Athlete photo study puts body image and gender in the frame

10 September 2014

A University of Sydney study has revealed a gender bias in how top-level athletes are photographed.

Dr Kate Russell, from the University of Sydney's Faculty of Education and Social Work, asked top level athletes to consider how they want to be represented in a photograph as 'an elite athlete' to a younger audience of boys and girls between the ages of nine and 14.

Rugby players, soccer players, gymnasts and triathletes were among those found to be conscious of the image they represent to a younger audience. Children who viewed the images showed a clear preference for photographs that showed strong role model qualities.

Some women acknowledged that their bodies represented their sports in muscle development and structure and valued that aspect, with others acknowledging that in order to promote their sports they would have to 'down play' this. Others wanted to show and 'be comfortable' in their bodies showing that it's acceptable to have muscles.

Working with Dr Fiona Gill from the Department of Sociology and Social Policy and photographers from the Sydney College of Arts, Dr Russell found the responses raise questions about gender in sport and have implications for how sport is currently advertised and marketed.

"Most of the time elite athletes are presented in very particular ways and in the majority of cases men are presented in action, doing their sport, appearing powerful and 'masculine'," said Dr Russell.

"Women are more often than not (when pictured at all) presented in passive poses, often not in sporting attire and with reference to husbands, children etc in an attempt to assuage perceived masculinity and enhance 'femininity'," said Dr Russell.

"My sport, rhythmic gymnastics, is often seen as dancing with a ribbon," said rhythmic gymnast Jaelle Cohen, a study participant who is in her third year of a Human Movement and Health Education degree at the University of Sydney.

"I wanted to show that it is a lot more than this and it takes great skill and determination. I train hard like any other athlete and I believe it is important to demonstrate this. In addition I do believe it is important to have fun and enjoy your sport so I attempted to demonstrate this through my image," said Cohen.

The athletes chose the location, clothing and pose to best represent themselves and were then interviewed about the choices they made and what their favourite image was and why. These 'favourite' images were then shown to children.

"It's clear, authentic sporting images need to be presented to a wider audience and a clear understanding that kids 'get it' very early on about being determined and committed in order to succeed in sport and that was a positive. Having fun was important too - but you needed to show the effort as well and 'look the part'," said Dr Russell.

"Children demonstrated that they really do pick up on messages in images and words far more than I think we give them credit for. They are also highly critical of 'posed' images that could be showing 'anyone' pretending to do the sport rather than the athlete showing us what they can do," she added.

Hi-res images available on request.

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