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Not Buff Enough (In the Buff): Objectifying Female Athletes. Carly Chrouser & Regan A. R. Gurung University of Wisconsin, Green Bay. ABSTRACT. METHOD.

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Not Buff Enough (In the Buff): Objectifying Female Athletes

Carly Chrouser & Regan A. R. Gurung University of Wisconsin, Green Bay



The current study investigates the effects of appearance on perceptions of personality and competency. Subjects responded to a number of questionnaires including measures of objectification, sexism, and sports knowledge, and rated images of female Olympians on a number of attributes. Participants in the control condition viewed three athletes in sports wear, while participants in the experimental condition viewed the same athletes appearing provocatively. The condition emphasizing appearance and downplaying athletic ability resulted in the same women being rated significantly lower in ability than when seen in more athletic images. Participants seeing more of the women’s bodies rated them as less capable, strong, intelligent, determined, and American. The results have many implications of how athletic women are portrayed in the media.


Predominantly White undergraduate students at the University of Wisconsin Green Bay (N=112) participated in the study (27% male, 73% female). Respondents were recruited largely from introductory psychology classes, and were mainly first or second year students ranging in age from 18-20 years.


Provocative photographs were obtained from For Him Magazine (FHM), and athletic images were taken from the Internet. Participants used a scale from 1 (not at all) to 9 (extremely), and assessed each athlete on 15 items, measuring various aspects of each target’s personality, appearance, and sexuality.

- Self-Objectification Scale (Noll & Fredrickson) was modified to measure projected objectification onto others. Subjects rank ordered 10 body attributes, decreasing in importance when formulating evaluations of the opposite sex. Items included aspects of both appearance and physical fitness/health.

- The Ambivalent Sexism Inventory (Glick & Fiske, 1996) was used to measure subjects’ gender values. A scale from 1 (strongly disagree) to 6 (strongly agree) was used to assess 22 gender beliefs, such as “Women seek to gain power by getting control over men” and “A good woman should be set on a pedestal by her man.”

- Several questions measured subjects’ awareness of the target athletes and 2004 Olympics.


Participants were tested individually on personal computers in separate rooms of a research laboratory. We used Medialab software to present all stimuli and questionnaires. Subjects were randomly assigned to conditions and instructed to follow the instructions on the computer screen.



Does being a famous female athlete safeguard you from objectification? People utilize both verbal and nonverbal cues when creating impressions, and frequently rely heavily on physical appearance when formulating immediate judgments. Unfortunately, this trend can lead to objectification. Objectification is defined as the tendency for a person’s body to be observed and evaluated as if it is representative of his or her identity (Fredrickson & Roberts, 1997). Objectification exploits female targets most prominently, as males are objectified less often. Fredrickson, Noll, Roberts, and Twenge (1998) suggest that judgments derived from physical assets alone objectify the target by allowing appearance to define personality and competency. Objectification is strongly related to attractiveness and sexism. This study uses the example of media portrayals of athletes to test the associations between these variables.

Traditional, albeit sexist, gender roles have established women as subordinate, sexualized, and decorative beings. While women are expected to be passive and accommodating to males, men are believed to be strong, courageous, and protective of females. Connotations of the term athlete (competitive, determined, and capable) translate into male-dominant traits, bringing irony to the phrase female athlete. In combat with this psychological conflict, the sports media heterosexualizes female athletes, emphasizing appearance, attractiveness, and sexuality (Knight & Giuliano, 2003). Confirming athletes’ heterosexuality boosts their image due to reinforced gender roles. On the other hand, sexualizing strategies are sexist because they objectify women by reinforcing an ultimate intent to please men. When athletes’ admirable abilities are diminished through sex appeal, their capabilities and competency are undermined as attractiveness becomes their principal trait.

Society’s perceptions of athletes are strongly influenced by media coverage and gender of the athlete. This occurrence is due to gendered social schemas, which naturally objectify women and emphasize the primary importance of appearance. Schemas for female athletes are weaker than males, because women have only recently begun to be recognized in competitive sports; therefore, perceptions of female athletes are easily influenced and swayed by the type of media exposure.

We were interested in examining the effects of appearance on perceptions of popular female athletes. Athletes were chosen as experimental stimuli because they are largely perceived as able-bodied, talented women, and are thus strong prototypes of determination and character. Correspondingly, female athletes should be less susceptible to objectification by the media, but we found few empirical tests of this assumption. We were interested in examining the effects of downplayed athletic competency and overemphasized feminine appearance on social perceptions of athletic females.

Although studies have been performed regarding perceptions of sexist and objectified portrayals of athletes (e.g. Harrison & Lynch, 2005), they have not explored subjects’ direct evaluations of athletes’ competency based solely on their appearance. While female athletes in the 2004 Olympics became role models possessing talent, determination, and courage– several chose to also be portrayed as sexual objects in print media. The purpose of this study was to examine how these sexual portrayals influenced social perceptions. We measured the severity of objectification in subjects’ impressions of images of athletes, and investigated the effects of provocative exposure on athletes’ reputations as strong, independent women. We hypothesized that participation in objectifying exposure might cause positive perceptions of the athletes’ admirable qualities to become subordinate to their adverse images as sexual icons. We presumed that existing athletic attributes would be undermined in portrayals emphasizing sexuality.

We conducted a multivariate analysis of covariance (MANCOVA) with condition (provocative, athletic) as the between subjects variable, and controlling for sex. There was a significant multivariate test, Hotelling’s Trace , F (13,97) = 16.36, p < .001. A manipulation check confirmed the validity of the design: the images in the provocative condition were rated as less appropriate, F (1,109) = 142.07, p < .001, and more revealing, F (1,109) = 235.62, p < .001. Consistent with our hypotheses, there were significant differences between all 13 variables between two conditions (see figure). Participant knowledge about sports, as measured by hours of sports watched and sports magazines subscribed to, was not a significant covariate. We found no effects of objectification and sexism on perceptions of the athletes. As predicted, sexism and objectification scores were positively correlated, r = .25, p < .01.

Objectification: Items pertaining to evaluations and perceptions of appearance were used to determine the level of objectification (e.g. femininity, self-objectification, desirability, sexual experience, attractiveness). As predicted, participants viewing provocative images rated each of these items higher than participants viewing the athletic images. Females in the provocative condition were rated as more attractive, desirable, and feminine than in the athletic condition. They were also perceived to be more self-objectifying and sexually experienced. Given our operationalization of objectification, the results confirmed the hypothesis that sexualized women are instinctively objectified when competency is ignored.

Competency: We hypothesized that women depicted primarily as athletes would be objectified less and receive higher ratings of competency and appropriateness. Because all of the measured personality attributes are positively regarded in society, we expected that ratings of all eight traits would be significantly higher in the athletic condition due to the absence of objectification. Results supported this hypothesis. Olympians possess admirable characteristics due to their superior talent and achievements, and our results support that depictions of them in athletic contexts emphasize ability. However, being portrayed as a sex object objectifies a female, and causes her body to be evaluated before and above her personality. When female athletes are objectified, their talent and unique abilities are undermined by emphasized appearance, as reinforced gender roles reestablish them as passive, decorative beings and easily surpass the magnitude of their capabilities.

It is interesting to note that background knowledge about each athlete (i.e., participants knew who they were) did not significantly decrease the level of objectification of target stimuli exhibited by subjects in the provocative condition. Although it was implied that these women are successful athletes, they still received attenuated ratings of competency and personality when being objectified.

Presented at the 2005 American Psychological Society’s Annual Conference. Los Angeles, CA. Email: