Body image issues among athletes are real.
Body image conversations are sensitive and they are hard. However, they are super necessary and these issues are real. I know this because I struggle with it myself and so do my teammates. So do athletes everywhere.
I see two versions of myself when I look in the mirror, and honestly neither seem good enough to society. When I say I see two of me, I first see the athletic version of me. Then I see a version of me that wants to be successful and pretty in society’s eyes. Both of which are at constant war with each other.
In an article by Eating Disorder Hope, the website states that athletes have two body images. One in sport and one outside of sport and athletes experience body image issues in one or both contexts. Research shows that this is common among female athletes and even male athletes. Athletes are under extreme pressures from outside sources which also battle with pressures we hold ourselves too within. Pressures create struggle or pain, and sometimes self-harm stemming from thoughts of expectations.
As an athlete, we are supposed to be powerful and strong. As women in society we are told to be beautiful, feminine, and put together. Honestly, I have struggled with my body image for years and it’s not been easy to deal with.
How can I be both?
Women especially tend to compare themselves to each other whether it be conscious or not. It can create unhealthy thoughts and lifestyles quickly though. I can tear myself apart when I don’t think I am good enough, and my thoughts become negative. In this society we are bombarded by marketing!
Everywhere I go there are images of women who look flawless and happy. We all know they aren’t 100% real but our minds still tend to pick at those pictures. It still happens to me too often.
Training for female athletes is unreal and really intense.
As a Division I swimmer at the University of Georgia, I am surrounded by beautiful girls of all kinds. Sorority girls, athletes, you name it – every type of girl. I especially think my teammates are the most stunning of them all. But I am a bit biased I suppose. I see them at 5:30 am in the morning and I truly think their natural look is incredible. With unbrushed hair, sleepy eyes, and not a single swipe of mascara on our eyelashes, we drag ourselves into practice.
But honestly, we all have very different body types, and that’s totally okay. It’s still hard to not compare yourself.
I don’t want to bore anyone with our detailed schedule, but our body types are sculpted uniquely from how much training we do. From swimming nine times a week, lifting three times, and sometimes doing a workout circuit, it is hard to not expect us to be muscular.
Strong women who can do pull-ups with 25+ pounds or bench over 100 pounds are not often glorified compared to a Victoria Secret model who dresses in athletic apparel. Female athletes are at VERY high risk for eating disorders and mental struggles because there is a huge stigma surrounding body image. But it is time that we break them, and we worry less about our looks.
I showed some of my teammate’s pictures from several workout campaigns (some are shown above) from Lululemon, Adidas, Nike, Victoria Secret, and Forever 21. Then I asked them a few questions on how they felt about them and then how they felt about themselves. I truly admire all of my teammates for their inner and outer beauty, their successes, and their drive.
Their responses floored me.
Jordyn was accomplished in high school with making Junior Nationals, being a team captain, earning high school All-American Honors, USA Swimming Scholastic All-American, among other successes in and out of the pool. When asking them how the pictures made them feel, Jordyn responded with, “I’m comfortable with my body, but there is always that little voice that is like ‘why don’t I look like her?‘ when I look at models in ads.”
Jordyn is one of our cute and new freshmen this year and by far one of the hardest workers I have ever met, and I know that she struggles in training even when she gives it her all. Jordyn stated that sometimes she compares herself to her teammates but that she has learned how to be confident in her own body, and her beauty flows everywhere she goes. You go girl!
Phenomenal sophomore diver, Madison, struggled with the typical “freshman 15” her freshman year as she has also dealt with chronic back injuries through the past few years. However, in high school she won state on 1 meter for three years in a row, 4-time All American, and continues to place well in dual meets as a collegiate athlete. Her determination to get better is beyond motivational.
However she stated, “The images make me feel like I need to look a certain way to be wearing these clothing brands. They make me want to look like the girls in the images.” She noted that the pictures made her feel like she needed to be in better shape, and as an athlete she wants to be muscular and successful, but to also be thin. Madison always goes above and beyond what is expected of her, to be her best self. After battling with self-image issues, she knows her best self is her happy and healthy self.
The images make me feel like I need to look a certain way to be wearing these clothing brands. They make me want to look like the girls in the images.
Wow. Now as a close friend to these girls I can’t help but want to shake them and ask why they want to look like that? There is certainly nothing wrong with being “skinny” but why does it seem like a standard has been set for women everywhere, these unrealistic expectations to look a certain way even as an athlete. We surely can’t help the fact our shoulders are big and that we have flat chests. Our bodies were made this way to excel in athletics to the best of our abilities.
Next I asked some of my teammates if they had ever struggled with self-image issues that made them want to change their appearance in any way, and I honestly didn’t know what to expect. Personally I had struggled with eating disorders for years and I battled with the scale that lived in our weight room as I dealt with chronic injuries.
One of my best friends, Steph, qualified for her first NCAA Championships last year and placed 16th in the 500 freestyle, and has won many individual first places this year in dual meets. She said, “I have struggled a lot with self-image. It first started in high school when these group of girls said that they wanted my perfect body. Then I started gaining some weight and started thinking to myself that I was losing that perfect body and started not to eat as much. It caused me medical issues with my stomach and the way it digests certain foods and I ended up weighing 115 pounds as a 5’8” seventeen-year-old athletic girl. It got to the point where my club coach was thinking about not letting me swim anymore until I got my weight under control.”
This is coming from one of our most talented distance swimmers, and someone I looked up to for motivation. It floored me to hear this from her. But every day she gives it her best and she broke off her relationship with the scale.
“It got to the point where my club coach was thinking about not letting me swim anymore until I got my weight under control.”
Chantal, who was a 2016 Olympian for Canada and a bronze medalist even struggled with self-image issues. She is a two-time individual SEC Champion, Canadian record holder, 13-time All-American, and is extremely successful in academics. As a senior at UGA, she has battled many injuries and continues to persevere.
When asked if she’s struggled with self-image issues she stated, “I’ve always struggled a bit with my weight, and it tends to fluctuate quite a lot. Especially during the Olympic year, I was constantly weighing myself, carefully controlling what I ate, and doing extra cardio to stay slim. It’s hard to find a balance of wanting to be at a good weight to perform your best and wanting to be at a good weight because you think that’s what you have to do/what others are expecting you to do.”
It’s hard to find a balance of wanting to be at a good weight to perform your best and wanting to be at a good weight because you think that’s what you have to do/what others are expecting you to do.
Rachel is one of the great seniors that lead us into the end of this season, as she finishes her four years of eligibility. During that time she battled a shoulder injury that required surgery and months of rehab until full recovery. If anyone defines tough, it is most certainly her. Rachel is a former U.S. National Team and Junior Team member, is a 6-time NCAA All-American, 7-time SEC A-finalist (placed top 8 on an event), ranks in the top 10 all-time in Georgia history for multiple events.
Oh and not to mention she is academically successful. No big deal. When talking to Rachel about the fear of not being accepted due to her looks or athletic abilities she said, “I feel like people give me more positive compliments when I am “skinny”. Naturally, this leads me to believe that I need to be skinny in order for people to view me positively. The good thing is, my closest supporters (i.e. best friends and family) have always shown me love no matter what my body looks like. And no matter what my athletic performance is.”
In high school, I felt as if though I had an athletic body, I was “too thick” and “too muscular”, and I longed to be thinner and more feminine. The problems only became worse in college especially after I started lifting heavy weights.
Due to her surgery, Rachel lost muscle mass and did hours of cardio a day to stay in shape. She expressed how tough it was to re-accept her body when it changed as she got back into swimming again, gaining muscle mass back. She doesn’t let it stop her from creating a positive image for herself and showing love to everyone that surrounds her.
Let’s break those bad habits. Today.
However I do have advice for anyone who is struggling with their body image. Whether you are an athlete, male or female, or whoever you may be!
- Love yourself for who you are and don’t compare yourself to everyone around you.
- Eat the right kinds of foods and aim for looking healthy not skinny.
- Surround yourself with people and things that make you happy.
- Accept the array of body types- one is not better than the other.
- Tell yourself one thing you like about you when looking in the mirror. My therapist actually suggested this and it works!
- Look back at past accomplishments and realize how far you have come.
- Put your worth in things that matter (not your body image).
- Go talk to someone! There is nothing wrong with going to therapy and talking about your life.
Learning to love yourself and your body is the number one way to end the stigma against body types! This is important especially for female athletes. If you are struggling with eating disorders or are hurting yourself, please know you are not alone.
There are people who love you and want to help you. It is way better to rock your sport than live up to an imagined ideal body image. Remember that your body is an instrument, not an ornament!
Thankfully we are surrounded by resources!
On the brightest side, the University of Georgia offers many positives to help athletes out when they may be struggling. Thanks to our coaches who are always available to talk and our sports therapists. They can help us reach our best ability in a healthy way. Without having my coaches and therapist to talk to, it would be a lot harder to stand up in society and be strong. I want to thank athletics and my coaches for always having our best interests at hearts and for encouraging us to be the strong women we are today.
*Also thanks to my teammates for sharing their stories! There are hundreds of stories at every college in every sport; you are not alone!