In American sports, female athletes tend to take a back seat to their male counterparts. It’s the reality of our society, and we can debate the issue of a male-dominated sports culture and all the underlying chauvinist implications that come with it until we’re blue in the face. Even conversations surrounding ethics in college sports focus on problems from the perspective of male athletes, something I have been guilty of in this blog. This is why I want to focus our discourse on the issue of body image among female athletes. This problem affects all athletes, but it is one that affects women athletes in particular.
The percentage of collegiate women athletes struggling with an eating disorder is somewhere around 60%. You would think a number that high would elicit some national attention leading to actions addressing the problem. Yet, it seems as if the issue has become a taboo subject in college athletics. Even mentioning the words “eating disorders” and “athletes” puts people on edge. I think part of the reason is that not much is being said about the underlying ethical problem of bodily integrity. Athletes have a unique relationship with their bodies. By constantly striving to improve in their respective sports, athletes are constantly confronted with their physical limitations. Of course, this struggle with physical limits is a rightful part of sports. But abuse can occur when athletes go to extremes to overcome those limitations, forgetting that their physical bodies constitute a large part of who they are as individuals. You can hurt your body so much that you break faith with yourself. Eating disorders are an example of such an extreme.
To be fair, most studies show female non-athletes are just as much at risk of developing an eating disorder as athletes. So, it is easy to dismiss the issue as having nothing to do with sports per se, and everything to do with the cultural standards of beauty that all women are subject to. However, certain unique pressures within women’s sports contribute to the problem, and it is these pressures that I would like to address.
First is the pressure to perform. In sports like cross country, gymnastics, or track and field, having a thin and lean frame allows athletes to maximize their performance. It is a simple matter of biology. Athletes can push themselves too far in an effort to achieve that body, which can lead to the development of eating disorders of various types and degrees. The tragedy of it all is that athletes who take their drive for success to an unhealthy level develop things like weaker bone density, making them more susceptible to injury, which is counterproductive to their initial goal. However, because athletes are so focused on their physical wellbeing as it relates to their performance, the line between what is healthy and unhealthy is not always clear. What most view as excessive exercise or dieting is actually what is required in order to compete at the highest levels of sport. You wouldn’t believe how many jaws I’ve seen drop when a long distance runner tells someone his or her weekly mileage. Not to mention, coaches praise athletes for putting in extra time outside of practice because they know that extra workouts are necessary in order to remain competitive.
In addition to wanting to compete at the highest levels, female athletes are also women, meaning they are not immune to the pressure to conform to the cultural standards of beauty within society. It’s no secret that the demand for women to be sexually appealing is high. Open any Sports Illustrated swimsuit edition and you will see the standard that the female form is held to. We may think that such aesthetic beauty does not apply to athletics, which appreciates the performance of the body, not necessarily the way it looks. But, considering the uniforms of sports like volleyball, gymnastics, tennis, track, and swimming, it’s clear that even in sports, women cannot escape the pressure to look a certain way. It’s hard to dismiss the stress on physical appearance when you’re running around in short skirts and spandex. I don’t mean to make uniform manufacturers out to be sexist pigs; a lot of the design that goes into uniforms is a matter of function (i.e. increasing range of motion, reducing perspiration, etc). However, we should be conscious that the desire to "look good in a uniform" can be a potential negative influence upon an athlete’s psyche.
Unfortunately addressing the issue of body image and eating disorders is not an easy task. As it turns out, speaking openly about these issues can actually exacerbate them further because women will hear how other women took drastic measures in order to lose weight, and if they were already predisposed to feeling uncomfortable with their body, they will go and try out the things that they heard. Such eating disorders are best deal with on an individual basis, with a psychologist or specialist. Unfortunately, most athletic departments lack the resources to carry such a person on staff, and so coaches are left to deal with the issue on their own, which is its own unique problem when over half of the coaches in women’s sports are male.
If anything is going to change about this issue, it is not going to be done by ignoring it or leaving it up to teams to deal with. Coaches have so much on their plates, and while the health and wellbeing of their athletes should be their Number 1 priority, they may find it difficult or uncomfortable to speak to an athlete who may have an eating disorder. Athletic departments should make it a priority to have resources and information available to coaches that they can use should a situation involving an athlete’s eating habits arise. Even though eating disorders are unique to the individual, it’s still possible to have a uniform policy and procedure in place. It can be something as simple as having one person that all coaches can refer to if a problem arises with someone on their team.
For this issue to really be dealt with, though, we athletes need to change the perspective we have of our bodies. An athlete’s body is his or her tool for success. We constantly push our physical limitations in order to reach the next plateau. While this is a necessary and healthy approach to fitness, athletes must also respect and recognize that our bodies are extensions of our persons, and that any effort to improve upon physical appearance must not damage our bodily integrity.