Research shows positive media images do a world of good

The hoopla over the degrading photos of Glee actresses in GQ magazine reminds me of a similar phenomenon in which female athletes pose nude for men’s magazines.

Elizabeth Daniels, a psychologist at the University of Oregon, has been studying how such images affect girls and women. She presented her research at the Spark Summit in New York in October, and I spoke with her today.

For a study, Ms. Daniels showed girls who play sports pictures of women athletes engaged in their sport. At left is the slide from her Spark presentation. She then asked the girls to describe themselves. They used words like “powerful, strong, capable,” she said.

When she showed the girls sexualized photos of athletes – the ones at the right —  they were more likely to describe themselves by their appearance, The responses, she said, were “negative, sad, tragic.” One girl said, “I’m the ugliest girl in the world.”

The key problem, Ms. Daniels said, is that there are so very few images of women athletes that are not sexualized. For example, research by Michael Messner at the University of Southern California Center for Feminist Research Center for Feminist Research, found that only 1.6 percent of televised sports news coverage in the Los Angeles market features women’s sports. In other words, almost none. It’s safe to say that coverage in other media markets is similarly low.

If there were a few female athletes posing provocatively, relative to adequate sports coverage, said Ms. Daniels, the positive images would outweigh the objectified images. She is hoping that her continuing research on the beneficial effects of  non-sexualized portrayals of women and girls in the media will prompt people to advocate for more of those types of positive images.

If you would like more information on her research, or if you would like her to email you a copy of a published study, go to Elizabeth Daniels’s blog

Also, you can read more about Michael Messner’s research here. 


  1. […] recall, please, if you hear anyone suggest that these images are “empowering”  – what is truly empowering to girls is images of female athletes being athletic, not as sex […]

  2. […] might face if everyone is always focused on how she looks as opposed to what she thinks or does. Question if women always have to look sexy? Talk about what sexy means and who defines it. Talk about struggles the women featured may have […]

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