While the benefits of sport participation (academic success, physical fitness, learning critical life skills, etc.) often lend to overall mental and physical well-being, it’s important to recognize some of the struggles athletes experience when living, performing, and competing under heightened expectations from themselves or others. Body image is one concept that tends to have a more negative connotation in the sporting world, especially for female athletes in performance-based sports. There are many factors that may cause an athlete to become overly self-conscious about the appearance of their body.
Athletes, especially at the elite level, pretty much live under a microscope. Erin Rubenking, associate director for the University of Colorado Athletic Department’s Psychological Health and Performance program, stated, “There’s a lot of pressure in general with athletes on their bodies. There is so much focus on what they are eating and what their fitness level is that they are hyper vigilant about their bodies. I think it is natural that they would develop more body image issues than someone in the general public who isn’t constantly focusing on what their body can do.” And, of course, there is the added pressure of coaches, judges, and spectators also focusing on what these athletes’ bodies can do.
In addition to there being a focus on an athlete’s fitness, most sports also have a specific body type associated with them. These stereotypical body types depend on the sport; your image of a softball player would likely be different than that of a ballerina. In aesthetic sports, such as dance and gymnastics, or weight class sports such as rowing or wrestling, there is added pressure to look thin or make a certain weight class—this additional focus on an athlete’s body creates environments conducive to developing negative body image and disordered eating.
An athlete’s body image can also be impacted by revealing sport attire. Constantly feeling “on display,” in tight uniforms such as bathing suits or leotards, athletes can become overly conscious of their bodies and start comparing their bodies with others’. Watching one’s own body in a mirror for hours every day can make it difficult not to obsess over one’s appearance. An athlete’s self-perceptions can also be influenced by their coaches. Former elite dancer, Alicia Kao shared, “It’s the little comments that get to you. My friend’s [dance] teacher once went up to her and said, ‘Wow! You look like you lost five pounds, congratulations.’” Even if theoretically “positive,” this kind of atmosphere breeds an obsession with weight. In effect, the “positive” comments are almost as harmful as negative ones like, “lose three pounds, you’ll be easier to throw.”
Female athletes who compete in aesthetic, endurance, or weight class sports are at the highest risk for eating disorders. Athletes in these sports are commonly encouraged to “make weight” however they can, and can be pressured to use unhealthy weight-control methods to do so. Critical comments from coaches, judges, and peers about athletes’ bodies can make them feel objectified and can trigger disordered eating patterns in an attempt to cope with or avoid future negative body-related comments. In a review of elite female gymnasts, one author found that only a handful of the subjects had not engaged in disordered eating, and many had experienced harmful comments like “fat cows” and “Pillsbury dough boy.” Demeaning comments are difficult enough, but hearing these words from trusted coaches, can be devastating and can create unhealthy training environments; self-worth and performance are often damaged. Considering that prevalence rates of eating disorders and related symptoms among elite/college female athletes reach upwards of 19%, there is cause for halting weight and appearance related comments from people involved in athletes’ lives (both directly or as bystanders).
To help their athlete’s maintain a positive body image, coaches (and others) should avoid making comments about an athlete’s body or weight (whether positive or negative) and should use non-objectifying language. Coaches should also avoid tying an athlete’s performance to their body. Feedback can center on the individual’s technique without centering on their appearance. Coaches can play a pivotal role toward health and development by normalizing body image concerns, perhaps by even sharing their own experiences, and support their athletes by simply being approachable and available. Lastly, coaches (and others) should preach self-acceptance and being comfortable in one’s own skin. A good strength-based approach is to promote the idea that each body is unique and has different advantages.
Healthy coping mechanisms for combating poor body image can include seeking social support from friends and family, journaling or other creative expressions, and seeking counseling from a licensed mental health practitioner.