The Instagramification of Women’s Sports, or How We Still Can’t Escape the Patriarchy

If you're a professional athlete, you shouldn't have to conform to tired standards of beauty or post Instagram-friendly selfies to make money.

Every week in her Good Form column, Natalie Weiner explores the ways in which the sports world’s structural inequalities and injustices illuminate those outside it — and the ways in which they’re inextricably connected. You can read previous columns here.

The 2001 WNBA All-Star Weekend had all the usual elements — and a photo shoot in which players wore designer clothes for publicity shots. “The league isn’t afraid to project this not-so-subtle message: These people may play basketball, but they are still women — and don’t you forget it,” the Orlando Sentinel wrote at the time. “With few exceptions, it’s been difficult for female athletes to gain national popularity simply based on athletic prowess.” The MVP of that year’s All-Star Game, Lisa Leslie, had leveraged her modeling career into being not only one of the league’s best players but one of its most highly compensated, with a Pepsi endorsement on top of individual deals with all 10 of the WNBA’s corporate sponsors. 

In sports, the unrealistic standards of physical beauty that all women are subject to carry a different kind of weight. Women’s chances of success in any industry can be unfairly boosted or reduced based on what they look like. But in women’s sports, the success of the entire enterprise — whether or not they are “worth” paying attention to at all — has often at least been perceived to hinge on the way its players look. It’s a reality that generally goes unacknowledged because of how ugly, how racist, how colorist and how homophobic it is.

The overwhelming popularity of the 1999 U.S. women’s national soccer team is impossible to separate from the telegenic, mostly white, “girl-next-door” quality of its members. NBA fixtures from Bill Simmons to Nick Young have explained how they would be happy to watch women play basketball if they were sexier. Cases of women athletes being explicitly spotlighted for their convenient combination of looks and ability have become less common, but by no means has that insidious trope been extinguished — and the high incentives of being a beautiful woman online have only increased the temptation for publications and marketers to revive it.

Not one but two separate sets of basketball-playing twins have captured the attention of national media not because they’re destined to make it in the ultra-competitive WNBA, but because they have massive social followings. Certainly, their success is a story. The trouble is that theirs is getting told while those of so many players with greater potential on the court are not. 

Around this year’s NCAA women’s basketball tournament, Axios noted that eight of the ten most-followed — and thus potentially highest-earning, when they receive name, image and likeness rights — athletes competing in either the men’s or women’s Elite Eight were women. 

Kysre Gondrezick wasn’t among them, but only because her West Virginia team hadn’t made it that far. Gondrezick has over 200,000 followers on Instagram, a number that’s grown since she was picked No. 4 overall in the 2021 WNBA Draft. Since, she’s signed what is allegedly a “lucrative” multi-year deal with Adidas, making her the “lead face of the next generation of Adidas Basketball;” not an unheard of feat for a rookie, but certainly unusual for one entering without much on-court buzz or individual accolades. The thirsty quote tweets of the announcement were abundant, to say the least. 

To try to parse the ethics of Instagram modeldom feels like an exercise in futility. Of course women have the right to use the way that their appearance has been commodified since forever to their own benefit; there’s no reason that women athletes, so often compelled to accept table scraps for their hard work and dedication, should be excluded from that surging economy. 

To paint the idea that an athlete’s off-the-court persona, or even just their appearance, might make them a more valuable marketing asset — worth more, by at least a potential endorser’s metrics — is a dynamic exclusive to women’s sports would also be misguided. Certainly, plenty of male athletes have parlayed their personality and/or appearance into a major payoff, and there are boys and young men in sports with massive social media followings. The difference is that those followers look to them for highlights more often than… well, pictures of themselves.

Yet the understandable, necessary desire of women’s sports fans, media and players to grow their game often leads them to look past this crucial distinction. To call evaluations of women athletes’ earning potential that seem transparently based on how many people they have charmed — typically with flattering photos — into following them on social media an unambiguous good is discomfiting. There’s no question that said evaluations are accurate. It also seems likely that the combination of college athletes getting overdue rights to their name, image and likeness and the evergreen popularity of beautiful young women will tilt the balance of power within the NCAA at least a little more in favor of the long-maligned women’s sports. The problem, though, is how many extraordinary athletes might get left behind. 

Basically since the passage of Title IX, women’s sports have often served as a haven of sorts for women who felt like they didn’t meet those unrealistic standards of physical beauty, or who weren’t interested in prioritizing them, or who felt like outsiders in some other way — maybe because of their sexuality or race. Much more than in men’s sports, where especially in the most popular ones, a culture of conformity prevails, women’s sports have long been inherently transgressive. The field or court was a place to convene with other people who felt like they didn’t fit in, where you could challenge norms just by following a different, chosen set of rules. 

As they slowly — very, very slowly — become more popular, some of those edges will inevitably be sanded down. More people will play without feeling like outsiders, which is obviously a good thing.

But it also means that instead of being a sometimes safe (or safer) space, women’s sports will mirror the world around them more directly; as that process unfolds, the persistence of that hideous hierarchy of physical beauty becomes more clear. Instagram and TikTok just make it quantitative instead of qualitative, making clear the power and earning potential that people successful on those platforms have in a community where power and earning potential are incredibly hard to come by. 

social media threatens to strengthen a status quo women’s sports have so often challenged

“You may play like a boy. Doesn’t mean you have to look like one,” Gondrezick said after the draft, a retrograde, cisnormative assertion that speaks to the way that social media threatens to strengthen a status quo women’s sports have so often challenged.

There isn’t really much to be done about the shift. Women are finding new power and agency in marketing themselves online, and that’s a good thing. The unsavory part is that corporate dollars are following that entrepreneurial hierarchy, those engagement stats instead of points and assists.

What if, instead, the growth of women’s sports could center on a challenge to the seemingly eternal hegemony of the male gaze, of the unrealistic expectations for how women look and act? Perhaps it’s naive to hope for something so radical from corporate institutions. But women’s sports themselves are radical, a wordless rebuke of any and all gender norms by virtue of their very existence. 

Keeping that might be worth losing a few followers.