Sports Magazine Covers Sexualize Female Athletes

New research finds women sports stars show more skin, and smile more frequently.
By Tom Jacobs ,

A man views the three covers of the 2016 Sports Illustrated Swimsuit Issue on a smart phone on February 14th, 2016.

(Photo: Frazer Harrison/Getty Images)

Male athletes are tough and determined. Female athletes are sexy and approachable.

Or so you might believe, if you pick up on the visual cues offered by America's premiere sports magazines.

Ben Wasike of the University of Texas–Rio Grande Valley analyzed every cover through 2016 of Sports Illustrated and ESPN The Magazine. Confirming earlier research, he found women are ridiculously underrepresented.

But he also found fundamental differences in how men and women sports stars are photographed, and described.

"Women appearing on the covers were likelier than men to be portrayed in a sexualized manner, in terms of skin exposure and suggestive poses," he writes in the journal Journalism. "Men were likelier to be portrayed in active poses."

Wasike examined all Sports Illustrated covers from its founding in 1954 to 2016, and those of ESPN The Magazine for 1998 to 2016. Portraits of athletes on the cover were analyzed in a variety of ways, including skin exposure, facial expression, and whether they are performing an activity or captured while still.

While we celebrate the remarkable accomplishments of Serena Williams and Lindsey Vonn, we still want to see them smile.

He also noted whether the athlete was posed "in a sexually suggestive manner." This involved such looks as "arms spread overhead, lying down, lips spread, lips pouted, sensually embracing a partner, suggestive eye look, and so on."

He discovered that "women are likelier than men to be sexualized on sports magazine covers." What's more, this is true not only of the images themselves, but also the accompanying text, which "tended to emphasize gender when portraying women, while minimizing their athletic prowess."

"Women were overwhelmingly more likely to be portrayed in sexual poses than men," he reports. "These differences remained significant even in the absence of swimsuit and body-issue covers, which are sexualized by default."

In addition, "women were twice as likely to be depicted with more skin than men. In the absence of the swimsuit and body-issue covers, the gender differences lessened, but were still significant."

Wasike also found signs of more subtle biases. "Men were significantly more likely to be shown in active poses than women," he reports.

In contrast, women were far more likely to be photographed smiling: This was true of 61 percent of the female athletes, compared to only 28 percent of males. As a result, men were more likely to be "depicted with facial expressions that could be read as having serious intent, such as a determination to win."

These results echo those of a 2011 study of Rolling Stone covers, which found female pop stars are far more likely to be shown in sexualized poses than their male counterparts.

The positive news is that the percentage of sports-magazine covers featuring women, alone or as part of a group shot, has increased gradually since 2001. While there is much year-to-year variation, it has essentially returned to 1950s levels after a big dip in the 1980s and '90s.

But this research suggests that, even when they make the cover, female athletes are depicted in such a way to make them less threatening to male readers. While we celebrate the remarkable accomplishments of Serena Williams and Lindsey Vonn, we still want to see them smile.

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