Academic journal article Research Quarterly for Exercise and Sport

"It's Cheesy When They Smile:" What Girl Athletes Prefer in Images of Female College Athletes

Academic journal article Research Quarterly for Exercise and Sport

"It's Cheesy When They Smile:" What Girl Athletes Prefer in Images of Female College Athletes

Article excerpt

Building on previous research in which we provided an opportunity for female college athletes to construct their own photographic portrayals, this study explored young female athletes' perceptions of the college athlete photographs. Fifty-two girls participated in focus group interviews where they viewed and discussed the images. The young athletes particularly liked images they perceived to show authentic athletes (e.g., in athletic settings, with appropriate sport attire), images they could relate to due to personal experiences, and images that reflected competent and passionate sportswomen. Images perceived as revealing a lack of motivation, poor sporting attitudes, and nonathletic poses generally were disliked. Images depicting multiple social identities (e.g., an athlete in a dress) were controversial and generated much discussion.

Key words: media, photographic representation, sport marketing, visual analysis


As today's girls and women celebrate their athleticism, they live in a cultural milieu that emphasizes the importance of appearing feminine. Feminine-appearing female athletes garner attention, endorsements, and other social rewards (e.g., Carty, 2005; Glenny, 2006; Messner, 2002). Media portrayals of female athletes reinforce the status given to feminine athletes as they highlight appearance over athletic ability, thereby reinforcing the social expectation that athletic female bodies should be feminine (Messner, 2002; Vincent, 2004). The detriment of these feminized media images is reflected in research that consistently shows how unrealistic beauty and body standards negatively impact young girls' mental states and body perceptions (e.g., Bordo, 1993; Fabrianesi, Jones, & Reid, 2008). The current research is guided by our belief that alternative images of female athletes can be empowering to younger girls.

Conceptual Framework

We used an interdisciplinary approach, grounded in feminist cultural studies, to understand how young athletes engender meaning from photographic images of successful female athletes. Feminist cultural studies combine the major premises of feminism and cultural studies. In particular, the ways in which social practices influence and construct how we perceive gender is at the heart of feminist cultural studies (Hall, 1996). Taken-for-granted, common behaviors construct and reinforce gendered practices as well as create a differential distribution of privilege, power, and resources (Bordo, 1993; Butler, 2004). Often, and unwittingly, individuals reflect and reinforce gendered social norms by reproducing the social practices that, for example, reflect socially sanctioned femininity. Butler (2004) referred to this as gender "performativity" that reflects one's understanding of how to do gender right.

Gender performances are volitional in that individuals freely choose how to dress and act. Yet, at the same time there are considerable social constraints guiding gender performances, and nonnormative performances result in social criticism or worse. Still, individuals do not simply have to conform to social norms; they have agency to resist or transgress them. So while girls and women learn how they are expected to look and act, they also have free will to resist cultural norms (Butler, 2004). For example, Milkie (2002) showed how girls contest and critique feminine images in girls' magazines. Similarly, other research has revealed how girls challenge the social demands of femininity through their participation in nontraditional sport, writing grrl zines, and online role-playing (Currie, Kelly, & Pomerantz 2006; Schilt, 2003).

A strong source of cultural conventions are media that present images revealing types of gendered behavior and gender presentation resulting in rewards and high status. How meanings embedded in images are interpreted can vary widely; some viewers passively accept culturally dominant meanings, while others negotiate or oppose dominant meanings (Hall, 1997). …

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