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Our Bodies in Motion

Who's on the Wheaties Box?: The Politics of Sports

Title IX of the Education Amendments of 1972 mandated that U.S. educational institutions that receive federal funds provide opportunities for women to participate in sports equal to those available for men. Since then, generations of women have come of age playing team sports in school.

Yet in many instances, women are still denied opportunities or treated as second-class citizens. According to the Women’s Sports Foundation, U.S. men receive $133 million more in college athletic scholarships then women.7 Professional tennis players who are female make thirty-seven cents for every dollar their male peers earn. Only 16 percent of collegiate athletic directors are women, and 8 percent of media coverage of sports focuses on women.8 Some high schools schedule girls basketball games on weekday afternoons and the boys games on Friday at eight p.m. If you want to advocate for change, the Women’s Sports Foundation is an excellent resource.

Female athletes are successful thanks to what their bodies can do, not how their bodies look. But all too often the mainstream media portray sportswomen as sex objects. While male athletes are more likely to be photographed in sporty action shots, female athletes might pose in revealing outfits or nothing at all.9 The media fall in love with female athletes who are sexy or who are willing to vamp for the camera; these women, not surprisingly, get more news coverage and endorsements, even if they aren’t the best in their field.

This fact was not lost on Sepp Blatter, president of the international soccer governing body known as FIFA (Federation Internationale de Football Association). He suggested that female soccer players wear tighter uniforms to attract more television viewers, as well as fashion and beauty advertisers.10 The Ladies Professional Golf Association gave their players makeovers for similar reasons.11

It's not news that sex sells, especially images of sexy women. But our culture’s attempt to turn female sports stars into pinups might also be due to discomfort with strong women. When soccer player Brandi Chastain posed naked for Gear magazine, with only a well-placed ball for cover, male readers may have felt more turned on than threatened by the fact that she could beat them at soccer.

The WNBA, women’s World Cup soccer, and the success of individual female athletes represent great strides toward equality. But as women’s sports increase in popularity, some questions remain. Who gets the product endorsements--the out lesbian tennis professional or the elfin gymnast? Is it significant that Viagra is a sponsor of the National Football League? Why does a Major League Baseball player make $25 million? And why are many of us happy to watch women’s elite sports competitions from the comfort of our couch, but unlikely to exercise regularly ourselves?

These questions give us much to think about when we lace up our shoes and go for a run or start the next set of bench presses.

Excerpted from the 2005 edition of Our Bodies, Ourselves, © 2005, Boston Women's Health Book Collective.

7. 1999-2000 NCAA Gender-Equity Report, Women's Sports Foundation.
8.  Ibid.
9. Glenda Crank Holste, Women Athletes Often De- based by Media Images, Women's eNews, October 17, 2000.
10. Brief Loss of Blatter Control, The Washington Post, January 17, 2004, D2.
11.  Ian O'Connor, LPGA Is Going for the Pinups, USA Today, July 24, 2002, 3C.


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