By Lakin Starling
No matter the level of accomplishment, the media creates a struggle for female athletes with its hyper-sexualized images and endorsements.
“In the media, we see women objectified and their bodies talked about more than their athletic ability, which is in our face,” said Valyncia Raphael, a former women’s softball player at the University of Wisconsin-Madison who currently assists with the NCAA’s CHAMPS/life skills and diversity and inclusion programming at the university.
In 2008, MMA fighter and judoko pro Ronda Roussey took home a bronze medal at the Olympic Games in Beijing. As her gutsy reputation began to grow, Rousey began facing fights head on and defeating her opponents with her infamous armbar move. In 2012, after crippling former Strikeforce UFC Bantanman Champion Miesha Tate with her arm bar move, Rousey continues to reign in the octagon as the newest champion of the title.
In no time, Rousey has become the new “it girl” of MMA Fighting. She is relentless, vanquishing her opponents with vigor and audaciousness. At 135 pounds, Rousey’s strength has not been defeated and the media cannot let her beauty go unnoticed.
Her strikingness has also helped her land endorsement deals with XYIENCE, Metro PCS and UFC first smaller clothing brand. After ranking in at #29 on Maxim Hot 100’s List and gracing the ESPN body cover bearing all but the private parts of her sculpted frame, Rousey can be considered as one of the most captivating and sensual female athletes in sports history.
Risque images of other female athletes like those of Rousey, posed in a bikini or wearing nothing but powder pink gloves with her breasts only covered by her blonde tresses are controversial because they conflict with the hyper-sexual limitations that many female athletes are working to crush.
Samantha Edwards, a 24 year old rising professional track and field runner for Antigua and Barbados says, “Sometimes it’s not about the whole ‘sex sells’ thing, yes, it may sell, but at the end of the day, not everyone is about that. They want to know who the athlete is, what she’s accomplished and what she’s about. Focus on who that athlete is as a whole.”
Before a female athlete is even advertised through media outlets or posted on billboards by big brands and sponsors, there is a credibility that must be established in her sport prior to being given the opportunity for a well-rounded portrayal. After she arrives in her position, the next job goes to the media and its role in publicizing her work and talent. In the most recent finding in regards to female athlete representation, the 2007 John Tucker Center research report on Media Coverage and Female Athletes reported that 40 percent of athletes are females, but only 4 percent of media attention is focused on women.
In 2013, researchers from the University of Louisville examined each and every Sports Illustrated issue published in from 2000 through 2011. Their studies showed that out of the 716 covers, only 35 featured a female athlete—and only 11 women of color. Many of the covers portrayed women as models, photographed in hyper-sexual poses for sports that would be considered more “feminine.”
The disproportionate coverage of women in sports is not just limiting to the athletes themselves, but also to younger girls aspiring to fill the shoes and/or compete in the same arenas.
Ali Muehlbronner played softball and ice hockey at Salve Regina University and is now a coach for four different high school softball and ice hockey teams. While playing with tenacity as the only female goalie on all-boys’ ice hockey teams, she can also identify not having enough female athletes to look up to.
“There’s no professional level for women’s ice hockey, there’s couple teams for popularity but nothing in comparison to men’s. So for girls, especially in ice hockey, where it is a predominately-male sport, most of their idols are Olympians.” Muehlbronner said, “It’s hard to look up and admire someone because the majority of athletes shown are men.”
In the images of female athletes that endorsement ads and media do display, there is not much sexual mobility in their representation. Women are often placed in the confines of the gender binary and limited to either hyper feminine or decidedly masculine roles. These characterizations are stifling to some, and conflict with the reality of the athlete’s identity while nurturing a male gaze in order to make the woman marketable.
Edwards says, “I am a girly girl, but say that I wasn’t and they try to put a whole lot of lipstick on me and deck me out for a poster for a sports place. People who know me will see that and say, ‘She’s usually not like that.’ That may portray me like that and it’s like, ‘Who is she really?’ That’s not what I want to be portrayed as. I want to be put out there as me. Not as anyone else.”
Contrarily, in instances in which women are not portrayed as hyper feminine, they could be characterized as decidedly masculine. In fact, for many female athletes, there can be a stigma that straight women can’t be athletes.
“When people hear that I’m straight, they’re like ‘what?!’,” said Raphael.
Many advertisements highly emphasize a woman’s strong physicality and rough and tough approach to her sport. Although a representation like this could be accurate for some female athletes, the intention is to highlight her sexual behavior (or lack thereof) in order to build a marketable persona. Female athletes don’t enjoy the luxury of being “just athletes,” they must always confront the idea of being female first.
Some women find it hard to navigate through these stark portrayals, simply because capturing identity is not so black and white. The stress of always having to looking a part and capture the balance of femininity and athletic ability also affect the ways in which some female athletes view their own bodies.
Muelhbronner said, “The sports I played, I had to lift [weights], and that obviously brought about a more masculine environment. Everyone was always concerned about, ‘Oh don’t lift too much, your muscles are going to start to get too big.”
There is a carefulness that is applied to both extremes. In an interview with Sports Illustrated Ronda Rousey says, “I’m comfortable with my sexuality. I needed good sexual role models as a teenager—that I felt I didn’t really have. I was given an unrealistic expectation of what I, as a woman should look like. I want to be a healthy example of what could be desirable.”
Advertisements should not encourage shaming the bodies of women either. Some female athletes like Rousey see and maximize the power in their physiques, sexuality and also how their figures are a working component along with their skills. Amateur female boxer Jessica Laine recognizes her body type as a means for sexual expression but she is not bound by it.
“If the person has enough skill where they have to be recognized no matter what, someone shouldn’t be able to take their eyes off of you,” Laine said. “I think that’s so evident in the case of female athletes because I feel like the women who are always extremely beautiful, if they’re demolishing their opponent you’re going to hear about them regardless.”
Although her quick jabs and powerful blows speak for themselves, she admits, “I feel like people also place the burden on us where we can’t show our sexual sides. I do like the idea that people think I’m too pretty so I probably really can’t box. They automatically underestimate me and that’s the best part. Then they see me in the ring and then they see that I can.”
Honoring the integrity of the individual is crucial to producing an accurate portrayal of not only the woman but also the culture of women’s sports. Advertisements must aim to show the dimensions of female athletes and their sports.
Laine says, “They say boxing is a ‘sweet science’ because it truly is. Nothing is rehearsed. Once you go in there, you literally have to move off of science and art. Things are happening so fast that you have to be sharp, be on it and calculate everything in your mind. That’s what makes it beautiful. Everybody can’t do that.”
In honoring the autonomy and sexual liberation of women as athletes, the true beauty that exists in using the body to break records and win gruesome battles should be acknowledged. It is also possible to celebrate the body as a beautiful work of art, a powerful tool but it is most important to tell the story of the woman who pushes herself each day to face her opponents and attain victories.
This article first appeared in the January issue of Out of Bounds Magazine.