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Women, Sport, and Film - 2004
Student Papers
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The Image of Women in Sports Today

Jessica Bourne

We live in a world that changes quickly, so it's no terrible surprise that the image of women in sports is changing quickly, as well. Relatively, it hasn't been that long since women were not even socially permitted to participate in sports or any kind of physical activity-- now, I dare say, it's nearly expected. There are still remnants of past gender-types, but overall I think the image of women in sports has changed dramatically.

It used to be that women were not allowed to participate in sports-- beyond just being seen as unbecoming and unfeminine, it was actually believed that physical activity would harm a woman's reproductive system. Men did not think that women should or could do the same things that men could do-- and maybe they were a little bit afraid to have women try, because of all the perceived notions that a success would shatter. But women tried anyway and, lo and behold, succeeded. So society had to face up to the fact that, yes, women could not only participate in sports, but they could excel at them.

The change didn't happen overnight, of course. Women worked their way into sports one by one, usually on a non-professional level, and it was usually only after women proved that they were not only good but very good at their chosen sport that they were allowed to participate on a professional level. I think this is one of the things that has carried over into women's sports even today-- or at least how they are portrayed. If a woman wants to play a sport, she is not allowed to be an average player-- she had to be as good as the best men, or better. Men get the respect of it being assumed that they're worthy to play a sport even if they're only an average player-- there's an assumption that, with time and practice, most men will become better players. However, it seems to me that it is always portrayed that a woman must show her talent immediately upon entering a sport-- if she is not seen to have some quality that makes her as valuable as the trained men, then she is out. Despite all the progress we have made, a woman still has to do more to get the same amount of respect that a man is given automatically.

Another aspect that has remained part of the image of women in sports is the element of being... well, pretty. More than anything, I see this as a holdover from the days when women had to prove that they could play sports and still be feminine, to-- I'm not sure what. Assuage fears that by playing sports, they were somehow going to be turned into men? At any rate, women weren't allowed to be anything except perfect, even while playing sports. They had to not sweat, not get tired, and always still look fresh and beautiful. Even to this day, the female athletes who do best in the media are not necessarily the ones who actually play at the highest level, but the ones who look the best. This is true even outside of 'performance' sports like ice-skating, where it is, to a certain degree, understandable that it's important for the ice-skaters to be attractive. The same is true of male athletes-- ugly male athletes don't grace the front of a Kellogg's box-- but not nearly to the same extent.

Another aspect of how women are portrayed in sports, today, is how closely the idea of female athletes have become tied to the idea of strong women-- and not just physically strong women. It seems to me that, because the movement of women into sports was such a defiant move, it became very closely tied to the feminist movement. Today, we perceive strong women as women who are not only in control of their minds and their lives, but their bodies as well. To this end, part of the 'strong' woman image is a woman who participates in some kind of physical activity-- be it a sport or yoga or simply jogging every day. Strong women are women who are in touch with their bodies and the needs of their bodies, and therefore they dedicate time and effort to improving their bodies, in one way or another. And while this may be the generally accepted image, I don't think it is necessarily true. Commercials and media may portray physical activity as a medium through which a woman can triumph over social boundaries and become a better person, but if you are a woman, and you decide to do a physical activity because the media tells you that you should or otherwise you'll become fat and ugly and weak-- well, isn't that just caving to social pressure all over again? I feel as though we've sort of done a 180 degree turn-- from it being unacceptable for a woman to want to participate in a physical activity to it being unacceptable for a woman to not want to participate in a physical activity. It used to be that the ideal woman was a little plump, with curves and that little bit of extra weight that told the world she was a wife and a mother, and that her husband could support you well. Now women are supposed to be skinny and a little bit muscled, to tell the world that they're independent and strong enough to get by on their own. Ideas about what a woman is supposed to look like have changed, and while I think that the change probably happened along with women entering into sports, I don't think that the change is necessarily acceptable.

I agree that women should be in touch with, and comfortable with, their bodies. But I don't think that a woman needs to go to the gym or run a mile every day to be comfortable with her body. And I don't think that it's necessary for a women to be skinny and muscled if that isn't her body type. Even today, society still has an image of the perfect woman-- and just because it has changed, doesn't mean it has gotten any better. Sports and physical activity can be places where a woman meets goals and surpasses expectations-- but I don't think they have to be. And if a woman is going to meet goals and surpass expectations, I don't think they should be anyone's goals or expectations but her own.

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