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(Un)covering Athletes
When women appear in sports magazines, it’s all about sex

by Kristen Allbritton

Recent years have brought great advances in women’s sports. The landmark Title IX legislation banning sexual discrimination in schools has given a tremendous boost to female athletes at the collegiate level. And professionally, they have come into their own in basketball (the WNBA is now a fixture in many cities and on TV), auto racing (Danica Patrick has demonstrated that women can compete successfully in the Indy Racing League), golf, tennis, track and field, soccer and other sports—even boxing. Yet this progress is not reflected in the way women athletes continue to be depicted in magazines. As you can see in these photographs, they are still sexualized and gender-marked. Why is this the case? And what are its effects? We asked some sociologists, and their comments accompany the pictures.

“Women have been, more and more, entering spheres that were primarily men’s spheres,” said Margaret Duncan of the University of Wisconsin at Milwaukee. According to the Women’s Sports Foundation, nearly 40 percent of all sports spectators are currently women, although they spend more time watching men’s sports events than women’s.

Women in the athletic world can be role models for young girls participating in sports. However, said Duncan, “It’s probably not very healthy for girls to be sexualized, and for them to grow up thinking their value lies in their attractiveness.” This sexualization has been characteristic of magazine coverage for many years, and it will not change overnight, but sociologists and women’s sports foundations are working to raise awareness of it and, in time, to produce change.

Possibly the most glamorized female athlete of all time is tennis player Anna Kournikova. This 2000 Sports Illustrated cover is one of the few instances in the magazine’s history when a woman has been featured on the cover alone. The cover line, “Advantage, Kournikova,” is unintentionally ironic, considering that the Russian player has never won a major tournament. In this kittenish pose, the score seems to be closer to love-40. In the photo spread inside the magazine, only two of 11 shots show her in action on the tennis court. Sociologist Margaret Duncan: “SI has a particular viewpoint of the world, which is of course, very macho. That macho sensibility translates into featuring women in ways that sexualize them.”


This picture of Joanie Laurie, the former WWE wrestler and bodybuilder known as “Chynna Doll,” appeared in Ironman Magazine. The photo spread features shots of her seductively posing in bikinis, as in this picture, but it also tries to legitimize her efforts by showing her in workout leotards, pumping iron. All the shots were obviously posed to highlight her “Come here, big boy” gaze. Michael Messner of the University of Southern California: “They think that if they can package women athletes in ways that are familiar, as sex objects, that they will entertain and sell.”


ESPN: The Magazine seems to be an equal-opportunity sexualizer, treating men in the same way as women. In this Danica Patrick cover, there’s no way to tell that Patrick is a IndyCar series racing driver and not a hot model in a leather jacket. But Sue Hovey, senior deputy managing editor at ESPN: The Magazine, points out this was a double-cover issue. “If you note the other cover,” she says, “it shows Dwayne Wade wearing no clothing at all.” She explains that they choose to portray athletes, male and female, out of uniform to show them in a different light from what can be seen on the courts or fields. Ann Gunkel, Director of Gender Studies at Columbia College of Chicago: “There is this narrow opportunity of press and promotion. An athlete’s career, particularly for women, is very limited, but they must take advantage of it.”


In 1999, Newsweek featured the United States women’s soccer team’s World Cup victory on its cover. What picture did they choose? Brandi Chastain’s infamous sports-bra moment, of course. And the cover line they used, “Girls Rule!,” gender-marks her. Gender-marking differs from sexualization in that it attaches a gender tag to a sport, which, some sociologists assert, belittles the women. Margaret Duncan: “With [such] a qualifier, there’s always the unspoken, which is that this is only women’s sports, not sports in general.”