. Williams’ larger, muscular physique has drawn “body shaming” criticism throughout her career.
And in her case, the issue of race intersects with gender. African American women have long been both objectified and criticized for their sometimes wider bodies, limbs and bottoms. In a sport where most of the other female athletes are white and petite, even Williams’ incredible skill doesn’t always out-shadow her conspicuously “masculine” body.
In more traditionally male-dominated sports such as basketball, female players also become the targets of insults for their “masculine” looks and abilities. Like Williams, the incredibly talented WNBA player Brittney Griner often receives more negative attention for her height and strength than praise for her abilities. And as a lesbian, Griner belongs to a group of women historically derided for being too masculine.
Overall, female athletes are subjected to a double-standard. While they must be strong, agile and skilled at their sport of choice, they must also retain the desired female shape: slender, petite and attractive. Women who manage to achieve this are rewarded with positive press coverage regardless of the scope of their athletic prowess.
The Sexualization of Female Athletes
Since we expect women athletes to maintain an appealing look, it’s no surprise that media images of these women are just as sexualized as the average Hollywood actress or Victoria’s Secret model. As with the examples of Williams and Griner, it doesn’t matter how male-dominated the sport used to be.
Danica Patrick, the most successful female racing driver, also happens to look like a model with long brown hair and a slender frame. While there are plenty of pictures of her in her racing attire — the manner in which male drivers are almost always pictured — there are also plenty of photos of her posing in bikinis, midriff shirts and other skimpy outfits that show off her perfect abs and attractive body. In a sport where speed is the victor, Patrick has as much notoriety for her appearance as for the fastest roads she’s driven.
Even Brittney Griner recently posed nude for ESPN Magazine’s “Body” issue. While such photo spreads are usually billed as empowering, how can it truly be to these athletes’ advantage to stand before the camera like a Playboy Bunny? It may garner media attention, but nude photos often do little to advance an athletic career. Still, “sex sells,” and most female athletes are willing to go along with the sexual objectification of their bodies if it will make them household names.
Television Coverage Is Hard to Find
The most recent women’s World Cup gained a lot of attention and fans, yet many had trouble watching the matches on TV. Unfortunately, this is nothing new — the two percent of airtime SportsCenter gives to women’s sports has not changed since 1999. Even when they are broadcast, women’s games tend to receive less funding for production values, making the quality poorer than for men’s sports.
While some women athletes do become worldwide celebrities, this is rare. There are still many more famed male athletes than females. Male athletes also tend to make more money and receive more lucrative endorsement and advertising offers. When women do make the headlines, it’s usually not just for what they did on the field but for a physical attribute as well — a soccer player who rips off her shirt in celebration of a big win or an Olympic gymnast whose facial expression comes off more angry than pleased.
Moving Forward in a Positive Light
There are many ways to improve media coverage of female athletes. Like many things, it starts with each individual. What comes to mind when you think of women in sports? Do you even give it a second thought when another nude or nearly nude magazine photo of a female athlete makes the headlines? The media shapes our perceptions, but it also delivers the content people are willing to buy. If we can change our own attitudes, the media will have to follow.
Here are a couple of truly empowering ways to look at women in sports:
- Role Models and Leaders
Female athletes who excel in their field can lead the way for younger girls to dream of athletic achievement. And when female athletes accept their bodies and themselves as they are, they send that message of self-love and self-acceptance to other women, both athletes and not. Serena Williams is proof that it’s possible to succeed on your own terms without bending to the will of the media.
Many male athletes move on from sports to careers as motivational speakers, entrepreneurs and other exciting opportunities. Female athletes can also demonstrate leadership beyond the court or the field, once again breaking glass ceilings and encouraging other women to pursue the careers of their dreams.
- As the Impressive Sportspeople They Are
One of the simplest ways to promote positive images of women athletes is to focus only on their athletic skills and accomplishments. Who cares which celebrity they’re dating? Why does it matter how they wear their hair or the way they dress outside of matches? And most importantly of all, we need to stop attributing impressive physical feats only to men. An awesome slam-dunk by a female basketball player need not to be compared to what a male player can do. Let it be her accomplishment without the distraction of comparison.
How Far Have We Come?
It’s obvious that progress has been made for women in all arenas, including sports. Each year that passes brings the breaking of barriers across gender, sexuality and race.
But many obstacles remain. One big one is the low percentage of airtime for women’s sports. Further groundbreaking will require the courage and vigilance of female athletes, their fans and the public.
Holly Whitman is a political journalist based in the USA, writing on anything from women’s rights and gender equality to environmentalism. You can find more of her writing at Only Slightly Biased or at @hollykwhitman on Twitter