The Consequences of Athletes in Bikinis

(Photo: Finizio)

What do girls think when they see their favorite soccer start posing in Sports Illustrated in a bikini instead of a soccer jersey?  A new study, summarized by the BPS Research Digest, surveyed girls after they viewed five images of either “female athletes in a sporting context in their full sporting attire,” “female athletes in a sexualized context,” or “bikini-clad magazine models given random names.” Here’s the BPS Digest:

The key finding is that the girls and undergrads who viewed the sexualized athlete images tended to say they admired or were jealous of the athletes’ bodies, they commented on the athletes’ sexiness, and they evaluated their own bodies negatively. Some also said they found the images inappropriate. The participants who viewed the bikini-clad glamour models responded similarly, except they rarely commented on the inappropriateness of the images, as if they’d come to accept the portrayal of women in that way…

By contrast, participants who viewed the female athletes in a sporting context tended to comment on the athletes’ determination, passion and commitment; they wrote about feeling motivated to perform sport; and they reflected on their own sporting participation or sports they followed.

Elizabeth Daniels, the study’s author, points to the need for more performance images in the mainstream media. “Infusing more performance images of female athletes into the media may be helpful in promoting physical activity among girls and young women,” Daniels said. “Currently, female athletes are largely absent from magazines targeted at teen girls.”

Peter H. Coffin

"except they rarely commented on the inappropriateness of the images, as if they’d come to accept the portrayal of women in that way…"

Uhm, that doesn't follow. They *did* comment on the inappropriateness of the "athletes in bikinis", at least some of whom are, presumably women. The "come to accept" was the portrayal of *glamor models* in bikinis. And, considering that they are often photographed that way and with the social consideration that they're normally showing off the clothes regardless of what the clothes are, I don't think that's unreasonable. A bikini for a glamor model may well be contextually-appropriate gear, especially when modelling swimwear, and no more inappropriate than some athletes wearing helmets.


It would be interesting to learn how many subjects refused to answer the question about the appropriateness of sexualised images of female athletes. I mention this since either answer, appropriate or inappropriate, is anti-feminist. The former because it devalues women as sex objects and the latter because it opposes women's sexual freedom. Thus anyone who formed an opinion as to whether those photos are appropriate or not is anti-feminist, while anyone who refused to answer or considered that they don't have enough information is inconclusive.

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It was an open-ended response, not a set list of questions. The instructions were to write a paragraph "describing the woman in the photograph and discussing how this photograph makes you feel". Consequently, the comments about inappropriateness were spontaneously volunteered by the participants themselves, not prompted by a yes-or-no question.


In this age of rampant obesity, I see little wrong with images that portray the human form at the peak of physical potential, male or female. These athletes eat properly, exercise and set an example for fitness. Take Hope Solo's recent ESPN magazine cover - she is a female Atlas for modern times; depicting her sans soccer uniform shows the physicality required for her role as USWNT goalkeeper.

Communicating the idea that being healthy and active IS sexy and attractive is far less damaging to young women than the visuals of airbrushed celebutantes on and in Cosmopolitan, Marie Claire or Vanity Fair.


Exactly! I wonder that they can't see the cause & effect relationship here: these female athletes have attractive & sexy bodies (at least in my opinion :-)) BECAUSE they are physically active &c.


doubt if it's different for men- lebron is admired for his awesome athleticism and drive, but if u see him scantily clad u realize how ripped he is- and MJ hawking underwear is just flat out inappropriate

alex in chicago

Weird how they couldn't have done the minimally extra effort and included males in the study as well.

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The question at hand was "How does the media's portrayal of women's bodies affect women?"

Including either pictures of men or male participants would not provide you with any relevant information. (It might make an interesting study on its own, but it wouldn't answer the current question.)


It would have been interesting if they'd completed the set and included a group of glamour models in sporting gear for comparison.


Hmmm - seeing women athletes in bikinis led to thoughts of "hey - great bod!" while seeing women athletes in athletic gear led to thoughts of "hey - she looks athletic and determined!". My guess is that seeing women athletes in pirate garb would lead to thoughts of "hey - yarrrghhh" while seeing women athletes in business suits would lead to thoughts of "hey - business folks!".

Costumes are used throughout everyday life - sometimes to lay the foundation of what is to be done (business suits), others to prepare to perform an activity in the most effective manner (athletic garb). Since bikinis show *more* of the body than the other costumes, one would expect to have viewers notice the body more.

I wouldn't say money was wasted on this study, but I would say that there were no surprising results.

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It's not exactly a surprising outcome, but it is interesting that their (and your) immediate response to a woman wearing a swimsuit is "look at her sexy body" rather than "she's going swimming".


Who actually swims in a bikini though?

If you're in a bikini you might be playing the water with friends or sunbathing, but anyone semi-serious about swimming isn't going to be wearing a bikini to do laps.


New study idea for the researchers: find out what the game is called and who its actual stars are, then show pictures of the stars without jerseys to teenage girls. Hypothesis to verify: N of upset respondents = 0. I do hope Freakonomics will cover that, too.

Miley Cyrax

Sports provide another convenient excuse with built-in plausible deniability for girls to exercise (ha) their penchant for wearing revealing, themed outfits with their friends, a penchant that can also be observed during Halloween, St. Patrick's Day, or any electronic dance music concert. Girls' indoor volleyball is perhaps the quintessential example, where they wear unnecessarily tight and short spandex shorts to brandish their corporeal contours.

Atilla Garay

Our dress has always been to a degree been used to define in some way who we are and think will always be the case no matter who we are. Our success or failure of what we wish to portray of course depends on the experience and point of view of our audience and of course our costume and performance. That success then depends on not only the psychological make up of the audience but also of we the performers. Our best performance then can be expected when our costumes are not negatively affecting what it is we are trying to portray to our audience is portraying the audience we wish to entertain. To dress for success we need to know our audience.

Impossibly Stupid

A better conclusion that a researcher might come to is that more women should make the bikini their regular attire if they don't want to be judged by what they wear.

Philippe Gradidge

"Price: US $ 35.95 " to view the full article...
What I did see of the article seemed interesting. Only thing the author may have forgotten to take into account was the impact of such advertising or images on eating disorders, such as annorexia nervosa and/or bulemia.