OSU-Cascades professor examines images of female athletes

Elizabeth Daniels seeks to understand girls’ reactions to the media landscape

By Tyler Leeds / The Bulletin

Girls faced with images of sexualized women in the media may benefit from exposure to images of female athletes, according to the research of a local academic.

Elizabeth Daniels, an assistant professor of psychology at Oregon State University-Cascades Campus, is concerned with measuring the effects of the current media landscape and finding ways to counteract them. As a former athlete who played “just about everything” growing up, Daniels is especially concerned with the role athletes and athletics can play in the lives of girls.

“Growing up, there was Larry Bird and Robert Parish, but I knew of no women as elite basketball players,” said Daniels, who joined OSU-Cascades in 2011. “For girls, the images of women are almost always objectified or sexualized, and there are implications for how young girls think of themselves and their future. It’s really limiting and comes down to the question, ‘How do I look?’”

The literature documenting the portrayal of women as sexualized objects is extensive. In order to understand what this media landscape does to girls, Daniels studied the impact of exposure to non-sexualized images of female athletes. To do this she showed a group of teenage girls pictures of female athletes engaged in their sport, female athletes in sexualized poses, and regular models. After seeing the images, the teenagers were able to record their reactions in an open-ended response.

“After seeing images of female athletes, the girls were more likely to generate positive self-assessments of their body and abilities,” Daniels said. “When they looked at the sexualized images, it was ‘I’m ugly and I’m fat.’ But with the athletes, it was things like, ‘I play soccer, too.’”

Daniels acknowledges there’s no way to simply shift the media landscape, no matter how much credence is given to the argument that such a change would be good for everyone. Instead, Daniels sees herself “as a researcher whose job it is to establish evidence to support the argument that these images are not supporting positive self-images and developmental.”

While images of female athletes might be a good way to counteract these forces, there are other forms of defense. In an article Daniels co-authored titled “I Am Not a Skinny Toothpick and Proud of It,” Latina girls were found to use a sense of ethnic identity as a means to feel positive about their body and appearance. Daniels also said just teaching girls about the imbalanced portrayal of females in the media can help.

“Things like ‘The Hunger Games’ are just a drop in the bucket,” Daniels said. “We don’t see women in lead roles, and that says a lot about our societal gender roles. There are just so few women as politicians, scientists or athletes, which provides such a narrow view.”

In addition to studying images of girls, Daniels is also interested in how the institution of childhood sports may be altered to help facilitate positive youth development.

“Kids spend more time playing sports than doing any other activity,” Daniels said. “And yet, sports often don’t have an explicit youth development mission. We’re missing a huge opportunity to educate them to develop positive habits and skills.”

To those who may be worried that a “youth development mission” may stand in the way of a college scholarship or county titles, Daniels points out how small the percentage of students are who even compete at a high level in college, and the even smaller percent who go on to turn athletics into a professional career.

“Sports can provide such a positive context for development, but you often see it taken to such a different, extreme level,” she said. “There should be more of an emphasis on teaching how to be a good teammate or how to be competitive while still resisting the idea of needing to win at all costs.”

— Reporter: 541-633-2160, tleeds@bendbulletin.com