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Bikinis or Basketball? Women Athletes in Pictures

By Carol Church, Writer, Family Album
Reviewed by Suzanna Smith, PhD, Department of Family, Youth, and Community Sciences, University of Florida

Whenever the Olympics roll around, I notice magazine covers showing female American athletes in sexy poses, wearing skimpy outfits that don’t seem to be related to their sport. I sometimes wonder how these talented young women feel about participating in these shoots. To me, they seem to emphasize their sex appeal more than their athletic achievements.

How Do Regular Women Feel About These Images?

I also wonder about the message such photos send to teen girls and young women. Are they happy to see women athletes represented, or might these images bother them? A recent study in the Journal of Applied Developmental Psychology asked about 150 adolescent girls and about 170 female college students to react to photos showing famous female athletes. Some athletes were in sexualized outfits and poses, while others were shown wearing sports clothes and being physically active on the field or court. The teens and women were asked to describe the athletes in the photographs and to say how the pictures made them feel.

Sexy or Strong?

The participants in the study had positive responses to seeing women playing sports in sports clothes. They felt they were role models who broke down gender stereotypes and were truly dedicated to their dreams, and reported feeling inspired to exercise and be active themselves.

Yet when they looked at the pictures of the sexualized athletes, they experienced different emotions. Women who viewed these photos focused on the athletes’ appearance and attractiveness, and some expressed jealousy and admiration for the women’s bodies and negativity towards their own. Few felt inspired to participate in sports. Some girls and women also responded with anger to the sexualization in these photos.

Positive Images Count

From these findings, it seems pretty clear that teen girls and young women have very different responses to photos of female athletes depending on how the photos depict them. Adults may want to make sure that girls and teens are exposed to positive images of women athletes playing sports.

It’s also a great idea to make sure young people of all ages (girls and boys alike) learn how to view and respond to media critically. For more on teaching young people to be informed media consumers, see the resources in Further Reading.

(Photo credit: Thoni Aristide by James Holloway. CC BY-NC 2.0. Cropped.)

Further Reading:

Girls and Body Image Tips

PBS Kids–Don’t Buy It



Daniels, E. A. (2012). Sexy versus strong: What girls and women think of female athletes. Jornal of Applied Developmental Pyschology, 33, 79-90. doi: 10.1016/j.appdev.2011.12.002