Watching the scale and scoreboard

Looking into the effects of body stereotypes on athletes

Eric Wu and Risa Mori

From their earliest depictions in history, athletes have always been viewed as the pinnacle of human physique. Their admired physical attributes, however, can create an unhealthy emphasis on body weight and shape brought on by onlookers. Because athletics concentrate heavily on the physical strengths of individuals, athletes often find themselves struggling to meet the expectations of their sport and of society, in turn provoking body image issues and eating disorders.

Body image — an individual’s mental perception of the aesthetics or attractiveness of their own body — is internalized by many people at a young age due to influences such as friends, family, culture and the media. In the world of sports, body image concerns can exist at accelerated levels due to the extreme circumstances in which athletes operate. In a specialty where the most successful athletes often embody the ideal body image, other athletes may feel themselves making unhealthy body comparisons.

“Something that can affect how you feel about your body definitely comes from your peers,” said junior and basketball player Katie Patton. “They don’t necessarily put on that pressure on purpose; I think people can take that upon themselves and put pressure on themselves.”

Because of certain stereotypes that are projected as the ideal body type for each sport, some athletes feel restricted in their ability to succeed in the sport.

“For volleyball, the most important thing is being tall,” said sophomore and volleyball player Angela Steinmetz. “You go to any college recruiter and they always choose the 6’4”-type of person instead of someone who is 5’4”. When I first started playing volleyball, I was an outside hitter, but I changed to my position as a libero because everyone around me was saying ‘You’re too short. You just can’t do it.’ I understand where the stereotype comes from, but it doesn’t make it any easier to accept the fact. I can’t control my height, and it sucks to see coaches who are really biased and only want tall people on their team.”

According to a 2010 study by Ron A. Thompson and Roberta Trattner Sherman, psychologists and co-authors of the book “Helping Athletes With Eating Disorders,” revealing uniforms or sports attire is an additional factor that can affect the body image of athletes. By increasing body consciousness and dissatisfaction, revealing uniforms can increase the risk of unhealthy dieting. For certain sports, such as swimming, both male and female athletes wear revealing uniforms as a convenience of functionality; the reduced suits lessen drag in the water and improve performance. Other sports, such as volleyball, require more revealing uniforms for women as opposed to men in the same sport — male volleyball players wear knee-length shorts while female players wear spandex shorts. Often for no reason of functionality, such requirements have caused some girls to even opt out from participating in a particular sport because of what they would have to wear.

“As a freshman, when I played for JV volleyball, one of the requirements was wearing short spandex, so that made me kind of insecure about my body,” said Patton. “When I played volleyball in middle school, we wore the knee length P.E. shorts. It’s just weird to get used to, for something so short and tight to your body, that shows everything. But one time, I invited a friend to a volleyball game and he commented about being able to ‘check out girls.’ I was so grossed out, but it also made me wonder if that was what people thought about at these games.”

In a study of Division 1 National Collegiate Athletic Association athletes, more than one third of female athletes reported attitudes and symptoms that placed them at risk for anorexia nervosa. Though most athletes with eating disorders are female, male athletes are also at risk, especially those competing in sports that often emphasize diet, appearance, size and weight. Recent research by Lorraine Killion and Dean Culpepper, professors at Texas A&M University, shows that there is an increasing concern in male athletes about the appearance of their bodies, a desire to improve their body image and an increased pressure to conform to a body ideal for their specific sport. According to the study, Western societies attribute high social status with muscular aesthetics, strength and power. Some sports that emphasize physique in athletes include aesthetic sports, such as bodybuilding and gymnastics; endurance sports, such as track and field and swimming; and weight class sports, such as wrestling. According to the National Eating Disorders Association (NEDA), about 33 percent of male athletes in weight-class sports and aesthetic sports are affected by eating disorders; in female athletes, the percentage of athletes is as high as 62 percent. Getting a diagnosis is the first step toward recovery from an eating disorder — most treatments of eating disorders involve psychological and nutritional counseling, as well as medical and psychiatric monitoring.

“A few years ago, I entered a cycle of overexerting my body in an attempt to lose weight, gain muscle mass and become faster,” said senior basketball player Raksha Narasimhan. “Meals grew to be more stressful than enjoyable, and I was never quite satisfied with what I saw in the mirror, leading to poor eating habits and malnutrition, as well as a fixation on the way my body looked.”

Body positivity involves feeling comfortable and confident in one’s body, accepting one’s natural body shape and size and recognizing that physical appearance says very little about one’s character and value. One such step toward body positivity for athletes is to foster a supportive environment, which can be facilitated by coaches and a positive training environment. Studies show that athletic trainers are in need of education and preventative resources: a survey by NEDA found that in athletic trainers working with female collegiate athletes, only 27 percent felt confident identifying an athlete with an eating disorder. Despite this reported statistic, 91 percent of athletic trainers reported dealing with an athlete with an eating disorder. Coaches who emphasize factors conducive to personal success, in addition to support from teammates with healthy attitudes, provide athletes with a relaxed atmosphere. Rather than emphasizing body weight or shape, these coaches promote values such as motivation and enthusiasm. Scientists have also developed prevention programs and trainings that may reduce negative risk factors such as building self-esteem on appearance.

“Recovering has been a challenge, but I’ve had to remind myself that my overall mental and physical health is more important than the way I look,” said Narasimhan. “Each body is different. The physique of one person may be completely unsustainable for another. Now, when I work out, it’s not just to lose weight or look a certain way; it’s to become stronger.”

Undeniably, athletics are beneficial in the many ways individuals can improve their health while pursuing a sport they are passionate about; however, the nature of sports often places emphasis on one’s appearance or weight. While body image is a subjective idea that differs for each person, educating athletic trainers to create a more positive environment for athletes is a key factor in resolving self-image issues. Despite struggles that may come with body image, stereotypes do not put athletes off from competing in their sports.

“I still have some insecurities about myself, but I feel like sports have helped me in a way to accept my body, and has definitely helped me to keep in shape,” said Patton. “Sports is a very social thing, and without it I would be a pretty different person.”


* If you or someone you know is dealing with body image issues, call (800) 931-2237 or contact a trusted adult.