‘Can you give us a twirl and tell us about your outfit?’

‘Can you give us a twirl and tell us about your outfit?’

‘How has your weight gain effected your mobility?’

Have you heard about the #CoverTheAthlete campaign? Surely you have! In recent months, this campaign has gained great support for challenging the sexist coverage of female sport stars. Consider the two examples above, how likely are we to hear male athletes get asked these questions?

The popularity of this campaign got me questioning if we are actually doing everything possible to create an environment for women to excel in sport. We are constantly reminded that women are not doing as much exercise as men, and although female sport may be in the best place ever, clearly there are still many issues. The #CoverTheAthlete campaign highlights one of these issues; the constant focus on women’s physical appearance.

In her paper titled Sex Equality in Sport, Jane English (1978) explains how we as a society view sport with a male bias. That is that as spectators what appeals to us is the ‘speed, strength and size’ of athletes (English, 1978). It is obvious that female sport does not show these qualities in as high a quantity as male sport, however as spectators we still appreciate women’s sport for precision and participation (English, 1978). In this way it is not us as spectators causing the focus on women’s physical appearance, rather it is our tendency to simply accept and adhere to the media’s presentation of female athletes (English, 1978). Therefore the media’s focus on the physical appearance of women rather than their athletic skill, makes us inclined to think this way too. This produces insecurities in most women and does not encourage them to participate in sport. As English (1978) explains, when a group of people are singled out it influences their own self-respect and indeed the respect they get from others. So by focusing so much societal attention onto women’s looks we are not creating an environment which encourages women to excel in sport.

I think the focus on women’s appearance comes in two manifestations: the sexualisation of female athletes, and the critique of a more masculine female body. A very recent example of the sexualisation of a female athlete, is the press coverage of Ronda Rousey. Consider the coverage you may have seen of Ronda’s recent fight, did it often include comments about her ‘hot’ body? The two pictures below are examples of the sexualisation of Ronda Rousey from a Sports Illustrated swimsuit shoot.


(Images from Sports Illustrated)

Iris Young (1980) highlights in her work the clear way that the patriarchal society in which we live objectifies women, and the images of Ronda Rousey above are prime examples of this. Young (1980) explains how women’s’ bodies are ‘objects and subjects’. In this way women are seen as an object for men’s sexual intentions, and often feel like they don’t have control over their own bodies (Young, 1980). By presenting female sports stars in this sexual manner, the media is encouraging all women participating in sport to feel disconnected from their bodies, as they view them as purely being an object of attraction for men. As Young (1980) describes this leads to women looking in the mirror and worrying about what other people think of their body. When women are so critical of their own bodies it makes it difficult for them to participate in sport without feeling self-conscious.

The second manifestation of this focus on physical appearance is the media’s presentation of a more masculine sporting body as undesirable. Postow (1980) explains how one of the ways in which sport can be seen as masculine is that it is frequently characterized by physical power. To this extend Postow (1980) also describes how the masculinity of sport can be a reason why women do not want to participate. This is because women athletes who develop a more masculine body from sport are considered not to meet the ideals of femininity and are therefore ridiculed. A prime example of this is the question over 800m runner Caster Semenya’s sex. Semenya was singled out purely due to her physical appearance not fitting feminine ideals (Wiesemann, 2011). The media ridicules women who have a more masculine body shape and this does not create an environment for women to excel in sport.

Case Study

I also think it is interesting to consider the role that sporting associations play in the presentation of female athletes. Consider the video below:

What do you notice about how Serena is dressed here?

What does the voice over focus on?

Superficially, this 2011 advertisement by the Women’s Tennis Association may seem like it is positively promoting women’s sport with the ‘Strong is Beautiful’ campaign. But consider the underlying components: Serena is wearing a fashionable outfit, she has make-up on and there is a focus on her outfit choices. Although this advertisement may be trying to feminise the masculine body of female athletes, this is somewhat overshadowed by the strong focus on her looks. Furthermore, the presentation of Serena does not resemble her appearance during an actual tennis match, instead it emphasises the need to look attractive by focusing on her physical appearance.

The focus on physical appearance presents a conflict for women. They can either participate in sport, but be sexually objectified or ridiculed for being too ‘manly’ or; they can avoid sport and avoid people commenting on their appearance. Therefore by putting so much emphasis onto physical appearance we are clearly not providing an environment from which women can excel in sport.

Although, there is hope for the future. I leave you to think over the video below:

Is this a better way to portray women in sport? If, so why?

Do you think it will make women more motivated to participate?

Further Information:

BBC Radio Four- Women’s Hour on Women in Sport: http://www.bbc.co.uk/programmes/b04bnd0q

Media Coverage and Female Athletes Documentary: http://video.tpt.org/video/2365132906/

This Girl Can Website: http://www.thisgirlcan.co.uk/

Article on Make-up and Short Shorts in Women’s Football: http://www.theguardian.com/football/2015/jun/16/make-up-shorts-improving-womens-game-brazil

Huffington Post Article on #CoverTheAthlete:


Cover The Athlete (2015) #CoverTheAthlete. Available at: http://covertheathlete.com/ (Accessed 19th November 2015).

English, J. (1978) ‘Sex Equality in Sport’, Philosophy and Public Affairs, 7 (3), pp. 269-277.

Young, I.M. (1980) ‘Throwing Like a Girl: A Phenomenology of Feminine Body Comportment Motility and Spatiality’, Human Studies, 3 (2), pp. 137-156.

Postow, B.C. (1980) ‘Women and Masculine Sports’, Journal of Philosophy of Sport, 7, pp. 51-58.

This Girl Can (2015) This Girl Can- What About You?, The National Lottery, 23 January. Available at: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=jsP0W7-tEOc (Accessed 19th November 2015).

Wieseman, C. (2011)’ Is There a Right to know one’s Sex? The Ethics of ‘Gender Verification’ on Women’s Sports Competition’, Journal of Medical Ethics, 37.

Women’s Tennis Association (2011) Serena: Strong is Beautiful, Women’s Tennis Association, 11 May. Available at: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ZrFIKz4Cjhk (Accessed 19th November 2015).

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