While participating in sports can be a great way to stay active and be a healthy outlet for competitiveness, it can have a detrimental effect on women athlete’s body image.
I have been an athlete my entire life. Everyone in my family was an athlete. All of the women in my family were cheerleaders, dancers, and gymnasts, which are arguably the three most image-focused women’s sports. Not only do you have to perform with perfection, you have to look perfect while doing it. I am here to share my experience with my own body image and how it was (and is) effected by being an athlete.
As a little girl, I was always aware of what my body looked like and what was considered “ideal” for whatever sport I was doing. For dance it was tall, skinny, with long legs and delicate arms. For gymnastics it was abs, and muscles everywhere with a thin waist. For cheerleading, it was skinny all around but also strong. Even as a 12 year-old I felt as if my body wasn’t the “right” body for my sport. I would look at my teammates and compare myself to them, wanting to be as skinny or as muscular as them. Each sport changed my perception of what the “perfect” body was, yet I never felt like I was even close. This resulted in me having severely low self-esteem and a negative body image of myself that never truly went away.
I hit an all-time-low my junior year of high school when one of my coaches called myself and my teammates “fat pigs” (I wish I was exaggerating). After 17 years of not feeling like my body was good enough, this comment pushed me over the edge. I started running 8 miles a week, going to the gym every single day at 6 am in addition to weekly practices for two teams. I lost weight and was starting to feel as if I looked like my coaches wanted me to. I even got comments from people about how good I looked, which just reassured me that what I was doing was good.
What I then realized was this: regardless of how much I worked out or how little I ate, I would never be “perfect” in the way my sports wanted me to be. This realization was important because I finally understood that the body I strived for was unrealistic, unattainable, and unhealthy.
Years later and I am still an athlete. I still have doubts about my body from years of idealizing unhealthy standards, however, my priorities have changed; I value taking care of my body by fueling it with the nutrients that it needs and getting a healthy amount of exercise. By focusing more on my health over my appearance, I know that my body looks the way it does because it sustains me and keeps me alive.
Body image is a prevalent problem for women of all ages, races, and sizes. Athletics can exacerbate those negative body images and lead to unhealthy practices revolving around food and exercise. Hopefully my story won’t prevent you from participating in athletics, but give you piece of mind in regard to maintaining the idea that your body does not need to match a sport’s standard and that the important thing is that you are healthy both physically and mentally.