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Navigating Body Image Issues in Women's Sports: Embracing Strength and Diversity

Updated: Aug 27, 2023

Women's sports have come a long way, breaking down barriers and challenging stereotypes to provide a platform for talented athletes to shine. Also, there’s no denying that there are many benefits to sports besides physical health. For girls and women, sports can be empowering. They can build confidence, social connections, and leadership skills. However, alongside the triumphs and benefits, there lies an underlying issue that continues to affect many female athletes: body image. The pressure to conform to societal beauty standards and the scrutiny athletes face can contribute to significant body image issues. This theme speaks to the culture that supports the pursuit of thinness and encourages restrictive eating and excessive exercise training, with the intent to achieve an idealized body type.

But body image hasn’t always been a topic of conversation in sports, there’s a tremendous amount of shame, stigma, and secrecy.

Societal Expectations and Beauty Standards

Women's sports have historically faced challenges in terms of recognition, resources, and media coverage. As these issues have improved over time, the focus on female athletes' appearances and bodies has also grown. Media outlets often emphasize physical appearance over athletic achievements, perpetuating harmful beauty standards that dictate what an "ideal" female athlete should look like. This pressure can lead to feelings of inadequacy, self-doubt, and even eating disorders.

For example, Olympic Gymnast Gabby Douglas said, "I remember when everyone was talking about her arms, and she became very self-conscious about how muscular they were." She was an olympic gymnast! That is a huge accomplishment, and yet still she felt the pressure to look a certain way.

So where do these body image topics and concerns even appear or begin? Think about the sports. We see form fitting and often revealing outfits in sports such as ice skating, gymnastics, cheerleading, dance, etc. Sports such as boxing, wrestling, and rowing put athletes into weight classes, which can make athletes vulnerable to dangerous behaviors to drop weight before competition.

Media Influence and Unrealistic Comparisons

Media portrayal of female athletes tends to highlight a narrow range of body types, favoring those who align with conventional beauty ideals. This narrow focus can lead to unhealthy comparisons and unrealistic expectations among athletes. Those who don't fit these rigid standards might experience feelings of insecurity and struggle to appreciate their own bodies, regardless of their remarkable athletic abilities.

Performance vs. Appearance

One of the most significant challenges is shifting the emphasis from appearance to performance. Athletes should be celebrated for their achievements, dedication, and hard work rather than how closely they resemble a societal beauty ideal. A runner's speed, a gymnast's grace, or a soccer player's skills should take precedence over their body shape or size.

Even CrossFit Games Athlete and Champion has struggled with body image at the beginnings of gaining strength in Crossfit and weightlifting, with with others help, her perspective changed. She quotes: "I am so proud of the way my body looks and I could not care less if someone doesn't agree with me, because I know what's been done in order to get to where I am."

Breaking the Stereotypes

Promoting diverse body types in sports is essential for fostering inclusivity and healthy body image perceptions. Athletes come in all shapes and sizes, and this diversity should be celebrated. By showcasing athletes with a variety of body types, sports can send a powerful message that strength, skill, and determination are what truly matter.

Empowering Athletes to Speak Up

Open discussions about body image within women's sports can help de-stigmatize the issue and create a supportive environment for athletes. When athletes share their stories of overcoming body image struggles, they inspire others to embrace their uniqueness and develop a healthier relationship with their bodies.

Serena Williams is doing just this: "I love my body, and I would never change anything about it. I'm not asking you to like my body. I'm just asking you to let me be me. Because I'm going to influence a girl who does look like me, and I want her to feel good about herself."

Break the Chain

Let's talk about the incredible impact coaches have on our body image and overall well-being. Coaches are mentors and role models who can shape our perceptions of ourselves and our bodies. So how can coaches break this chain of diet culture in sports:

  • Remember That Words Matter: Positive reinforcement and constructive feedback can build athletes up, while negative comments about appearance can be harmful to self-esteem.

  • Lead by Example: Coaches who embrace body positivity and self-acceptance inspire their players to do the same. Being a positive role model fosters a healthier relationship with our bodies.

  • Create Safe Spaces: Coaches who create a safe and supportive environment allow athletes to feel comfortable discussing body image concerns and seeking help when needed.

  • Focus on Abilities: Shifting the focus from aesthetics to athletes' skills and accomplishments empowers them to appreciate their bodies for what they can do.

  • Champion Diversity: Embracing body diversity in sports shows that every body is unique and worthy of respect. It helps break free from unrealistic beauty standards.

  • Use Mindful Coaching: Coaches who encourage mindfulness and self-compassion during training promote mental well-being and reduce body-related stress.

  • Encourage Body Appreciation: By discussing the amazing capabilities of the human body, coaches can inspire athletes to develop a positive attitude toward their own bodies.

  • Educate on Health: Teaching athletes that fitness is about overall health and well-being, not just appearance, instills a balanced approach to fitness.

Let's celebrate coaches who empower us to embrace our bodies, flaws, and all. Let's promote a culture where body positivity and mental wellness are nurtured alongside athletic excellence.

Self-Help Tools

Creating tools to lean on when body image issues arise will be crucial as a female athlete. Some examples are:

  • Be Mindful of the Media: What thoughts and beliefs about body image are you filling your mind with?

  • Self-Compassion: Take a 5 minute self compassion break. Acknowledge how you feel and then think, what would I say to a friend?

  • Self Talk: How can you reframe those negative thoughts?

  • Practice mindfulness: What senses are all around you? Be present in the moment.

  • Reach Out: to someone you trust, because not being alone in your thoughts is so important.

  • Reach out for professional: If you feel you are being consumed by this and acting in maladaptive behaviors.

To sum it up, Olympic Gymnast, Simone Biles said it perfectly, "It's hard growing up in a sport where you compete with very little clothing on your body and everyone is staring at your body no matter how good you are. No matter how good you are at the sport, people will always say you don’t look good enough, But we wouldn't be able to do the things or achieve the things we did without our bodies so we're very grateful for them."

Women's sports have the power to challenge norms, inspire individuals, and bring communities together. However, the persistent body image issues that female athletes face remain a hurdle on the path to true empowerment. By shifting the narrative from appearance to performance, celebrating diversity, and creating supportive environments, we can help female athletes embrace their bodies and focus on what truly matters – their remarkable skills, dedication, and achievements. It's time to rewrite the story of women's sports, placing the spotlight on strength, resilience, and the unique journeys that make each athlete extraordinary.

Lets follow 2023 CrossFit Games Champion, Laura Horvaths, words of wisdom:

“It’s a lot of pressure, but I’m just very happy that my body can do this. And I’m not looking at the new “Barbie” movie, ‘Oh, I want to look like that.’ I want to look like what I look like. And I just want to prove that my body, whatever it looks like, can do these amazing things. And move things from A to B and run fast and lift heavy, and all those things. I’m very excited that little girls and teenagers can look up to all these amazing girls that are here, because our bodies are not us, we are what’s inside. And it’s amazing what our bodies can do if you put the work in.”

Here at EmpoweredRX, we are Trauma- Informed Coaches who are changing the negative impact of diet culture in women sports. We are here to help athletes claim their power back from body image struggles and find confidence in what their body is capable of!

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