Photos of successful male athletes overwhelmingly show them in serious, action poses, while powerhouse women are often trivialized, romanticized, and sexualized. Experts say their depictions have become increasingly degrading.

Soccer player Brandi Chastain

American women athletes have never been so successful and formidable, flexing their muscles and taking home the gold, the silver and the bronze as never before. And as never before, the images of elite women athletes in mainstream media have deteriorated from hyper-feminization to hyper-sexualization, according to several scholars on women and girls in sports.

The reason, these experts argue: it’s hard for men not to find high-performing women a threat to their male sports bastion. Therefore, over the years, women have been made to appear trivial, romantic or hyper-sexualized. And many times, the sportswomen play along.

Women may be participating in record numbers and succeeding spectacularly in sports, but "these women are routinely shown off court, out of uniform and in highly sexualized poses," said Mary Jo Kane, director of the Tucker Center for Research on Girls & Women in Sport, at the University of Minnesota.

She was the lead-off speaker at a Minneapolis panel discussion on "Images of Women, Sexuality and Nationalism," using the recent Olympics as a backdrop.

Kane made a slide presentation covering two decades of increasingly disturbing images. She started off with college media guides, the booklets that present athletes and program information to reporters and editors. Two decades ago, the image of women athletes was often a "sorority shot" of a women’s team dressed formally in long dresses and posed as a group.

Now, the dress is more casual, she said, but seldom do media kit photos show women athletes in action. Over the years, Kane said, the depictions of women athletes in print and broadcast devalue their athletic achievements. Greatly under-represented in mass media, she said, are sportswomen shown as men are–in action as outstanding athletes.

The International Olympic Committee said 42 percent of competing athletes in the 2000 Summer Games were women. Of the 39 world records set at the Sydney Olympics, 23 were by women. The American delegation to the games was 43 percent female, and women won 40 percent of the medals awarded to Americans–39 of 97.

One of the gold medals was won by Stacy Dragila, who won the pole vault, a new event this year. After her victory, Dragila apologized for posing in a calendar clearly aimed at men. She said she realized she was a role model for girls and regretted her actions and the implication that women athletes can advance their careers by taking off most or all of their clothes.

Powerful Women Portrayed in Non-Threatening Images

Kane identified categories of images that undermine women athletes. Some are "ambiguous," showing women athletes out of their sports context, such as golfer Donna Andrews in evening dress and carrying an umbrella. Or Olympic figure skaters on a People magazine cover with the Headline, "Ice Beauties!"–but no picture of them skating.

In another category, "wives and mothers," premier athletes are shown as wives and mothers, looking dolled-up or holding a baby. The message, Kane said, is that they are connected with men and are not lesbians, the "L-word" that stirs anxiety and homophobia.

Kane, saying that sports photography sometimes seems like soft porn, said U.S. soccer defense player Brandi Chastain was pictured in Gear magazine, with no visible clothing and holding two soccer balls in front of her. Olympic champion swimmer Jenny Thompson was shown in Sports Illustrated wearing red boots, boxer swim pants and holding her hands across bare breasts.

Another category "dehumanizes and fragments" women athletes, stripping them of identity by cutting off all or part of the face, an arm, a leg or a bit of the torso, making her a non-person, Kane said.

Other panelists were Susan Brownell, an anthropologist at the University of Missouri at St. Louis; Pat Griffin of the social justice education program at the University of Massachusetts at Amherst; and Lisa Disch, a political scientist at the University of Minnesota and director of the Center for Advanced Feminist Studies.

Wife-and-Mommy Photo Subtext: Rigid Sex Roles

Griffin said the male sports culture has generated a rigid cultural message of binary gender rolls. The message is that sports is a male hierarchy and that women are trespassers. According to this view, women must be subordinated and cannot be shown as men’s equals, she said. And they must fit into the false frame that denies there are lesbian athletes.

"The hypersexualized images of women athletes," Griffin said, "function to normalize women athletes for men in the sports culture." Over the past four or five years, there have been major changes in the success of women in sports, therefore in the male sports culture.

"When it once was enough to feminize women athletes, now it is necessary to sexualize them for men," putting them in their place and making them non-threatening, Griffin said. "Instead of hearing, ‘I am woman, hear me roar,’ we are hearing, ‘I am hetero-sexy, watch me strip.’"

Brownell, a former student athlete and an expert on China, added that, in contrast to how the U.S. sexualizes and trivializes its women athletes, China deliberately portrays them as national role models of talent developed by hard work.

In New York, meanwhile, the Women’s Sports Foundation on Monday held a press conference attended by current and former Olympic champions to cheer on tennis legend Martina Navratilova, the Wilma Rudolph Courage Award winner, tennis stars Venus and Serena Williams and swimmer Jenny Thompson, all of whom were named Sportswomen of the Year.

All high visibility athletes, their mainstream images occasionally defy but more often reinforce the reassuring male ideal of non-threatening, sexy women who play at sports.

"It’s okay that we’re not totally Twiggy," Dragila said in an interview afterward. "You can be fit, you can look good and still be strong. I can have muscles and be proud."

Corralie Simmons, 2000 Olympic silver medal water polo winner, said she was very aware of gender issues because during the opening ceremony, the U.S. women wore "long skirts and blazers, pumps and nylons." Meanwhile, she said, "We had blisters on our feet from practice."

Simmons finds it interesting that "those kinds of things (stereotypical images of women) still are in demand." At the same time, Simmons said she felt that women in sports had increased the positive images of women. "I think it’s become better because you can represent yourself any way that you want at this point." Even if that means you portray images outside of the sports realm.

"You see athletes like Mia Hamm in People. It doesn’t have to be a sport magazine. So girls can see that if you’re not into being a supermodel, you can be a soccer player. It’s being able to know that there are other options out there."

Glenda Crank Holste is a Twin Cities journalist who has covered economic and social issues for the past 10 years. Mashadi Matabani reported on the Women’s Sports Foundation event in New York.