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She’s Strong and Powerful and So Am I

by Elizabeth Daniels, Ph.D

With the Games of the XXXI Olympiad upon us, the world is once again gearing up to watch thousands of the most elite and accomplished athletes from around the globe compete over two and a half weeks. As a child, I remember hunkering down in front of the television and obsessively watching the Olympic Games every four years and dreaming of one day being one of these remarkable athletes competing at the pinnacle of sport. I was captivated by acclaimed and lesser known sports alike. I watched the Dream Team dominate men’s basketball and soaked in sports I knew nothing about, like equestrian jumping. Regardless of the sport, these athletes were Olympians and, therefore, amazing athletes and heroes to sporty kids like me.

Even as a child, though, I noticed that media commentators covered female athletes differently than male athletes. For example, Flo Jo (aka Florence Griffith Joyner) set world records on the track in 1988 that still stand today—what a thrill to witness! However, there was a lot of media attention about her painted finger nails, long hair, and fashion choices. Even as a child, I thought those were odd things to talk about given her unparalleled speed and all the hardware hanging around her neck.

Fast forward more than a decade and these early experiences and observations about athletes and sport began to shape my professional career. Like most—if not all—American women, I knew my fair share of girls and women who struggled with body dissatisfaction and disordered eating throughout my teens and 20s. I saw up close the pain and often devastating negative effects poor body image have on the lives of far too many girls and women. As a doctoral student in psychology, I wanted to better understand the potential for sport to be a positive influence on girls and young women’s thoughts about their bodies. Specifically, I started doing research on whether media images of female athletes could inspire positive body perceptions in female viewers.

My research is situated within a body of work that connects a cultural emphasis in the U.S. and many Western contexts on women’s attractiveness with how women come to think about their bodies. The main premise is that because women are primarily valued for their physical attractiveness (rather than other traits such as intelligence) by society, women can come to think of their bodies as objects to be evaluated by others, especially men. By investigating the impact of images of female athletes on viewers, I was interested in whether these images could shift female viewers’ self-perceptions away from a focus on how their body appears to what it can do.

As I began delving into this question, I soon noticed a disquieting trend, however. Female athletes, like other women, are often portrayed as sexual objects in the media. Rather than focusing on their athletic accomplishments, media often concentrate on the attractiveness of female athletes (à la the attention around Flo Jo’s finger nails instead of her five Olympic medals and two world records). My colleagues and I have written about this recently in response to Sport Illustrated’s depiction of Serena Williams in an all-black lace bodysuit and patent leather power pumps on the cover of their magazine after she was awarded Sportsperson of the Year in 2015.

As a result of this pattern of media depictions, in my first study investigating how teen girls and young women react to media images of female athletes, I included both action images, in which athletes are depicted in action performing their sport, and sexualized images, in which athletes are portrayed as objects. Participants saw one of four possible sets of images: action athletes, sexualized athletes, sexualized fashion models, or control images of average women. To understand how the photos affected their views about themselves, they completed the sentence, “I am____.” Their responses were coded into themes. Participants who saw the action athletes made more statements about their physical skills and abilities compared to participants who saw the other three types of photos. These statements were generally positive in tone, e.g., I am powerful, able, strong, tough, a great dancer, energetic (14-year-old girl). In contrast, participants who saw the sexualized athletes or sexualized fashion models made more statements about the shape/size of their bodies or their general physical appearance compared to participants who saw the other two types of photos. In addition, these statements were usually negative in tone, e.g., I am big, fat, obese, chunky, large, wide, huge (15-year-old girl).

The good news from the study was that action athlete images prompt girls and young women to think about their body’s physical capabilities more than their appearance—yes! The bad news was that sexualized athlete images prompt female viewers to focus on their body’s attractiveness in the same way that fashion images do, which is usually negative—ugh!!

My hope is that my research can be used to advocate for a change in the content of media. Several decades worth of research in psychology has demonstrated that media images of women often make female viewers feel poorly about their own bodies because these images are typically unrealistically thin and not representative of average women’s bodies. My research shows that images of female athletes have the power to do the opposite and encourage female viewers to value what their bodies can do, and we sorely need some of that.

Indeed, the Health At Every Size® approach has identified life-enhancing movements as a core principle. This principle promotes enjoyable movement for people of all sizes, abilities, and interests. I propose that action media images of female athletes might help girls and women connect to the joy of physical movement and appreciate their body’s physical capabilities. As I learned from the girls and young women in my study, seeing action images of female athletes can prompt viewers to think broadly about their physical self, e.g., many participants wrote about their dancing abilities even though none of the photos featured dancers.

In my version of a perfect world, little girls would grow up with posters of their favorite female athlete on their bedroom wall to remind them and their brothers of what women’s bodies can do rather than simply what they look like. Seeing adult women as athletes might help little girls learn that they, too, can be an athlete, or “a good athletic person” as a 15-year-old Latina girl described herself in my study.

While you’re watching the Olympics this summer, talk to the children in your life about what kinds of physical activities they like. Some may enjoy traditional organized sports (such as soccer or basketball), whereas others may prefer less structured and/or competitive activities (yoga or free play in the neighborhood). Research in sport psychology has found that the number one predictor of commitment to sport is enjoyment. Intuitively, this makes sense. We keep doing activities we like and avoid those we dislike. So help your child identify the physical activities that she or he truly enjoys. That approach is likely to result in a child engaging in pleasurable physical movement over time. For girls, especially, learning to value their physical self may help combat appearance pressures so common in American culture.

Elizabeth Daniels is an Assistant Professor of Psychology at the University of Colorado, Colorado Springs. She conducts research on gender, body image, media, and sports. Her research has been featured in national and international media, e.g., the Los Angeles Times, Huffington Post, Washington Post, Time, New York Magazine, Telegraph, and Daily Mail. In her spare time, Elizabeth enjoys hiking, biking, and being outdoors.

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