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Athlete or Sex Symbol? What Effect is Olympic Exposure Having on Women at Home and on Camera?

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One recent survey found female sports featured in just 1.6% of sport coverage in the USA on nightly TV news, and this proportion has been dropping lower in recent years.

So one unusual effect of the current Olympics is much more coverage of female athletes.

Theoretically this should be a great opportunity to promote physical activity and a healthy lifestyle, at a time of rising obesity, and possibly even increasing eating disorders.

Social Physique Anxiety (SPA) is a term coined by psychologists to describe anxiousness arising when our physique is being judged. Women who score high on SPA may be less likely to exercise in places where others could observe their bodies, such as busy fitness clubs or public pools. There is also some evidence that exposure to athletic bodies that are more attractive than our own, heightens women's SPA. So what effect is all this extra media coverage, during the Olympics, of female elite athlete's bodies, having on competitors, and the women watching them?

Contrast the way the male swimmers have been portrayed, with cameras studiously focusing on their upper halves, while discussion centres on their athleticism, in comparison with some female swimmers bodies being questioned as being overweight, while women volley ball players find their bottom halves dominate the pictures.

Jessica Ennis may well be an outstanding athlete as winner of Heptathalon Gold, but was her selection as the 'Golden Girl' of British athletics before the games really completely unconnected with her appearance? And even she has in the past, reportedly, come in for bizarre criticism over her weight.

Elizabeth Daniels, a psychologist at Oregon State University in the USA has investigated the way female athletes are portrayed in the media, and concludes that while sometimes the images are 'performance-focused', emphasising athleticism, strength and power, many others are 'sexualised'.

She contrasts the way now retired tennis player Anna Kournikova was featured in the press, as an example of a 'sexualised' female athlete. Kournikova, well-known for her sex appeal, failed to win a major singles title during her career.

Daniels points out that traditionally media images of women emphasising slim appearance and so-called 'fitness' may have contributed to a rise in psychological problems such as eating disorders in the general public.

Yet her research has also found that 'performance-focused' images of female athletes could, more positively, inspire 'ordinary' women to consider becoming healthier, by adopting female athletes as role models, so possibly being more likely to themselves become physically fitter as a result.

But Daniels contends in one of her recent research papers 'Sexy versus strong: What girls and women think of female athletes', that the sportswomen who tend to get featured in the mainstream media, are those who conform to certain press standards of beauty.

UK Psychologists Viren Swami, Laura Steadman and Martin Tove report previous research has found body image disturbance is more common for female athletes involved in so-called 'judged' sports, where physical looks impact on scoring, as in gymnastics and figure skating.

Swami and colleagues also report previous research has found sports magazines for these 'judged sports' were more likely to depict thinner cover models, than magazines for non-judged sports.

Their own research, recently published in the journal Psychology of Sport and Exercise has uncovered that despite female track athletes being significantly thinner than non-athletes, with a lower Body Mass Index (BMI), they experienced particularly severe dissatisfaction with their own bodies. Female track athletes actually perceived themselves as having significantly larger body size than non-athletes. This might be because women participating in some sports, such as track and field, experience substantial thinness pressure, maybe from comparisons with other athletes, or even the media.

Now an experiment just conducted has found that women are so scared of having their figures judged by others while exercising, that the stress hormone Cortisol has been found to be significantly raised in their bodies, if they are merely threatened with public exercise.

Scientists Kathleen Martin Ginis (one of the authors of this article), Heather Strong, Shawn Arent and Steven Bray from McMaster University, Canada, and Rutgers University, USA, told female participants in the study they were going to exercise in a public fitness facility while wearing a revealing exercise outfit as well as being videotaped.

These conditions have been shown to induce threat of evaluation of the physique. In this experiment, about to be published in the journal Psychology and Health, their Cortisol levels were higher than the stress hormone level of women who expected to exercise alone, in private, while wearing conservative exercise kit. Importantly, the women were simply told about the public exercise task, as opposed to even having to do it.

Ironically enough chronically raised Cortisol levels have been found to cause weight gain. Also these stress hormones can adversely influence performance on the field.

But elite female athletes, and the merely physically active, seem to constantly confront a deep contradiction over the female body in modern society. Media and culture emphasises a feminine slight body and deportment, which is not strong, and conflicts with an athletic body and performance.

Sportswomen therefore juggle two cultures, sport and wider social acceptability, perhaps champions who find themselves in the media spotlight, even more so.