Game, Set, Love Yourself

Seeing lean or solid athletes affects how young girls see themselves

MONDAY, May 21, 2001 (HealthDayNews) -- Being an adolescent girl is tough enough without having to starve down to the waif ideal glorified by the media on primetime TV or in fashion magazines.

But don't just blame those media. A new study says sports coverage could be equally at fault for encouraging poor body image.

Sports coverage, in fact, can be a double-edged sword for adolescents, researchers say. Despite focusing attention on physical appearance, sports coverage can also play a positive role.

It's all about self-objectification, says the study's lead author, Kristen Harrison, an assistant professor of communication studies at the University of Michigan. And that means "the tendency to state that how one appears physically is more important to one's physical self-concept than how healthy one is."

Over the past decade, studies have shown that adolescent girls' dissatisfaction with their bodies, including distorted body image and the drive for thinness, have been greatly influenced by the media, say the researchers.

But the researchers also pointed out that those studies were focused mainly on white girls and their perception of a slenderized body ideal.

What Harrison's team did was conduct two studies with 426 girls between the ages of 10 and 19 to assess the impact of sports media on body esteem, and whether ethnic background plays a part in body image.

In the first study, the girls filled out a survey about their self image, by completing 20 sentences that began with "I am…" (fat, skinny, etc). They also answered questions about their eating habits, mental health, participation in sports, and what sports magazines they read.

Researchers found that, as with most young adult women, self-objectification was a predictor of increased health risks, including eating disorders, body shame and depression. However, the "reading of sports magazines was linked to greater satisfaction with the body and less disturbed eating."

In the second part of the study, the girls watched an eight-minute video composed of men's sports and women's "lean" and "non-lean" sports.

Men's sports included basketball, boxing, football, hockey, skiing, snowboarding, soccer and wrestling.

Women's lean sports included aerobic dance, cheerleading, diving, drill team, fitness competition, gymnastics, ice skating and running, while the non-lean sports were basketball, golf, shot put, snowboarding, soccer, softball, tennis and volleyball.

After viewing the short clips, researchers found, the white girls, who made up 30 percent of the group, tended to link to women's lean sports.

"Our white participants most likely found the lean athletes' bodies to be congruent with their own personal ideal…resulting in self-objectification," Harrison says.

By contrast, girls of color, who comprised most of the group, "seemed to disregard the comparatively 'skinny' look of the lean athletes as incongruent with their own personal body ideal, but did appear to link the larger, fuller bodies of the non-lean athletes to thoughts of their own body shape and size," Harrison adds.

The fact that a short video can increase self-objectification is sobering, says Harrison. The researchers had hoped that watching successful female athletes would help young girls "divert their attention away from what their bodies look like…that the sports media would do this…"

"But it seems that even sports media may be problematic if they focus on the way female athletes' bodies look rather than what they can do."

The video's impact, however, comes as no surprise to Dr. Leon Hoffman, a child psychoanalyst and co-director of the Parent-Child Center of the New York Psychoanalytic Society.

"There's no question that the media has a real profound effect," Hoffman says. The difficulty is knowing "what's the chicken and what's the egg," he adds. "The girls with the problems are the ones picking up these images."

Changing how girls perceive themselves, says Hoffman, starts with the parents. "By far, the most important thing is the first self images the girl gets from her mother, father and other family members from babyhood on."

Then, with all the images girls are exposed to in advertising and the media, Hoffman says, "we have to be very careful raising our children, particularly girls, and teach them how to deal with themselves as individuals, and not to objectify."

Harrison says if the sports media could portray women athletes by focusing attention on their performance rather than appearance, they may "improve girls' body esteem by portraying female athletes in a non-objectified light."

The research is being presented later this month at the International Communication Conference in Washington D.C.

What To Do

Parents should get young girls involved in non-lean sports, Harrison says, "where weight and body size don't have to be small, like basketball, volleyball, track and field."

The Women's Sports Foundation lists 25 benefits of girls playing sports.

The National Institute on Media and the Family has more to say about the effects of media on body image.

For more HealthDay stories on body image, click here.

SOURCES: Interviews with Kristen Harrison, Ph.D., assistant professor, communication studies, University of Michigan, Ann Arbor, and lead author; Leon Hoffman, M.D., child psychoanalyst and co-director of the Parent-Child Center of the New York Psychoanalytic Society
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