Negative body images in athletics

By Staff Writer Bethany Woo

Recently there have been tremendous efforts to address body image as a social construct and raise awareness on the influence media has on how people view themselves. However, the role that athletic sports play in self-objectification has been for the most part, overlooked. Revealing uniforms, coaching pressure, and society’s general views on fitness contribute to an athlete’s self-perception.

It is common for athletes to – subconsciously or consciously – compare their own body figure to what they consider the “ideal” shape created by stereotypes for their particular sport. For example, male athletes that participate in football are expected to be tall, muscular, and broad shouldered. Female dancers are expected to have a tall and slender body. In a study of Stanford athletes conducted by Regina C. Casper, M.D. and Ellen Reed, B.S., surveys found that a high percentage of both male and female athletes were dissatisfied with their physique. Of the female athletes, 52 out of 84 (62 percent) wished to change their body. Of the male athletes, 21 out of 37 (57 percent) expressed similar desires. However, the ways in which the genders wished to change their bodies were completely opposite. Roughly 32 percent of the women wished to lose weight, where as 35 percent of the men wanted to gain more body weight. This study accurately reflects athletes’ mindsets and their desires to conform to what they perceive as a better form or body structure to improve performance.

The objectification of the body causes athletes to impose body changes in pursuit of an ideal shape. Unfortunately, these methods have strong negative effects on users. For example, a controversial way of increasing muscle mass is using performance-enhancing drugs (PED); however, they lead to liver damage, stunted growth, and increased aggressiveness. One harmful method of achieving thinness is by starving oneself or throwing up consumed food. Many athletes become bulimic or anorexic from trying to forcefully lose weight.

Aspects of competitive sports that affect an athlete’s body image include uniforms, coaching pressure, and society’s views on fitness. Tight-fitting or revealing uniforms, particularly for women, cause athletes to be more self-conscious about contrasts between their bodies and other athletes’ physiques. One illustration of this is the Speedo swimsuits that expose much of a swimmer’s body. Additionally, coaches who focus primarily on an athlete’s success motivate athletes to alter their body to perform better. However, the root of these self-image issues stems from what society defines as fitness, such as the belief that thinness in females and defined muscularity in males results in greater accomplishments.

Despite these external pressures, ultimately it is up to the individual to prioritize his or her overall well-being over ideals and to form a positive attitude towards his or her own body size and/or shape.  Moreover, athletes have a responsibility to be able to recognize when they are harming their health in order to maintain a certain image, and seek out professional help to overcome these obstacles.

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