How responsible are women for their sexualisation in the media?

// 18 March 2012

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This is a guest post by Elin Weiss & Hennie Weiss

A recent article in Aftonbladet (with an accompanying video that can be viewed here) revealed that the female hockey team the Vancouver Ice-O-Topes are doing a half naked (and quite highly sexualised) photo shoot in order to financially support their team. Their reason: “because they love hockey so much”. The Vancouver Ice-O-Topes are, however, not the first team to do so. For example, in 2010 a New Zealand women’s rugby team produced a nude calendar in order to draw more women to the sport and to disprove the myth that rugby is “unfeminine” (implying that a good way to prove one’s femininity is to take your clothes off to reveal that your body is in fact feminine, whatever that means). In 2012 the Bristol University netball players also took their clothes of in order to supplement their sponsorship. Other sports women who have posed in little or no clothing in order to promote themselves include female high jumpers, boxers, swimmers, volleyball players, figure skaters, kayakers, tennis players, and many others. But, the sexualisation of female athletes in calendars and photo shoots does not appear to now be enough. In recent years, an American Lingerie Football League (LFL) has been established in which women play tackle football in their underwear.

We have often thought about how women themselves support the ideals present today by lending themselves to sexualisation. Without women willing to model for highly sexualised or half naked photo shoots, these images would probably not exist. Obviously, not all women perceive the sexualisation of women as a problem, but we feel comfortable stating that many women do feel that the expectations placed on women’s appearance and the persistent and rampant sexualisation of women is troublesome, irritating and at times even depressing.

The question we as women have to ask ourselves is: How responsible are women for their sexualisation in the media? Can we blame the media, patriarchy, the advertisement companies, and so on without placing some blame, or at least questioning our own involvement in the stereotypical ideals that are presented in the media together with the often highly sexualised and sexist images of women? Should we also stop idolising women who lend themselves to sexualisation and thereby support and encourage these ideals? These are tricky questions to deal with because owning one’s involvement in the promotion of sexual ideals of women and a certain appearance is uncomfortable. Women should of course be able to freely express their sexuality. However, do these types of glamour pictures express female sexual empowerment or do they simply provide another method to gain attention or to make money through the sexualisation of women?s bodies?

Secondly, how are women’s sports ever going to be taken seriously when these women draw attention not to their skills but to their bodies and their appearance? Sure, an underwear calendar is going to draw attention to these teams but the focus will not be on the players and their skills but on which woman is more attractive or how attractive the team is overall. It is true that female athletes often receive fewer endorsements, and less media attention, than male athletes and therefore may look for other venues to increase financial support. Due to the sexualisation of women in our culture, appearing in calendars and photo shoots may be a profitable way to increase revenue. But we have to ask ourselves if the sexualised attention takes away from the credibility of the sport, while depicting female bodies as sex objects rather than strong, competent bodies that deserve attention because of their skills and dedication. How come these talented women resort to nudity and using their bodies in order to promote their sport, which is so unrelated to nudity, appearance and attractiveness? Is taking one’s clothes off really female sexual empowerment or is it just another way of gaining popularity through exploitation of the female body since these types of photos are in no way new or inventive, or even aimed at a female audience (despite what the players in the New Zealand rugby team might claim)?

Opinions may differ considerably concerning this issue but we feel that these half nude shoots are in many ways telling people that nudity and exploitation leads to success and is a good path to explore in order to increase popularity. It becomes a sort of attention seeking behaviour that is in many ways detrimental to how all women are viewed. It also promotes beliefs in the biological differences between men and women by pointing to women’s bodies, not as strong, but as sexual objects that are foremost attractive and sexualised before being competent, strong, fit or successful.

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Elin Weiss has a Master’s degree in Women’s Studies. Hennie Weiss is currently pursuing a Master’s degree in Sociology. Their interests include feminism, gender, the sexualisation of women and the portrayal of women in media.

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Public domain image: Girls ice hockey team 1921 from Wikimedia Commons.

Comments From You

Alasdair // Posted 18 March 2012 at 5:48 pm

“in 2010 a New Zealand women’s rugby team produced a nude calendar in order to draw more women to the sport and to disprove the myth that rugby is “unfeminine” ”

That makes me sad. What I like about women’s rugby players is that they’re about as far from the social stereotype of what a woman should be as it’s possible to get!

That said, it’s a mistake to blame the women first before blaming ‘the media, patriarchy, the advertisement companies, and so on’. Most, if not all, women’s sports remain minority interests that go mostly ignored by the media, so I can understand how their players might want to do anything that will help them get some attention. No, posing for naked photos is really not the best way to do it… but if they’ve tried other approaches and that’s really the only way they’ll get the media to notice them, it’s the media who should be ashamed more than the players.

Shadow // Posted 19 March 2012 at 10:46 am

Hold Malestream media accountable for promoting lie women are men’s disposable sexualised commodities. Male Supremacy always blames women when in fact it is men who are the ones clinging tightly on to their pseudo male right to socio-economic power. Women’s sport remains marginalised and trivialised as ‘just pretty women prancing around for male sexual entertainment.’ Then add the fact profit is the motive for coercing/telling women in sport ‘you won’t achieve your ambitions unless you turn yourself in to a disposable sexualised commodity.’

Focus on those with the real power – namely malestream media because this is the tool of male supremacist system. Constantly ask the question ‘why are not men in sport photographed wearing skimpy knickers which shows their genitals?’ Why are males in sport treated as autonomous human beings and idolised whereas women in sport are treated as men’s disposable sexual service stations? It’s not the women stupid – it is male supremacist system and this system benefits men and ensures women continue to be portrayed as non-human men’s sexual service stations.

Cycleboy // Posted 19 March 2012 at 8:03 pm

‘why are not men in sport photographed wearing skimpy knickers which shows their genitals?’

Actually, they are. I’ve seen quite a few sportsmen showing off a buff torso or skin-tight underwear. Of course, you can argue that that is just as inappropriate, but it doesn’t alter the fact that men’s bodies are used to advertise products, just as women’s are.

Francesca Hughes // Posted 20 March 2012 at 12:18 pm

@Cycleboy: I agree completely. There are masses of nude female calendars, etc., but there are also plenty of sports MEN who appear in nude photo shoots and calendars too.

In fact, ever since Calendar Girls there seems to be lots of small, local initiatives where people get their kit off to fundraise.

I think it’s all a vicious circle though: media and advertising know that “sex sells” so they don’t want to change anything for fear of losing profits, and sportspeople see that it’s a way to gain media attention or make money (especially important in the current economy). I’m not so bothered by the photo shoots which support the sports, but more about things like the Lingerie Football League. That just sounds like mud wrestling for the 21st century.

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