By Alaya Ayala
Thoughts and Conversations About Hypersexualizing Athletes
By ALAYA AYALA
If there’s any group of students on campus that know a lot about bodies and how they work, it is pre-med students and athletes. Pre-med students need to know these things because it will ease them into medical school where they can relearn it all when the time comes. Athletes, on the other hand, need to know about their bodies for more immediate and practical reasons. Their bodies are what allow them to engage in sports, and without knowing how they look, feel, and what they need, they’d be floundering in the dark for ways to get better at doing what they love.
It makes sense, then, that athletes may have more awareness of what their bodies look like and how they are perceived by others on a regular basis. It also makes sense that they would be aware when their bodies are being perceived in a way they don’t necessarily like, such as in an outright sexual way. Athletic bodies are constantly in the public eye as they play sports. They are scrutinized and praised, made fun of, exalted, and unfortunately, sexualized in excess.
This holds especially true for female athletes, although it does also apply to male athletes. As sex gains ever more traction in the media, more athletes find themselves subject to body shaming and perversion.
Think of the way you’ve seen athletes like Serena Williams and David Beckham portrayed in media. A simple google search will likely turn up articles about their stats alongside sports magazines ranking them by hotness. It’s clear that athletics has been something that people have learned to consume over time, but the degree to which people put emphasis on the attractiveness and sexuality of an athlete’s body has grown to an uncomfortable point.
The Indy seized the opportunity to discuss this topic with Brooke Istvan ‘19. She is on the Women’s Volleyball team at Harvard and offered some of her thoughts on body image within collegiate athletic spheres.
Indy: What are some ways that you have perceived college athletes being made into overtly sexual objects?
Brooke: in my experience, discussion of the opposite gender in circles of athletes is usually much more physical than in circles of non-athletes. My team and I might talk about how hot a guy’s body is, or how attractive a certain guy is because he is so good at his sport. I have also been around male athletes as they objectify female athletes, reaching consensus on what are the most attractive teams and who in particular are attractive athletes. I believe this driven by people’s knowledge of each other and each other’s physical performance in the athlete community where a high premium is put on physical fitness and athletic performance.
Indy: Do you think the hyper-sexualization of athletic bodies impacts the way they perform in sports or in academics?
Brooke: I think there is a large emphasis put on body image especially for female athletes. I think the positive to this is that women are taught that it is attractive to look fit and athletic. This idea promotes a healthy lifestyle and generally good values. It can inspire confidence in a lot of athletic women. But, I believe that most of the impact is negative, because some young athlete women care so much about what they look like, they are disincentivized from lifting/training hard and eating what they need to fuel their bodies. These women worry about “getting too big.” This negatively impacts the athlete’s health and performance. Even if the athlete is healthy enough to compete, she could be stronger and better contribute to her team if she makes that her priority above fitting a societally set image of an attractive woman.
Indy: Do you think it impacts them outside of sports too?
Brooke: I think this can have negative impacts on the woman’s health and confidence in the long run. When women get too obsessed with their body image, they run the risk of developing body dysmorphia and developing issues such as eating disorders. They also may suffer from a lack of confidence as they transition from no longer being an athlete. I think the focus female athletes place on body image has the scary potential to shift focus away from things beyond athletics and body image that really matter, like positive relationships and academic or professional pursuits. I don’t know how founded this is but I worry that if a woman is an attractive female athlete and becomes a sexualized object, she will feel the other aspects of her as a person are less important. This is really antiquated and plays into the patriarchal idea that women exist just to please men while men are the ones who go forth, have a career, and contribute to society.
Indy: Why do you think people perceive the college athlete as something sexual?
Brooke: I think that college athletes may be perceived as something sexual because of their athletic physique. Men and women are generally attracted to more fit looking individuals. I believe this is part of our biology; it comes from a “survival of the fittest” mentality. As people are looking for mates, they look for the ones that seem like they will create healthy strong offspring and help them survive to maturity. I think this sort of primitive attraction is especially strong among athletes because of the physical fitness of both men and women’s bodies.
In circles of non-athletes I have noticed that physical fitness and performance matter less, but they can be replaced with other things of value to individuals in that community. People find it attractive when someone is really smart, has a great job, or is really good at a certain instrument. These things are not that different than being really fit, they reflect the values of that community. I do worry, however, that the emphasis on physical fitness can distort body image and have some longer term negative impacts on athletes, especially female athletes.
Alaya Ayala (firstname.lastname@example.org) hopes people will one day move away from hyping up how “hot” athletes are.