Should Our Athletes Pose Nude?

Table of Content

I) Introduction
A)    Introduction to Topic
The idea of women’s participation in sports has only recently been registered in the minds of the masses. Women have proved to excel in both sports and Olympics, by winning trophies and medals. They have proven that they are not mere objects of beauty or of passive nature to the society. However where they have not been getting media attention as much as their male peers, when they finally catch the attention of both media and the viewers, it is not for whom they essentially are – athletes. Ironically, it is their female bodies photographed as nude and in seductive manner that has increasingly caught media as well as masses’ attention. This is highly alarming a situation with little helpful and immense negative effects.  

B)    Background on Topic
Media has a strong influence in shaping culture and mindset of the society. In fact, Kane (1988) recommended “the mass media have become one of the most powerful institutional forces for shaping values and attitudes in modern culture” (Kane, 1988). Today, media in the form of radio, television, Internet, print etc. has formed an integral part of people’s daily lives, and these people take inferences and inspirations from its content absorbed. Sports and athletic activities form an essential component of the content broadcasted by media. The sports heroes act as source of stimulation for sports fans. The social image of these sports figures is also dependant on the media’s portrayal. Such strong is media that the reputation of even the greatest of athletes can be at stake by even a minute scandal, be it either in form of textual or photographic relay.

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“Coverage of women’s sport is inferior to that of men’s not only in quantity but in quality as well (e.g., Birrell & Theberge, 1994; Daddario, 1998; Duncan, 1990; Duncan & Hasbrook, 1988; Duncan & Messner, 2000; Kane & Parks, 1992; Lopiano, 1996). Sport commentators and writers often allude or explicitly refer to a female athlete’s attractiveness, emotionality, femininity, and heterosexuality (all of which effectively convey to the audience that her stereotypical gender role is more salient than her athletic role), yet male athletes are depicted as powerful, independent, dominating, and valued (Hilliard, 1984; Messner, 1988; Sabo & Jansen, 1992; Trujillo, 1991). Because competitively participating in sports is inconsistent with society’s prescribed female role, the media coverage of female athletes seems to be trying to protect female athletes from rejection (or, more cynically, giving the public what they think it “wants”) by emphasizing other aspects of their “femaleness,” such as their attractiveness (Kane, 1996).” (Giuliano & Knight, 2001)

            Women sports heroes have been exploited for many reasons in media through their ‘sports cuties’ image, essentially a detachment from who they basically are and what mainly they portray. (Bishop, 2003; Griffin, 1998; Hargreaves, 1994; Schell, 1999; Walsdorf, 2000) Such sexualized images of female athletes have been known to earn them more of fame and recognition, as compared to the photographs emphasizing their sporty and athletic looks alone. Since media plays a pivotal role in shaping people’s thinking and beliefs, the emphasized sexuality of women athletes renders them as more of a commodity. Such practice is increasingly weakening the sports women’s actual position that is of sports, even giving more way to the philosophy that sports is a sphere for males only. And since sports is an integral part of daily lives of people and it also fuels the media, the idea of sexualizing female athletes may bring immense social inferences (Betancourt, 2003; Curry, Arriagada, & Cornwell, 2002; Griffin, 1998; Hargreaves, 1994; Miller, 2001).

C)    Assertion of My Thesis
I believe women athletes are being highly sexualized and trying to sell themselves to the public, essentially losing who they are. In order to market themselves to the masses, the female athletes have chosen an extremely poor and depressing means. Posing nude in extensively available magazines, for brands and products, etc. has earned them instant and massive attention and fame but they have traded their integrity and veracity. This does not end here; it has numerous social implications that are not favorable.

            Through this paper, I position myself presenting both positive and negative shades of usage of pornographic imagery for such marketing and portrayal of female athletes. I will use evidence for arguments for both counter claims, and mine and suggest an action plan towards the end.

II) Counter Argument

A)    Summary Of Counterclaims

Despite the fact that bodies of women athletes are exploited by way of displaying them as nude in order to sell either the athletes themselves, or a brand or product, or both, their bodies symbolize self-control that is more than mere sexuality. Women athletes when posing nude are not presenting themselves as objects of desire, or for any seduction purposes, rather they are showing off the strong, well-built and trained structure that is used for delivering the kind of performance needed for sports. Such display of bodies actually cast positive effects on the viewers, particularly young girls and women, in helping them understand the importance of physical fitness and health as well as self-respect and confidence. Instead of idealizing fashion models and starving themselves in order to attain the same thin and lean bodies, these young girls and women may conquer the real selves within by imitating their favorite women athletes.

            Female athletes who dare to pose nude primarily do it either for media attention or for selling when endorsing a brand. These stars are proud to demonstrate that they are powerful and at the same time sexually attractive. Women are now allowed to value their bodies in the ways they want to, not just as what the male viewers long to. They have found freedom that pleases them and goes well with what they do; work out to attain a body that is fit and attractive.

Gender equity does not suggest that women athletes should act or pose in ways any different from their male counterparts. It is only that the male athletes have never found it problematic to gain media as well as masses attention. They have only had to exhibit their athletic power and skills in order to attain fame and recognition. In contrast, women athletes have come a long way in making their space and having their presence felt. They have had to show off their muscular sides so as to identify themselves as eligible sports stars.

B)    Supporting Information for Counterclaims
The reduction of women to sex objects or “mere bodies” sounds anachronistic in an equal opportunity exploitation culture that sexualizes everything. To clarify, controversial images of female athletes, the Jenny Thompson photo expresses neither seductiveness nor vulnerability, but is a mixed bag, combining the powerful thighs and strong stomach of a great athlete and the cartoonish red boots and striped trunks of Wonder Woman. That this image appeared in Sports Illustrated, where the rest of the coverage was of male athletes, none posed similarly, reflects a “sexist” context, but many did not read it that way. In a poll taken in an AOL chat room in which Thompson was discussing her photo, 80 percent of the participants thought that the message behind the picture was strength, not sex.

In the images of female athletes in question here, it is no longer simply the case of naive women who buy into a false sense of power when they pose for the camera and we need to educate them about their mistake. Instead, athletes already know the criticisms and reject them. They know exactly what they are doing. They know, and they do it all the same, both because they do not experience themselves as manipulated and powerless, and because like many others in the MTV generation who are fighting high debt-to-income ratios and diminished permanent job prospects, they see rightly visibility in the media as the only “real” outlet for the achievement of selfhood this culture offers.

According to Jeanette Lee, the women’s world billiard champion, who has a vibrant, sexual media presence, “I’ve heard numerous times about how many years I’ve brought the sport back by being too sexy. I completely disagree with their argument. Michael Jordan is incredibly sexy and you don’t hear other men complaining. I think it’s a very shortsighted view. Although some women disagree with my using my femininity to attract the media or whomever, I feel as though it’s brought quite a bit of attention to our sport that wouldn’t have been there otherwise.” (Jeanette Lee, February 14, 2001)

For Lee, as for other athletes, the bottom line is more name recognition and therefore more existence in the hyper real sense and since the sexualization of image is now a both-genders proposition, the critique of women as “sex objects” no longer seems to wholly describe what is happening. That critique further underestimates the relationship between cultural valuation, visibility, and marketing oneself that is part of the increasing dominance of the hyper real.

If conditions of hyper reality have become the dominant way post– Title IX athletes like Lee experience and understand the world, then it becomes more than an academic point that within the hyper real, the distinction between subject and object is not as clear. This point helps in revising the objectification thesis—the idea that female athletes, not male athletes, are reduced to their heterosexuality in dominant imagery. This imagery influences gendered experience.

In the current context, athletes, whether male or female, occupy this paradoxical space where they are both subject and object simultaneously, both active subjects who perform their sport and market their image, and commodified objects who are passive, who exist to be ogled in the classically “feminine” position of being seen. As Toby Miller writes of Olympic swimmer Duncan Armstrong, he “shifts between the unstable position of the body on display, defenseless before the gaze, and the administrative figure of shrewd self-commodification, in control.”(Miller, 2001) Furthermore, the idea of an athlete’s “total involvement combined with alienating detachment” can help us to understand the position of the contemporary female athlete and her willingness to pose pornographically. Like all athletes, she is both totally involved with and curiously detached from her body simultaneously. (Miller, 2001)

But there is a gender-specific modality here, even if it is not that of the objectification thesis. The second cultural context at issue is that the women posing in these “pornographic”, highly sexualized images are also part of a generation for whom, the right to play sport and be rewarded for it has always been part of their experiences. There are ways in which serious athletic training disassociates or alienates an athlete from her body, a way in which athletes, male or female, are taught to regard their bodies as productive machines from and of which they are both separate and in control, both completely immersed in and alienated from, and this experience is largely unique to the generation post–Title IX.

Serious athletic training paradoxically produces a profound (and only partially mistaken) sense of the self-authorship of one’s body. This sense is one of the benefits of sport; one gets beyond a culturally mediated sense of one’s body and tends to forget the cultural fetishization of female breasts and nudity because that isn’t how one experiences oneself. And one feels that, through one’s labor, one has made oneself.

Beyond the generational naiveté of which these athletes are sometimes accused, this is where the often expressed “I worked hard on this body and I’m proud of it!” statement comes from. The athlete is used to the contradictory experience where she is simultaneously connected to and disassociated from her body, making her more vulnerable to manipulation by images, precisely because she sees herself as invulnerable to and separate from them. Sport teaches self-possession that creates a sense of immunity from exploitation: “it’s my body and I’ve shaped it” is the rallying cry because the athlete thinks her body is her body. No matter how it is posed, she feels she has a strength that transcends cultural labels, even as her only possible reference point is precisely those labels.

Gabrielle Reece expresses these contradictory sentiments directly in her January 2001 cover and photo layout for Playboy. “Gabby’s conception of her body as a performance machine informs her attitude toward these photos,” the introductory text to her photo spread reads. “’I don’t think of the images as sexual,’ she says.’ Our goal was to shoot the body as a form…. No big deal. I’m not trying to say, “Check me out.” They’re more of a statement that a woman can be really powerful, really feminine, really natural and really confident and just put it out there…I wasn’t trying to create layers between myself and the pictures. The only things I had on were mascara and sun block. In a sense, they’re more me than any pictures I’ve ever taken.’” (Playboy, 2001)

To Reece, there is a distance between herself and her body, a “performance machine” that naked or not, in Playboy or not, is a “form,” a work of art, an achievement that one relates to as to a sculpture or to a painting. And yet she sees no “layers between myself and the pictures.” The Playboy spread to Gabby both is and is not her identity. And the pictures, it must be said, are not your standard “come hither” cheesecake. The other photo spreads in the same issue form a frothy (if chilling) contrast to the stark, serious, and breathtakingly beautiful (in any context) images of Reece. The images occupy different visual registers informed by different codes, showing again how difficult it is to make generalizations. Even in Playboy, all is not intrinsically bad.

Holly Bruback similarly argues that powerful physique brings about a sense of self-assurance: “It’s not sex appeal conferred on a woman, as it’s conferred on supermodels. The athlete has come by her powers of attraction honestly. It is a healthy type of fetishism that teaches us to appreciate women’s bodies in detail. Women, as they have gradually come into their own, have at last begun to feel at home in their bodies, which previously they were only renting.” (Bruback, 1996)

In the summer of 2001, Lisa Harrison of the WNBA’s Phoenix Mercury was voted the “Sexiest Babe in the WNBA” through a poll on the ESPN Magazine website. A lucrative offer to pose in Playboy followed, which Harrison, who made $36,000 a year in the WNBA, considered. The usual media attention and controversy followed, prompting Harrison to say, “ ‘it’s really sad that I get all this attention because of possibly being in Playboy as opposed to what I do on the court every day.’ She also said the lack of attention to the quality of women’s play bothers her more than being considered a sex object.” (

But Harrison conversely expressed a common assumption about this issue when she equated “femininity” with sex appeal: “Yes, it’s flattering to be recognized and being attractive – – you know, being a female athlete, because a lot of us aren’t perceived that way,” Harrison said. “So it is a nice compliment, but it’s far from being closed as far as any type of deal.” (

It’s nice to be recognized as feminine and not just being stereotyped as a tomboy (code for lesbian?). In this often repeated cliché, “masculinity” is defined as “being a tomboy, ” which conceivably means constructing oneself as an athlete who achieves regardless of her physical appearance. “Femininity” is defined as “being a babe”—in other words, successfully creating an image that viewers interpret as (hetero) sexually attractive. Femininity sex appeal, masculinity achievement, as if never the twain shall meet.

The ways in which sport can bolster a modern illusion of self-sovereignty, the self as the origin of its own meaning, help explain why female athletes might experience themselves this way and therefore feel immune to the sexual objectification. For those Title-IXers schooled in the vagaries of mass-mediated selfhood, athletes both are and are not their images, both are and are not the “cultural objects” we see.

The argument is that female athletes operate from a strong, centered sense of self that they have developed in athletics and hold on to that modern sense of self even as they negotiate the postmodern context of existence by and through image. “They look at us with almost unimaginably self-confident calm: they know that we admire them and they know we have good reason to do so,” Glenn W. Most writes, describing statues of Greek athletes from the fifth century B.C. “Standing before us naked causes them no embarrassment, for they have done this many times before and are proud of their bodies…they know what they do they do supremely well, better than anyone else. It does not even occur to them that we could want to do anything other than admire them.” (Most, 1998) The same sense of self-possession is operational in many female athletes today.

It leads to a third and more mundane explanation for why women pose for these pictures—the basic economics of gender inequity in sport. They want to play, women’s sports are still under funded, and “[hetero] sex sells.” In a 1999 report for the Women’s Sports Foundation, “Addressing the Needs of Female Professional and Amateur Athletes,” athletes on all levels reported that they play under conditions that are sometimes less than desirable. Issues like inadequate funding and gross pay inequities are part of most athletes’ everyday experiences. Except for a few sports, groups reported problems with basic funding in terms of travel, accommodations, and training expenses. In the words of one team, “I think as a team we all did our part—maybe we could get a little something back. Like room and board for a week.” (Heywood, 1999)

In 2000, the Matildas, the Australian national women’s soccer team, posed nude for a calendar to raise money for their sport, which was both chronically under-funded and unattended. The calendar raised a lot of money and attendance did go way up. Amy Acuff cited the same reasons for her notorious USA Track and Field calendar, as well as her frustration that after five years of record-breaking high-jump performances, still little or no attention was given to her sport. While critics accuse athletes like Acuff, who jumped in an Anne Klein–designed fur tube top for some of her meets, of setting women’s sports back, the athletes see themselves as making their sports marketable and therefore viable, a legitimate part of the cultural horizon where they have the opportunity to do what they love most: play their sport.

Clearly, we have a blending of contexts and responses here— the still-existent equity issues of second wave feminism, responded to by third wave feminist athletes who use third wave strategies to fight for equity in ways that for some second wavers only re-institute that inequity because the athletes are forced to sell their status as sexual objects in order to be athletes. But in a context where everything is sexualized and all athletes are commodities selling themselves to greater and lesser degrees, is there even such a thing as a non-commodified, non-sexualized space for sport? However, we need to still ask why men’s teams are usually not forced to make “hot body” calendars to raise money for equipment while this is much more typically a route of survival for women’s teams.

C)    Refutation of the Counterclaims
No matter how much the women athletes who pose or have posed nude, justify their acts, and whatever reasons they may extend, it remains debatable as to whether the sexuality of a woman can be taken as a personal accomplishment that can be cashed and marketed. Despite the fact that female athletes voluntarily pose for nude and pornographic images, the motive behind such acts remain to be acceptance by men of the society, rendering them as objects of fantasy and desire. This actually makes them lose their real identity, their actual self, their true recognition that is their athletic skills and empowerment.

Besides this tremendous loss, there are other religious, social and cultural factors that discourage such nudity of female athletes. Even when it comes to national team uniforms, and cheerleaders’ attire, it is objectionable to many races on account of religious and/or socio-cultural grounds. Not to mention what harmful affects such pornographic images of athletes cast on the minds if young girls who look up to these sport stars and emulate them.

D)    Evidence For Argument
Various scholars as well as athletes themselves have given many reasons for justification of sexualization of female athletes. I, however, disagree with any such notion that may support the concept of objectifying the athletic women just because of their gender. In this section, I provide argument by various authors and sources to extend and support my assertion.

Helene A. Shugart argues, “The sexualization of female athletes by the media is merely one of many ways in which women’s sports have been devalued and marginalized historically. As noted, many scholars have attested to the fact that mediated coverage of women’s sports is fundamentally hegemonic, a function accomplished in myriad ways–for instance, relative dearth of recognition, focus on appearance, reification of the traditional, familiar roles of female athletes, characterizations of weakness, and linguistic sexism.” (Shugart, 2003)

Contemporary gender codes cannot be easily polarized as they once were in that there is a definite trend in the ideal image repertoire that emphasizes male femininity and female masculinity. The appearance of such images points to a larger cultural shift, a shift that must be taken into account, though it most often is not, by our models of critical analysis. As Toby Miller writes, “the commodification of sports stars across the 1990’s has destabilized the hegemonic masculinity thesis.” (Miller, 2001) Miller reads this change as one potentially positive but unintended consequence of the heightened commodification characteristic of late capitalism and its voracious need for new markets.

These challenges and inconsistencies make sports exciting at a political and analytical level. “Clearly, sports continue to be a space of hetero-normative, masculinist white power, but they are undergoing immense change, with sex at the center. Objectification is a fact of sexual practice within capitalism. Excoriating evaluations of women’s bodies has long been the pivotal node of this process, with the implied spectator a straight male. Now, slowly in many cases but rapidly in others, the process of body commodification through niche targeting has identified men’s bodies as objects of desire and gay men and straight women as consumers, while there are signs of targeting lesbian desire. Masculinity, understood as a set of dominant practices of gendered power, is no longer the exclusive province of men as spectators, consumers, or agents. “Female masculinity” can now be rearticulated as a prize rather than a curse.” (Miller, 2001)

The shifting context that Miller describes here, especially that of male objectification alongside the idealization of female masculinity, makes the standard objectification thesis at least partially inadequate. For part of the context that informs the debate about female images is that female athletes in the generations after Title IX have come to redeem the erasure of individual women that the old Playboy model of sexualization performed, rewriting the symbology of the female body from empty signifiers of ready heterosexual access, blank canvases, or holes on which to write one’s hetero-normative desires, to the active, self-present sexuality of a body that signifies achievement and power and is in that sense “masculinized” or “queered” if you follow the traditional equation of masculinity with power and hetero-normativity. The athletic body, when coded as athletic, can redeem female sexuality and make it visible as an assertion of female presence, and make that presence amenable to a range of sexualities.

Of course, bodies, muscular or not, can and are coded as vulnerable and/or granting heterosexual access. But it’s more complicated than the simple reduction of a woman to a “piece of ass.” As Susan Bordo writes, the old feminist fear of “objectification” seems inadequate. The notion of women-as-objects suggests the reduction of women to “mere” bodies, when actually what is going on is far more disturbing than that. Often, features of women’s bodies are arranged in representations precisely in order to suggest a particular attitude—dependence or seductiveness or vulnerability, for example. We’re not talking about the reduction of women to mere bodies, but about what those bodies express. (Bordo, 1997)

Victoria Carty proposes, “Although posing nude may be perceived as an act of empowerment, it is inherently tied to institutional arrangements. When women explicitly promote and play into the image of the glamorous, sexy, and objectified female body to gain financial rewards and prestige on the basis of their looks, they may hinder institutional and societal advances for women as a minority group. Title IX was designed to give women access to resources and opportunities to participate in sport. At the professional level, this can provide financial rewards and prestige–based presumably on merit. However, when women use their recognition as athletes for personal benefit, not for athletic skill but because men find them attractive, this may serve as a drawback to the liberal feminist agenda.” (Carty, 2005)

            The Brandi Chastain photos in Gear of Chastain crouched naked around a soccer ball does express triviality and vulnerability, not strength. The Anna Kournikova photos, despite the fact that she is clothed, express seductiveness, triviality, and vulnerability given the facial expressions of Kournikova with imploring eyes and pouting, pursed lips, and a body language that is withdrawing and inviting rather than assertive. The notorious track calendar shot of Amy Acuff expresses feminine triviality and heterosexual availability, with her striped socks signifying little-girl vulnerability while her Kate Moss–like body stretched naked on the locker room bench suggests fragility and easy access.

Given the bodily stances and direct gazes of the Olympic swimmers that appeared in Women’s Sports and Fitness, the Annie Leibovitz draped-with-a-flag photo of Dara Torres, Angel Martino, Amy Van Dyken, and Thompson expresses a self-conscious parody of exploitative shots, and what Judith Butler (1998) would call “gender performativity”: Martino with a traditionally male crossed-arms-revealing-big-biceps pose, Torres with a cynical hereI-am, whatever, look, Thompson with a more femmy side shot of butt and leg, and Van Dyken with a smart-ass expression that can only comment on how posed the whole thing is. Taken together, we can see that the images are not easily reducible to a single formula.

III) My Argument
A)    Nudity of Athletes discourages certain groups from viewing and participating in Sports
Physical activity is essentially a healthy workout, which when played as sport, attracts huge audience and great many sponsors. Athletes become stars and idols of emulation for countless number of people. Female athletes have upsurge and surfaced on the scene of national and international level sports only since recent few decades. On account of gender parity and equal opportunity rights, women have been granted the chance of proving their immense athletic skills ranging through a wide array of sports. This has encouraged young girls and women to consider physical activity and sports seriously.

            Just like fashion models and movie stars, sports stars are idealized tremendously. Many young girls and women try to follow their footsteps to become as powerful, muscular, strong and successful as these sports stars. They read about them, their lives, their play, their routine and workout in order to attain the matching level of strength and charisma. In such ways, these sports stars become a continuous source of inspiration for the female students and young women striving to be as sporty and athletic. Their parents also encourage them to follow the footsteps of these strong and active women who are making name in the world of sports.

            In such a scenario, if these sports stars start sexualizing their image by way of posing nude for media, they are likely to disfigure their established image. What inspiration can be drawn from such pornographic images of sport stars? How these athletes can ever maintain their reputation and standing of a powerful and skilful sports woman, for which they have initially been accepted and admired? It is but an utter disappointment to watch them sporting themselves in an unsporting manner.

            Speaking of USA alone, there are numerous ethnic groups belonging to different religions, forming a notable proportion of the total population. Islam, for example, sets very strict standards for its followers, including the dress code. It does not allow women to reveal themselves except for their faces and hands. Young Muslim girls are hence discouraged from participating in sports and athletes because of uniform requirements. More so, even if they wish to watch sports and entertain themselves, they get to come across the nude images of their favorite sports stars, bringing shame.

            Islam encourages physical activity, “Islam, in its original form, was innately concerned with the development and maintenance of spiritual and physical strength, regardless of gender (De Knop, Theeboom, Wittock, & De Martelaer, 1996). A modern aphorism about PA–anyone who has a healthy body is secure and able to meet daily tasks and own the world–is attributed to Muhammad (Sfeir, 1985).” (Kahan, 2003) However given the increasingly spread out sexualization of female athletes stripping them off of not only their clothing, but their dignity and individuality as well, discourages Muslim girls and those belonging to many other ethnic groups from viewing and/or participating in sports.

B)    Sexualization of Female Athletes is Not Fair To Them
It is a well-established fact that it takes a huge amount of hard work and dedication to attain a body that is well-built and suited for athletes and sports. Particularly, in case of women, who are not very commonly seen or known to engage into body building or athletic activities, such kind of physical activity becomes even more of triumph. The reason is that these women not only undergo immense physical pressure, but mental strain as well.

            Commonly women and girls are taken as objects of beauty and desire. They are considered inferior in terms of intelligence, strength, intellect and power. “In particular, women have been and continue to be, in large part, portrayed as subservient; dependent; other-defined and -oriented; and physically and mentally deficient, explicitly or implicitly in comparison with men (see, e.g., Modleski, 1984; Radway, 1984; Tuchman, 1978). A primary feature of these mediated representations is the objectification and sexualization of women, particularly to the extent that they are fetishised and displayed, rendered as objects of the male gaze (e.g., Mayne, 1984; Mulvey, 1989; Wolf, 1991)….

… Moreover, many critics note that the relatively recent advent of apparently feminist sensibilities in the contemporary media in fact camouflages subtle strategies that undermine those ideas, predicating them instead on patriarchal terms (e.g., Dow, 1992; Faludi, 1991; Shugart, Waggoner, & Hallstein, 2001). Perhaps not surprisingly, these sexist representations also permeate media coverage of sports.” (Shugart, 2003)

            Despite of all such disapproval, when women actually go ahead and prove them in the realm of sports, which is an extremely demanding line of work, they must be supported, portrayed, admired and appreciated for what they do, not for their aesthetics. These women work extensively to attain the kind of bodies they function, all in name of athlete and sports, not to pose for nude images. If they are to be endorsed for a particular brand, they should be posed in a way that asserts their image essentially as an athlete, not as an object of sex or desire.

            Even when we see any such images of our female athletes, their bodies less covered with clothing, it is mostly so that the intention was not to ignite desire or provoke any temptation in the eyes or heart of viewers. In essence, those athletes are merely showing what they do, physical work out. They are expecting admiration for their ‘form’ not inviting gazes for the ‘sex appeal’ that they may exude. It is utterly unfair to view them as thing of beauty in sexualized terms, when in fact they should be viewed as thing of splendor attributing to their well-built athletic bodies.

            “In a 1999 Gear advertisement for Nike, Chastain posed nude (except for her Nike cleats). She explained that she was showing off the muscles and toned body she had earned through intense physical training and that her appearance in the photo did not objectify her body. Rather, it was a statement of athleticism and strength. When asked to comment, she responded, ‘Hey, I ran my butt off for this body. I’m proud of it.’…

… Jenny Thompson, heralded by many as the greatest female swimmer ever, posed topless for Sports Illustrated in the summer of 2000. She strategically covered her breasts with two clenched fists, and declared that the purpose of the photo was to show off her muscles rather than to promote any kind of sex appeal. Like Chastain, she described her pose as about strength, fitness, and the beauty of muscles, not about sex. Both claimed their bodies were not objects to be scrutinized as a commodity of desire but to be respected for what they had accomplished…

…. Chastain and Thompson are blond, white, and physically fit females–the ideal image of male fantasy. Because they fit the traditional notion of femininity across these lines, their muscles are not seen as threatening. They are afforded the luxury of being perceived as both strong and attractive. Gear and Sports Illustrated target a predominantly male readership base. Though nudity may be empowering for Chastain and Thompson as individuals, this type of pose is situated perfectly within the confines of what the male gaze deems as “appropriately feminine.” From a socialist feminist perspective, it also generates revenue for the male-dominated segment of the magazine industry.” (Carty, 2005)

Another thing that I have observed while researching for this paper is that the female athletes are not accepted by the masses unless they have created a stir by displaying their sexual side. Great and skilful athletes perform splendidly well and continue to do so for years, still manage to grab diminutive media attention as well as that of masses. Once they show off their bodies in sexual manner, pose nude and seductively, they get poured with contracts, endorsements, not to mention the amount of recognition and fame that they attain. This is a depressing fact that needs to be attended. The mindset of the sports audience and the society as a whole still need to be changed in a way that they admit the presence of female athletes in their original and actual context.

When sports women are portrayed in sexualized manner, they begin to be recognized as ‘babes’ instead of ‘sporty’. In my opinion, this kind of recognition and identification of these great and skilful women is an offense to their attributes. These women are too good to be termed as babes or dolls. What they do is far greater and superior than what their sexual image portrays. They are not merely a physical entity seeking appreciation from the gazes of opposite genders. Nor are they expression of sex appeal on display. They are much more than that all.

Female athletes demonstrate sense of power, control, self-discipline, self-esteem, and strength both of body and mind, willpower and sense of worth. All this and more makes a female athlete stand out, and must not be given up in trade of sexualized image by way of posing nude in seductive manner inviting media attention and of masses. It is all but fair to these great women.

It seems that our female athletes who go ahead for posing nude and appearing as sex symbols in media do so because they are not given any other choice. “Earlier this year, the controversy was over the skimpy uniforms for our female Olympic Beach Volleyball players. This issue became heated because our athletes wanted to control how much, or how little, of their body they showed off rather than being dictated into skimpy, revealing, uncomfortable 2-piece uniforms. Helen Lenskyj, a sociology professor at the University of Toronto was recently quoted as saying it is a “sad commentary” on the state of funding for women’s sports when they are forced to sell nude photos of themselves in order to raise funds and exposure for their sport.” (Lawrence, 2003)

I again assert my viewpoint that this is highly unfair to the athlete women and does no justice to their identification and reputation. Taking forward the point highlighted in the preceding paragraph, “Some athletes do not necessarily pose nude but still perpetuate the sexualization of female athletes by emphasizing their femininity over their accomplishments as competitors. For example, Anna Kournikova was, until very recently, the highest-earning player in women’s tennis. She is worth over ten million dollars in endorsements, though she has never won a major tournament. And she aggressively accentuates her sex appeal over her athletic ability. In a commercial for Berlei sports bras in which she was recently featured, the tagline read, ‘Only the ball should bounce.’…

… Kournikovas’s ability to profit from her sensuality and eroticism highlights the importance of marketability and how corporate interests have a hand in promoting certain gendered representations. To acquire sponsors, female athletes are pressured to present an image not only of health, vitality, and physical attractiveness but also of feminine beauty and obedience to traditionally feminine standards of behavior.” (Carty, 2005)

            Such a disappointing note to make and point to ponder, how easily and extensively such grand figures of skill are misused and manipulated. Even today after so much effort made and legislation passed for gender equality and feminist rights, still sports women have to make such use of their bodies like posing nude in order to raise funds and recognition, when they should be provided for as well as guarded.

C)    Nude Images of Female Athletes has Created Confusion about their Identification
When sports women appear in pornographic images, highlighting their femininity and sexual side, they essentially begin to lose who they actually are. Their appearances with barely any clothing on in magazines, advertisements, commercials, Internet etc. has to a great extent rendered them something far less than their athletic self. Their nude images hardly differ from those of other fashion models and showbiz celebrities. One can barely make out what the images are trying to convey.

            It can be accepted that these images were aimed to depict their athletic traits such as powerful and strong limbs and shoulders, overpowering sense of control and massive muscles. But what these images end up portraying is far from any of the above mentioned traits and one is left rather confused, thinking if these women actually came into the realm of sports to sell their bodies and be an icon of sex appeal, and use it to help get recognition through gaining endorsements and contracts.

            A study about how people viewed such female athletes who pose nude and what they actually perceived from such images revealed these facts: “one female participant shrewdly noted about the female athlete whose coverage centered on her attractiveness, ‘If I were her, I would be offended that this article talked more about my physical appearance than my talent–a typical attitude towards women. They can’t resist talking about your appearance.’ A male participant similarly remarked, ‘If this was done in an edition of Cosmopolitan I might have liked it, but it told me nothing about her as an athlete.’ Yet another male participant said, ‘I wonder what her priorities are … is she using the ‘swimming thing’ to parlay a sweet modeling career?’” (Giuliano & Knight, 2001)

            When female athletes extensively appear in the media as sexual objects radiating provocative stares and glances, their actual identification diminishes and sex symbolism surfaces up. People remember what they see the most, and pornographic imagery is what people repeatedly like to view and hence remember for a longer period of time. The nude images of female athletes settle in the minds of viewers as ‘hot babes’ and the real credentials of these women fade away.

            To support this opinion of mine, I again quote Victoria Carty, “Print coverage of female accomplishments exhibit a similar trend to appropriate images of women in sport as sexy and seductive. For example, the 1999 edition of The National Sports Review, which featured the women’s World Cup championship team as the top-ranked “athletes of the year,” had a separate section that featured “Divas in Sport.” This section included tennis players Anna Kournikova and the Williams’ sisters, volleyball player Gabrielle Reece, boxer Mia St. John, basketball player Lisa Leslie, and soccer player Brandi Chastain. The segment on Kournikova lists the “top 10 reasons why we love Anna.” Nine of the reasons refer to sex appeal and fashionable dress, and one state, because “she plays pretty good tennis.” This is the only reference to her athletic ability. References to femininity are also replete in the write-up on Reece, who is a former model. She is described as a “cover girl,” “fitness queen,” “fashion model,” and “athlete as Cosmo Girl.” Although she was named the Top Offensive Player on the four-person tour of the pro beach circuit two times, this is never mentioned.” (Carty, 2005)

IV) Conclusion
A)    Restatement of My Argument
Female athletes are women of substance, who work real hard and strive too much to attain a position that brings them name as well as fame, not to mention the inner satisfaction of accomplishment. These women make a difference in the populace of their gender. However the manipulation and exploitation of these great women by way of capturing them nude, sexualizing their bodies for raising money and commodifying them as objects of desire and beauty does no justice to them at all. This has major unhealthy social implications.

B)    Plan of Action
Female Athletes must increasingly be symbolized as healthy and strong women rather than as sex symbols. Their femininity can be maintained and highlighted even when keeping them dressed and reasonably covered. In a society where homosexuality is widely prevalent, it becomes difficult for female athletes to maintain a hetero sexually attractive image, as their strong muscular bodies are considered less feminine and more masculine-like. Mindsets of people need to be established asserting that it is entirely normal for a woman to work out, body build, play sports and still be a woman, completely feminine.

             Dress codes and team uniforms should be reasonably designed so that not only the athletes are comfortable in those and are confident of their appearance, the viewers too may remain focused on the game itself rather than ‘checking out’ the players. There should be adequate funding for women sports so that they are not forced to pose nude for magazines, calendars whatsoever in their drive to raise funds.

Moreover, sufficient promotion and media attention should be given to support and sponsor the events of women sports, games and Olympics, so that no athletes’ pornography becomes a source of promoting strategy for women sports. There should be a defined set of plans and budget for the training and accommodation of female athletes, as well as for the promotion, execution and sponsorships of women sports. A further effort for sanctifying the currently exploited image of female athletes should be made.


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