• Leah Burchill


Image: Karlie Kloss for Adidas, c/o Adidas

Female athletes are underrepresented in sportswear advertising and this needs to change. Activewear companies like Nike and Puma have taken to using popular models for advertisement campaigns rather than professional female athletes; you can see models like Bella Hadid in Nike’s latest campaign for their Cortez sneaker, Kendall Jenner as the new brand ambassador for Adidas Originals, and Cara Delevingne appearing in ads for Puma. These models do not represent female athletes but rather, represent a small percentage of women who are extremely thin and often lack athletic ability.

Female athletes like tennis player Serena Williams or gymnast Shawn Johnson, along with hundreds of other professional sports women around the world are role models for young women in sports. Not only are they admired for their world class athletic ability, but also for appearing to be strong, confident, successful women with body types unappreciated in the media. Like many “average” women with various body types are victims of body shaming online, so are female athletes; in 2015 one tweet made headlines when people argued that the only reason for Williams success was that “she is built like a man.” Many people took offense to the tweet, including Harry Potter author J.K. Rowling, who defended Williams by responding to one hater and attaching a photo of the 23 time Grand Slam winning tennis player wearing a stunning red dress and showing nothing but curves. Each year Williams continues to improve to win even more titles, which are far more relevant than the discusssion around her physique should be.

As a female athlete with female friends who are athletes, we have bodies that have developed differently from non-athletic women. Most of us have larger muscle, broader shoulders, often smaller breasts, extra curves, or none at all. This is why sportswear, specifically spandex, is a female athlete's best friend, fitting every body type. Brands like Nike do a good job of creating clothes that cater to female athletes and their various body types; the label now caters to more women who enjoy working out, making sizes up to 3X. However, many sportswear brands could do a better job campaigning the idea that athletic bodies, or better yet any body type larger than a size 0, is normal and beautiful too. In sportswear ads, size 0 models are used to represent athleticism and fitness, overall painting the picture that to be healthy and athletic is to be skinny. By promoting the idea that skinny means healthy and fit, women who do not have naturally slim body types can be prompted with unrealistic expectations and unhealthy habits, which can lead to eating disorders. Women are constantly shown by the media that skinniness is the norm and we forget that not all women are built the same, and the ability to gain or lose weight varies from girl to girl.

There are some examples of female athletes actually appearing in sportswear campaigns; take American sprinter Allyson Felix for Nike Super Zoom Flyknits in 2016, but the issue is that this isn’t common enough to represent the attended demographic. Female athletes are only used following a highlight in their career, because without a conventionally attractive body, women are often quickly forgotten. Shockingly (or maybe not), we see a difference in men’s sportswear ads; hardly ever will one see male models in a Nike campaign, but instead professional male athletes like Lebron James. Not only are male athletes the face of almost every sportswear campaign but they are also appearing in men’s high fashion campaigns; NFL player Victor Cruz is the face of Givenchy’s 2015 Fall-Winter campaign and former soccer player David Beckham has appeared in multiple Calvin Klein ads.

What is to blame? I would argue hegemonic masculinity and a male gaze are. With sportswear campaigns, it is evident that society still values buff, powerful men while preferring skinny women over strong, athletic ones. As younger generations are challenging the standards of body types represented in the media, sportswear companies are being pressured to step up their game. It was not until March of this year that Nike released their plus-size collection, using plus size models and bloggers like Paloma Elesser, Danielle Vanier, and Grace Victory, and more importantly, including Amanda Bingson who is a plus-size Olympic athlete. Looking at the Adidas online store, the brand does offer plus sizes up to 2XLG, but forgets to use a model who can come close to fitting into plus sizes without having the waistline fall to her feet.

In 2014, Nike sold 48 percent of all athletic footwear purchased in the United States and this year has been labeled the most popular clothing brand chosen by teens; there is no doubt Nike and brands like it have the power to impact society. It is time to use their influence and use real women, who play real sports, and represent real people, in future ad campaigns. Professional female athletes deserve their face and talent shared on billboards, and all women who enjoy sports deserve representation by the brands they love to wear most.

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