An exercise in application of a line of thought.
From a recount of a study in the Journal of Applied Developmental Psychology (click through for full citation. Since I have no access to the actual journal I’m taking for granted the recount is accurately representing the study’s results).
258 US school girls and 171 female undergrads were studied to determine how they feel when they see sexualised images of female athletes. The three conditions: female athletes in a sporting context in sporting attire, female athletes in a sexualised context in lack of attire, and magazine models in bikinis.
The key finding is that the girls and undergrads who viewed the sexualised athlete images tended to say they admired or were jealous of the athletes’ bodies, they commented on the athletes’ sexiness, and they evaluated their own bodies negatively. Some also said they found the images inappropriate. The participants who viewed the bikini-clad glamour models responded similarly, except they rarely commented on the inappropriateness of the images, as if they’d come to accept the portrayal of women in that way. Daniels said that sexy images of female athletes “are no more likely to prompt viewers to reflect on their own physical activity involvement or appreciation of sport than sexualised model images.”
By contrast, participants who viewed the female athletes in a sporting context tended to comment on the athletes’ determination, passion and commitment; they wrote about feeling motivated to perform sport; and they reflected on their own sporting participation or sports they followed. “Infusing more performance images of female athletes into the media may be helpful in promoting physical activity among girls and young women,” Daniels said. “Currently, female athletes are largely absent from magazines targeted at teen girls.”
The above stops short of linking sexualized imagery with negative self-evaluation, although most media would consider it sufficient enough to misrepresent that it does. The results are interpreted to support increased usage of female athletes portrayed in a sporting capacity in media, which is what the study’s author wants to be true.
However the problem is not the nature of the image, but the propensity of the girls and undergrads to consistently measure themselves against the images. Whether that image is sexualized or athletic is irrelevant, it’s the pursuit of the ideal the image represents that is problematic. While the images are of real people and thus are not an abstract ideal, the variance of our individual capacities might as well make it so. What’s attainable for a professional athlete may not be so for a student, be it due to genetic or physical or economic or just plain time limitations.
You’re not supposed to think that way though. You can do anything, right? If Mia Hamm is doing it, why aren’t you? Get out there on the field, girl. Just don’t think about why you’re really there.
It’s tempting to throw your hands up and say, “Well, so what? It’s getting kids outside and exercising.” But at what point does using a brain hack to self-motivate cease to be productive and start to be undermining? If you’re using externally generated images to motivate, then it’s a short step to using externally defined standards to validate. Or maybe you’re already there, which is why the images work.
Or, to put it more succinctly and in a way Google will no doubt tell me was said elsewhere before, if you think either the abundance of sexualized images or lack of athletic images of women is the problem, you’re in The Matrix.