Sex Sells: Female Athletes’ Use of Instagram

by Lucy Shepherd

We have all seen it, female athletes being used as sex objects to sell products, pictured on billboards in bikinis or sports bras, posed in passive positions, while their male counterparts are posed in athletic stances. Female athletes have to deal with a multitude of obstacles including sexist uniforms, having their success attributed to male coaches or husbands, and constantly being compared to male athleticism. Yet with the rise of social media, female athletes now control their own image much more. So why do many female athletes still use sex appeal on their social media accounts?

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In “Un-Friend My Heart: Facebook, Promiscuity, and Heartbreak in a Neoliberal AgeIlana Gershon argues that Facebook encourages users to apply neoliberal logic to their understanding of social relationships. Individuals gain social capital by increasing friends and so feel pressured to manage their profiles and so their “self”. Zara Worth similarly claims Instagram provides a framework that facilitates human interactions and has created a neoliberal culture in which the accumulation of likes, followers, and praise improves social capital. Businesses take advantage of social media by using influencers with large social capital to advertise and build trust in the product.

Previous literatures claim that Instagram can be beneficial for female atheletes because even though they undertake the extra gendered labor of self-presentation, they have control over their brand and how they are presented. An athlete’s public image affects how the public perceives them, affecting their ability to gain sponsorships. Before social media, an athlete’s image depended on how traditional media presented them. Now athletes control how they present themselves. Having this control means female athletes now must exert energy into their image. The “athletic labor of femininity” is a framework introduced by Toffoletti and Thorpe to understand the aesthetic work female athletes undertake to brand themselves in the global sports marketplace on platforms like Instagram. Professional female athletes face increasing demands to develop their social media accounts, to develop brands and expand their outreach to different stakeholders such as sponsors. In order for female athletes to be visible in social media, they have to provide more than sex appeal, they must also demonstrate self-love, self-disclosure, and self-empowerment. Should female athlete be required to turn themselves into brands to gain sponsorship they need in order to compete?

After talking to a professional female surfer in Costa Rica about her use of social media, I decided to spent three months engaging in Instagram to understand the extent to which female athletes are forced to turn themselves into objects to gain social capital. I followed around 100 female athletes, mostly professional surfers and rock climbers, with ages ranging from fourteen to thirty-seven. I focused on surfers and rock climbers because these are outdoor sports that can be easily done in scant amount of clothing. I watched the athletes’ live streams, analyzed their pages, actively participated in the Instagram world by commenting on pictures and reading comments posted by other users. I also conducted informal interviews with a number of athletes via the direct message tool. I wrote jottings and took screenshots.

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Engaging in Instagram this way, I could see that there was pattern in what content got attention. Posts that were explicitly sexy often received double the number of likes than an action shot. Athletes can also gain attention through disclosing personal information. Those with an extremely large followings (millions) took advantage of both. Alana Blanchard, a professional female surfer with 1.8 million followers, commonly posts full body bikini photos but also shares her struggles of being a new mom with her followers. By exposing her body and her personal life, Alana has been able to gain significant social capital and secure a sponsorship with Rip Curl.

In September 2018, the surfing sportswear brand Rip Curl brought all of its sponsored female surfers to Bali. They stayed in Villa Uluwatu, Bali, Indonesia. Their purpose was to advertise Rip Curl’s new bikini line and promote a consumer competition to win a trip to that same villa. The women wore bikinis and swimwear from the new line even when walking around and hanging out in the villa. Almost all the women there had successful Instagrams with above 15 thousand followers. The surfers posted about the trip, took pictures for their Instagram using #mybikini, and live streamed the whole experience from hanging out together in the villa to friendly surf competitions. By bring all their sponsored women to Bali, Rip Curl was able to advertise to all of the athletes followers via Instagram.

I distributed a small survey to every athlete that I followed and got a few responses. Responses help to gain insight into athletes’ perceptions. Responses include “there is some obvious pressure or rather need to be “sexy” or whatever to get more followers” and “If u can do flashy things in videos that get lots of views, behalf naked, blonde, and post frequently, ur golden🤷🏼‍♀️.” The athletes didn’t exclusively talk about sexy content: “Anything that shows personality” and “Short video of my climbing outdoor or competition. Or impressive picture on rock. the Or I think picture e of a girl climbing in general.” On Instagram, I noticed there are a couple of different avenues to gain followers, but the most predictable and easiest way for women is to be sexy. In the survey, I asked how Instagram effects their career, some responses included “Having an Instagram account with a respectable number of followers allows me to be seen as less of a rookie, and more so someone who actually knows what they’re doing, and worth sponsoring”; “I don’t have a huge number of followers or sponsors… related? Maybe.”

I screenshotted the picture on the left from a professional big wave surfer’s live story. It caught my eye because the surfer that posted this picture has 171K followers. The featured athlete’s Instagram page is dominated by sexy bikini photos posed on the beach with relatively few action shots. The post was captioned, “Social media isn’t real life! Pretty pictures are one thing, but there’s a far less glamorous story to my past twelve weeks” and continues to talk about the health struggles she has been facing for the last few months. The response to her post was extremely supportive, users commenting, “I wish more people would talk about the real them!” and “So inspiring I am fourteen and hearing that really does help I surf on the daily thank you for your story and sharing this.” This is a female athlete with a huge following, yet claims Instagram is fake and that her life isn’t what is shown. Her followers loved it, praising her for her honesty.

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I reached out to Sophie Hellyer, a former pro surfer turned into a freelance writer and environmental activist. She has an Instagram account with 28 thousand followers. She told me Instagram is powerful because it allows women to tell their own story, which she uses to promote female surfers and the environment. Having experienced the media twisting her story before, Sophie said, “Its (Instagram) been a great platform for me to share my writing and talk about issues that are important.” When I asked her about one of her friends that uses sex appeal, she responded,

“It’s too easy to blame the individual. The individual isn’t the problem, it’s the culture we have created, the structure and the systems. She’s just being ‘sexy’ because it’s a fast track to success. Why not? The issue is that there aren’t any routes to success for female surfers who don’t look the part, you have to fit the cultural beauty ideal or you are going to fail. Why? That goes back to marketing, sponsors, media coverage and representation, not the individual who’s posting bikini pics.”

Sophie is saying it is not the athlete’s fault for using sex to sell, it is the culture that rewards attractive women willing to use their sexuality to gain social capital.

I reached out to Leah Dawson, a professional longboarder with more than 60 thousand followers. She told me, “Instagram is a great personal marketing tool for female athletes; usually, the female athletes themselves are in charge of their own content.” Athletes represent themselves so they “must choose every time they post whether they are going to use their body for sex appeal, for likes, for reaction.” Leah “prays it’s only a matter of time before the marketing paradigm shifts and suddenly, they realized story and emotion is as powerful as sex appeal. Sex appeal is just taking the easy way”. Leah has a hope that there will be a shift in advertising because “sex sells. Yes to men… Beauty, heart, soul, this sells to women.” She believes that once businesses realize this they will be more consensus. She gave the example of “Seea and Kassia Surf, they recognize that women are innately beautiful, there is no need or reason for them to make revealing cuts…by inspiring women to be their best, divine selves, we celebrate a fresh narrative that speaks right to the heart of the surf brand I dream of.” Athletes post to get a reaction; if the culture changes and sex no longer sells then their posts will change too.

The Bigger Picture: The Logic of the Market

Neoliberal logic has creeped into how people use social media. Individuals manage their profiles to gain social capital created by number of likes and followers that they have. In the case of Instagram, athletes and other individuals with enough followers can get sponsorships and actually make money from social capital. Companies like Rip Curl pay athletes to wear their bikini line in posts. Sponsorships aren’t about an athelete’s skill; they are about her number of followers. Companies benefit more by sponsoring athletes with large followings because they can connect with more people. With sponsorships based on followers, athletes especially women, must now cultivate their personal brand to gain enough followers to attract sponsors. The labor that athletes put into creating their brands on Instagram is often invisible. They must juggle maintaining a steady stream of quality content, sharing their personal lives, exhibiting sex appeal, staging their sponsored products, and be “authentic” in an online world regarded as fake.

If an athlete wants to get funding through sponsorships, she has to engage in the tricky business of presenting herself through Instagram. Athletes feel pressured to get their followers and likes up, and one way to do so is by amping up the sex appeal. As Sophie said in her interview, it is not the fault of the athletes objectifying themselves, instead it is the fault of the culture that rewards athletes for being attractive and showing their bodies. Sex appeal maybe the fast track—but it’s not theonly element in creating a successful Instagram. Toffoletti & Thorpe found three themes of alternative discursive regimes that female athletes use to craft their brand. They are using self-love, self-disclosure and self-empowerment.

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Athletes posting whatever it takes to get followers and likes has been exacerbated by businesses getting involved in Instagram to sponsor anyone who can gain a significant amount of social capital. They encourage people to use materials that gets social capital, not what truly represents who they are. But now, people are starting to get tired of Instagram because they perceive it as phony. Female athletes are constantly being judged by their fans motivating their gendered self-branding online as a way to express their “authentic” self. If fans believe an athlete’s Instagram is inauthentic, then they are going to stop following them. Female athletes increasingly not only have to expose their bodies but also aspects of their personal lives to depict this authenticity. A cultural shift towards authenticity over sex means that female athletes will still have to maintain social visibility, invest time and energy and share their intimate lives, if they want to pursue an athletic career.

Neoliberal logic has leaked into Instagram by rewarding athletes that can generate large followings.  The rewards of social capital and sponsorships create an environment where users create content based on how others will respond to it. Female athletes must put time and energy into managing their online selves, using strategies like sex appeal and self-disclosure to appeal to Instagram followers. Female athletes are forced to enter into the competition to gain followers and attract sponsorships. This labor is often invisible and requires athletes not only to post sexual content, but also content using other strategies like self-disclosure. Instagram is perceived a fake online environment because users post for followers and likes. User are not representing themselves authentically on their Instagram accounts but instead creating a virtual self that gains social capital. If there is ever a shift away from sex appeal, athletes will still be forced to put in the labor to maintain their online self just in a different way if they want to be a sponsored athlete.


Lucy Shepherd graduated in December 2018 from Colorado State University with a degree in Anthropology. She is now doing an MA in the Anthropology of Development and Social Transformation at the University of Sussex in Brighton, UK.

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