Hot or Not: Objectification and Sexualization of Female Athletes

One of my most valuable memories growing up playing soccer was being coached by a female instructor. As a little girl, I wanted a coach who I could look up to and who was once just like me. To this day one of my major idols is not a professional celebrity athlete, yet she emulates all I want to be as an athlete and as a person. I admire her strength, skill, work ethic and leadership as a player on the pitch; but also her joyful personality, compassionate heart, and optimistic attitude towards life off the pitch.

Unfortunately, many female athletes are admired for something totally irrelevant to who they are and how they perform in their sport:  their physical appearance. It is honestly disgusting and demeaning, and completely ignores how incredible these women are. It is far from just saying they are pretty; it is commenting on how “sexy” they are, the way their bodies look in their uniforms or how their hair or makeup looks during the game. I mean, this makes no sense to me. Since when does it matter how you look when you play? I don’t step onto the field hoping the crowd will talk about how my ponytail is styled or if I still look good when I sweat. I walk on wanting to play for myself and for my team, while proving to everyone that I am a strong, powerful athlete who can even keep up with the men.

To put this sexism into perspectives, if you do a quick Google search of “female athletes” you will find multiple results about the attractiveness of these women. The media creates this demeaning image of female athletes, especially through sports magazine covers, only adding to the fact that female athletes are already underrepresented in the media. This presents their goal of creating this mentality that “looks” are all these women have to offer.


The above covers of Golf Digest show LPGA player Lexi Thompson and PGA player Tiger Woods, with noticeable differences. The glaringly obvious difference is that Thompson is topless and Woods is clothed in his golfing attire. An article written by Tom Jacobs for Pacific Standard delves into issues and new research regarding the sexualization of female athletes on sports magazine covers. I found this article extremely interesting and helpful in understanding the major components that go into objectifying female athletes in the media. The author of the study, Ben Wasike found that the majority of Sports Illustrated and ESPN covers featuring female athletes were sexualized in many ways including:

  1. Women were more likely to be posing in a sexual manner (including facial expression and body language) while men were photographed in athletic poses
  2. Women were more likely to be showing more skin than men
  3. The captions or additional text on the cover were more “gender emphasized” and “minimizing athletic prowess” (Wasike, 2016).

What’s interesting to me about these two cover photos is that the captions tell us the magazine will feature tips and ideas on how to better your golf game. While Thompson features in a fitness issue and Woods features in a tips issue, the question still remains: why is Thompson half naked? I understand the purpose of wanting to show off her hard work to achieve her body, but she does not need to be exposed this way in order to prove it. Her eye contact could also be seen as seductive, while Woods is looking off camera, focusing on his game. Why not show Thompson in a tank top, performing a workout exercise? My point is: why should female athletes still be sexualized when the content of the magazine promotes the same ideas as the male cover’s content?

The study also suggests that female athletes (even excluding swimsuit edition covers) are highly sexualized in comparison to males. If you don’t believe the findings, just check out the photos below.


While this photo of the Russian tennis player Anna Kournikova shows less skin, the sexualization and objectification of the image is still up for debate. She is dressed in casual clothing, while Roger Federer is in his uniform. This could have been an opportunity to show an action shot of Kournikova during a game, but instead they went with the choice of putting her looks first before her athletic ability. Once again, the female athlete is objectified, with her pose and her eye contact; looking up at the reader, while the male athlete is in game mode. All photographers have the same job and there are many game photos of female athletes, so why not use one? Female athletes are not meant to be used as a subject for the male gaze to enjoy, so start treating them like the fierce women they are.

Both of these next photos show two incredible Olympic athletes; United States skier Lindsey Vonn and Jamaican sprinter Usain Bolt.


Vonn’s cover is so typical and overdone; she plays a winter sport so they dress her in a bikini and a hat? This representation of her is disappointing to say the least. She is one of the top skiers in the world and the caption reads “U.S. skier Vonn looking like a winner already” obviously referring to her physical appearance. I mean, I didn’t expect much coming from the Daily News magazine, but really? On the other hand, Bolt is in his uniform and in a very powerful stance. The magazine adds that Bolt is the fastest human ever in the caption, so why didn’t they add that Vonn is one of only two women ever to win four World Cup Championships with three consecutive wins (ESPN, 2010). In addition, her facial expression seems inviting while Bolt’s intent is on winning; not focusing on his looks whatsoever. Vonn’s achievements are just as remarkable as Bolt’s, just in different ways. But isn’t this diversity in skill-set something that is is so exciting about sports?

I am not writing this to ignore the fact that male athletes can be sexualized as well, but you can admit to yourself that women get this treatment much more often. Society is taking some steps forward to being better, but they are much too small. It seems like female athletes are told that any media attention is good, even if it is negative. We need to change this mindset. We need to respect these women for their accomplishments in sport and in life, and realize that it was not their looks that got them where they are today. We need to teach our young athletes; especially our young girls that it does not matter how you look. What matters is your determination, heart and always proving that you can kick butt!
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    August 12, 2020 at 7:58 am

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