Monday, February 13, 2012

"Strong is the Better Sexy!" Athletes Are Better Role Models Than Sexualized Cover Models For Young Women

Image 1: Photos of like this,
showing athletic women,
during competition, or when
they train, unfortunately,
never make it to the magazine
covers, with their heavily
photoshop-ed images
of male and female
"celebrities".
Those of you who have not skipped my lengthy introduction to Adelfo's latest blogpost will probably have read between the lines that I personally believe that the influence of attitudinal values and believes about themselves and others on failure and success of what people usually refer to as their "transformation" is largely underrated. On the one hand of the extreme, you have those, who run around telling everyone how "happy" they are with the (mostly pretty chubby) "way they are" only to boil out their eyes, when they get home from work and sit lonely in front of their television. Then, you got those people who acknowledge that they are not really satisfied with the way they look, but that the latter "must" obviously be "a consequence of faulty genes" and that those lucky bastards who were born with cover model physiques had absolutely no clue, what they were talking about, when they are talking about "having a plan", "discipline" and all that blabla (those are the people to whom I recommend reading Adelfo's weekly blogposts, the most). And lastly, at the other end of the extreme, you got those poor critters, who are actually looking quite good and/or are continually making progress, and yet still feel even more miserable about themselves than the aforementioned "I am so happy" chubbies, when they are sitting with a bowl of ice-cream in front of their TV...

Role models are more than just people we look up to...

I guess, the latter group was the one Elizabeth A. Daniels had in mind, when she came up with the hypothesis that their young female study participants (age 13-22y) would make different statements with regard to their own physical appearance and attractiveness, when they were confronted with photographs depicting women as (a) sexualized athletes, (b) performance athletes, and (c) sexualized models. To verify this hypothesis, the responses of the 258 adolescent girls (ages 13–18) and 171 college women (ages 18 –22) were assigned to an inductively (meaning based on the scientists interpretation of common motifs in the individual responses) established framework that was constructed around the following  meta-themes, which refer to the physical attributes of the women in the photographs (who were, by the way, no celebrities), "her appearance and attractiveness, her athleticism", or the study participant's feelings about themselves, the women in the pictures and our society, in general (my body/looks, my feelings about her, and society), as well as the role and image of women, in particular.

Within this framework Daniels conducted a numerical (number of answers per theme in condition), as well as a qualitative (positive, neutral, negative for "her body", "physicality", in general, "self evaluation" and "my physical activity") analysis of the responses and derived a few interesting results.
Figure 1: Relative frequency of positive, negative and neutral statement with regard to the physical appearance (her body) and athleticism (physicality) of the athletic women and models in the photographs in the three study conditions (data adapted from Daniels. 2012)
Contrary to what I, personally, would have expected, the young women did provide the most positive responses regarding the "body", i.e. the physical attractiveness of the women in the photographs, when they were confronted with images of "sexualized athletes" (cf. figure 1). Moreover, the photographs of women who engaged in athletic activities elicited mostly neutral responses, yet no negative and at least 28% positive responses.

Not feeling just as bad and that less often may not sound like much, but...

Of greater significance in view of the aforementioned influence the continuously influx of stereotypical images of the "ideal body" are yet the responses Daniels filed under positive, neutral or negative "self-evaluation", of which the presentation of photographs of athletic women elicited the least frequent (only 17.1% self-evaluating statements vs. 40% in the sexualized athletes and 53.8% in the sexualized models condition) and most beneficial (20% positive) self-evaluative comments (cf. figure 2). 
Figure 2: Relative frequency of statements reflecting positive, neutral or negative self-evaluation and positive, negative and neutral attitude towards the personal physical activity of the study participants in the three different study conditions (data adapted from Daniels. 2012)
Now, at first sight, it may seem that the images of athletic women were thusly at most "less detrimental" to the self-image of these young women. If we do yet take into consideration that adolescent girls and young women are generally very critical and often uncomfortable with the way they look and put an emphasis on the fact that 82.9% of the subjects did not even think of how good or, what is unfortunately more likely, bad they feel about themselves, when they were confronted with the images of athletic women, we could speculate that the self-esteem of young women would benefit if there were more images of women engaged in what Daniels refers to "instrumental activities like playing a sport" in the media to "counterweight to the overly-thin standard portrayal of females currently dominating the media".

Moreover, the results of another recent study (Appleton. 2012), which demonstrate that engaging in regular physical activity, alone, exerts profound beneficial effects on the body images of both men and women, suggests that the huge beneficial impact the photographs of athletic women had on the girls' and women's attitudes towards their own physical activity (cf. figure 2), could in indirectly promote the self-esteem of the study participants by instigating or reinforcing their interest in physical activity.

Bottom line: Images of athletes can help you to get active and feel better about yourself!

And although I must admit that people may be more or less predisposed to succumb to the beauty ideals we are confronted with in the media on a daily basis, there is probably hardly anyone who could resist the profound influence they exert on how we think and feel of ourselves and others. Therefore, I strongly caution against the notion that the results of a study which involves only female subjects (age 13-22y) would be meaningless for older women and men of all age groups, who, despite being less willing to admit it, are by no means immune to the subtle messages of six-pack abs, bootylicious butts and unwrinkled skin of the mostly "photoshop-ed" (i.e. digitally enhanced) physique of those pristine specimen of the human race. The motto "Strong is the Better Sexy!" from the title of this blogpost has thusly the potential to become a mantra for everyone who wants to feel better about himself / herself - irrespective of sex or age.