The Athletic Body and Beauty: The Struggle of Eating Disorders Among Female Athletes

“I don’t look in the mirror and think “slim”; I look in the mirror and I’m like, “Whoa, beast!” It’s just crazy how much the body changes. Looking in the mirror I get surprised like every other week. It’s like I’m Wonder Woman.”— Chantae McMillan, Olympic heptathlete

It’s not uncommon for girls in today’s society to feel pressured to conform to the norms of what an ideal body is. To lose a few pounds here or there to fit into that dress isn’t so harmful, right? Unfortunately, in many cases, girls go to drastic measures to achieve this ideal body. But when it comes to being a female athlete, These problems, and their potential sources, can multiply. Not only do many of them feel the need to look the way that society defines as beautiful, they also have to make functional changes in their bodies in order to excel in their sport. This usually means the training or bulking of muscle, which can contradict the beauty standards they wish to achieve. This pressure to conform to both beauty and sport norms often lead to a large amount of stress, damaging not only to the physical health of the athlete, but her mental health as well.

The term body image refers to the subjective interpretation of an one’s own body, including the cognitive, emotional, and behavioral consequences of these interpretations (Kong, et al., 2014). To further complicate matters, an individual’s body image may change with different situations and can be easily influenced by societal norms  and media fixations. A dissatisfaction with one’s body often occurs when there’s an unorganized vision of  an individual’s own body and the body they perceive as ideal; whether for beauty or sport (de Bruin, et al., 2011). When it comes to athletes, elite athletes reported much higher levels of body dissatisfaction and disordered eating symptoms, regardless of sport type. This applies doubly to female athletes, who may simultaneously feel social pressures to attain one kind of physique, and athletic pressures to attain another (Kong, et al., 2014).

Recent research has found that athletes who are satisfied with their body shape and figure in the social environments are dissatisfied with their body in the sporting environments, or more commonly, the reverse (de Bruin, et al., 2011). In a study focusing on if there was a distinction between leanness focused sports, such as gymnastics, swimmers, dancers, and wrestlers, and other recreational athletes, those participating in leanness focused sports reported higher rates of disordered eating and eating disorder symptoms compared to athletes from sports that do not have body weight/shape requirements (Kakaiya, 2008). In the clinical samples from the study listed above, body dissatisfaction, notably among females, consistently shows to have been influenced by pressure from their peers and family. Through the trials, there were several types of significant interactions found between the variables of sport type (body focused or recreational), gender, and non-athletes; concluding that more female athletes competing in body focused sports reported engaging in disordered eating patterns, finding that almost half (49%) of female athletes who compete in leanness focused are at increased risk of developing a clinical eating disorder (Kong, et al., 2014). Dangerous often overlooked, Eating disorders lead to medical conditions that tend to become chronic when not treated. Anorexia, bulimia and exercise addiction can go undiagnosed in people for years (Kakaiya, 2008). While men are at high risk during the “weight cutting” season, women are still three times as likely to develop an eating disorder (Kong, et al., 2014).

These findings are consistent with the idea of the contextual pressures that contribute to a person’s body dissatisfaction routine to the sporting environments where the athletes success is based on principles of body aesthetics (Kong, et al., 2014). Many are often motivated to preserve lean builds to achieve the goal of winning athletic success. Findings like these are often concerning, especially for sporting organizations, coaches and health professionals who work often with female athletes (de Bruin, 2011).  It’s essential for coaches to explore their personal values and attitudes concerning weight, dieting, and body image in general. How they value these in their own lives directly affects the attitudes that may inadvertently impact their athletes.The coverage of women in sport by the media is fairly rare, but it is recognized that when women are portrayed in the media as athletes the focus becomes on their bodily appearance over their professional skill (Kong, et al., 2014).

Often in society athletes are admired for the willpower, perseverance and dedication that they demonstrate in competition, receiving the highest levels of respect from society. But as an athlete, it’s very easy to get disconnected from their sense of mind and body in the pursuit of athleticism and this perfection (Kakaiya, 2008). Athletes minds are trained around the idea of doing whatever it takes to get the the goal, leaving it hard to see if what they’re doing is no longer healthy. Getting them to admitted they are struggling with the eating behaviors is the first step. Eating disorders are so often stigmatized that the label could be seen in the same context of a loss. Developing a relationship of trust is essential in the process of getting help. Often, athletes with eating disorders will need a specialized approach to identifying, managing, and treating the problem. It’s critical for the athletic community to create and enforce guidelines on how to address future issues regarding eating disorders so an effective system for connecting athletes to the specialized treatment they need can be developed (Gapin, NCAA). A balance between mental training, a set physical routine, and taking time to love yourself is the quickest way to recovery.

In athletics, women should be regarded for what they truly are, powerful and inspiring. They can do things so many people wish they could. But they have their own weaknesses. Rarely is anyone ever perfectly happy with their body. It’s in our nature to see flaws and want to change them. Women in athletics not only have to deal with those pressures as well, they continue to build and thrive in their natural power. Everyone get’s caught up sometimes, but all it takes is a reminder of who you are to get you back on the right track. Women in sports are powerful, inspirational, strong, and motivation to the rest of us to be better, Let’s not let them forget that.

Emma Doran

Resources for athletes and parents:

References:

Kong, P., & Harris, L. M. (2014). The Sporting Body: Body Image and Eating Disorder Symptomatology Among Female Athletes from Leanness Focused and Non Leanness Focused Sports. The Journal of Psychology, 149(2), 141-160. doi:10.1080/00223980.2013.846291

de Bruin, A. P., Oudejans, R. R. D., Bakker, F. C., & Woertman, L. (2011). Contextual

body image and athletes’ disordered eating: The contribution of athletic body image

to disordered eating in high performance women athletes. European Eating Disorders

Review, 19(3), 201–215. doi: 10.1002/erv.1112

Kakaiya, D. (2008, March). Eating Disorders – Athletes. Retrieved from http://www.ideafit.com/fitness-library/eating-disorders-among-athletes

Gapin, J. (NCAA). Addressing the Unique Treatment Needs of Athletes with Eating Disorders | NCAA.org – The Official Site of the NCAA. Retrieved from http://www.ncaa.org/health-and-safety/nutrition-and-performance/addressing-unique-treatment-needs-athletes-eating

Sanghani, R. (2015, April). Video: Body image: Dove advert reveals what women think about themselves – Telegraph. Retrieved from http://www.telegraph.co.uk/women/womens-life/11519694/Body-image-Dove-advert-reveals-what-women-think-about-themselves.html

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