Women don't take enough exercise because of pressure to be beautiful

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Many women are dissuaded from playing sport because it is inextricably linked with the unattainable beauty of female sports celebrities such as the tennis star Anna Kournikova, a leading sports psychologist said yesterday.

Many women are dissuaded from playing sport because it is inextricably linked with the unattainable beauty of female sports celebrities such as the tennis star Anna Kournikova, a leading sports psychologist said yesterday.

Physical exercise for women was sold as an extension of the beauty business rather than as an activity to improve health and well-being, the British Association meeting was told.

Precilla Choi, senior lecturer in psychology at Keele University, said women often gave up on sport and exercise because it had become so tied up with the drive to improve appearance. "Physical exercise has become the latest commodity in the highly commercialised beauty culture. Instead of being promoted to women as a way of improving physical and psychological health, it is promoted as a way of improving their sex appeal through losing weight and improving muscle tone," Dr Choi said.

"The belief that beauty will result from exercise can also translate into a belief that one has to be beautiful in order to exercise. This prevents women from exercising," she said.

Part of the problem was that professional sportswomen were judged more on their looks than their performance, with a greater emphasis placed on their femininity than any attributes traditionally associated with masculinity, such as strong muscles.

"Mary Pierce, who is quite muscular, gets a much harder time than somebody like Anna Kournikova. At this year's Wimbledon, Kournikova was hailed as one of the best role models for women's tennis, and yet this is a woman who is not as good as the Williams sisters or Pierce," Dr Choi said.

The fitness business was selling women the false premise of being able to shed fat by exercising the underlying muscles. That was unrealistic and led many women to abandon regular exercise. "Health and fitness magazines have headings such as, 'Walk your way to thinner thighs', to encourage women to take up more exercise. They are advocating looking slimmer as opposed to having a healthier heart," she said. "This is damaging to women because we have a large drop-out rate. That's because the goal they are trying to achieve is far too unrealistic. What we need is for women to be empowered by physical exercise through feelings of strength and psychological benefits as opposed to trying to look better."

A survey of media reports of big sporting events had shown that female athletes were still being judged on their looks as well as their ability. "When young women look at the focus of sport they see it's about femininity and that raises the question in their minds about whether they can maintain a feminine image as well as being an élite athlete," Dr Choi said.

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