The University Record, May 21, 2001

Exposure to sports may have positive effect on teen girls

By Bernie DeGroat
News and Information Services

Exposure to sports magazines and women’s sports on television—much like reading fashion magazines or watching television programs with thin characters—encourages teen-age girls to focus on body image, say U-M researchers.

However, unlike exposure to these kinds of “thin-ideal” media, reading sports magazines and watching sports on television can have varying, even positive, effects on young females.

While teen-age girls’ viewing of television sports tends to lead to increased self-objectification—the tendency to perceive and describe oneself according to externally perceivable traits, which, in turn, can lead to eating disorders, body shame and depression

—reading sports magazines may encourage greater body satisfaction among young females, regardless of sports participation, the researchers say.

And even watching sports on television, despite its self-objectifying effects, may have a positive impact on some of these young women, they add.

In their study of 426 adolescent females ages 10-19 in a small Midwestern city, Kristen Harrison, assistant professor of communication studies, and Barbara L. Fredrickson, associate professor of psychology and of women’s studies, found that self-objectification—often prompted by “thin-ideal” media exposure—does predict increased health risks and may be as prevalent among teen-age girls as it is among young adult women.

Their research shows, however, that among older adolescent girls, regular reading of sports magazines is linked to greater satisfaction with the body and less disturbed eating—independent of body size, racial group and sports participation.

“This finding begs the question of exactly what features of sports magazines may be beneficial and if these beneficial features are, in fact, offsetting possible detrimental features,” says Harrison. “Could sports media exposure be linked to body perceptions because exposure to sports affects self-objectification? Are there types of women’s sports media that lower self-objectification and other types that raise it?”

In fact, to answer this latter question, Harrison and Fredrickson included an experiment in their study in which participants watched an eight-minute video of men’s sports (basketball, boxing, football, hockey, skiing, snowboarding, soccer and wrestling), women’s “lean” sports (aerobic dance, cheerleading, diving, drill team, fitness competition, gymnastics, ice skating and running) and women’s “non-lean” sports (basketball, golf, shot put, snowboarding, soccer, softball, tennis and volleyball).

They found that for white adolescents, watching lean sports was associated with greater self-objectification, but for adolescents of color, this effect was linked to non-lean sports viewing.

According to the researchers, this pattern can be attributed to race differences in preferences of body ideals—white adolescents favor smaller and thinner female body types than do adolescents of color.

“Our white participants most likely found the lean athletes’ bodies to be congruent with their own personal ideal, which, in turn, may have made their own body shape and size more salient, resulting in self-objectification,” Harrison says. “In contrast, participants of color 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.”