Women’s Sports: Arena for Anorexia?

by Hannah V.

The number of women and young girls participating in sport at all levels has substantially increased. Enormous strides advocating for equal rights in sport has enabled women to venture into a traditionally male dominated sphere, resist stereotypes, and improve their health. Despite recognition of these benefits, research has uncovered that female athletes are at a greater risk for developing eating disorders than both male athletes and non-athletes (Coelho, Gomes, Ribeiro, & Soares, 2014). 
In fact, a study conducted by the national collegiate athletic association found that at least one-third of female college athletes could be diagnosed with disordered eating (Johnson, Powers, & Dick, 1999). Eating disorders including Anorexia nervosa and Bulimia nervosa can be deadly serious and are associated with some of the highest morality rates among mental illnesses (Coelho et. al, 2014).

She is so fit and strong, how could she be self-conscious? The unfortunate reality is that athletes experience both sociocultural pressures to uphold unrealistic body ideologies and are also influenced by demands to be lean to maximize athletic performance. Essentially, an athletes’ hunger to win sometimes takes precedence over actual hunger.

A myriad of sources impose pressures on female athletes to achieve an unrealistic body ideology. The media sexualization of women in sport without a doubt prompts them to turn to eating disorders. Headlines, photo’s, and commercials focus on sex appeal and beauty; neglecting to emphasize athletic performance. The media is sending out the message “woman first, athlete second”. These oppressive and hegemonic messages in the media lead society to expect ‘perfection’ of female athletes.

Coaches are another source that may trigger an athlete to adopt disordered eating habits. For example, former Olympic gymnast Kathy Johnson disclosed her obsession with weight. In one report she revealed: “I took some time off, took a couple of pounds off, and, when I returned to the gym, my coach said, ‘Hey, you look great.’ I liked hearing that. I thought, ‘Well, I can look even better.’” (Harvey, 1994).

Whether is be the court, field, track, or rink I have heard countless teammates and players express body dissatisfaction. I have witnessed close friends become completely broken by eating disorders. ‘I’m fat’ coming from the mouths of naive nine-year old soccer stars breaks my heart.

Female athletes in today’s society are faced with many challenges, which include stereotypes, oppression, sexualization and eating disorders. We live in a culture that wants women to be in a neat, cute and frilly little pink package. This patriarchal society demoralizes the female athlete identity, and, in exchange, suggests that an athletes’ worth is exclusively based on sexuality, physical appeal, and femininity. I certainly hope that people are beginning to recognize this issue as reinforcing gender divides both inside and outside the sport world.

Women and girls are no longer constrained from participation in sport. However, female athletes seem to be constrained INTO eating disorder behaviours. Social and cultural practices along with media representation of athletes needs to be reshaped in way that promotes progress not perfection. Eating disorder education should become mandatory for athletes, parents, and coaches at all levels. Regardless of shape, size, ability or gender our bodies are amazing and should be celebrated. I say we recognize, resist, and reframe messages about the female body image.

Ps- If you click HERE you will be brought to a link that really puts body image in perspective!


Referenced Articles

Coelho, O, G., 
 Gomes, S, A., Ribeiro, B., & Soares, E. (2014). Prevention of eating disorders in female athletes. Journal of Sports Medicine, 5, 105-113.

Currie, A. (2010). Sport and Eating Disorders – Understanding and Managing the Risks. Asian Journal of Sports Medicine, 1(2), 63–68.

Harvey, R. (1994). Working for Scale Is Never Safe in Women’s Gymnastics : Goodwill Games: Death of Christy Henrich hits home for former Olympian Kathy Johnson. Retrieved from http://articles.latimes.com/1994-07-31/sports/sp-21990_1_kathy-johnson

Johnson, C., Powers, P.S., & Dick, R. (1999). Athletes and eating disorders: The national collegiate athletic association study. International Journal of Eating Disorders, 26, 179-188.


7 responses

  1. Yes, totally agree. Sports played a significant role in my own struggle, although it didn’t fully develop until I stepped down from varsity level sports. It was for all the reasons you discuss: sexuality, pressure from coach, trying to be more lean, etc. I think a lot of it can be managed with good coaches that mentor instead of only coaching

  2. I really enjoyed this Hannah,

    You made some excellent points on why there needs to be positive changes put in place for women and girls, not just in sport but for life in general. It is extremely unfortunate that in 2015 women are still being marginalized and having to deal with many constraints. Interpersonal constraints such as the females’ attitudes towards sport can be negatively influenced to the extreme extent that their athletic performance declines. Having the media change the outlook on women will only aid in promoting equality. Recently, I viewed a new Sport Chek video that showed men and women working out. Despite the male athletes being shown more than the women, I think it’s a great sample of just how easily women can break the gender ideologies that are often associated with women being too feminine for sport.

    Perhaps some interpersonal constraints can be limited by seeing more women approach the media and telling them that it’s not OK to fit the ‘”ideal” body image that is often associated with ones’ specific sport. I think that some people get so caught up in their body image that they don’t truly appreciate who they are. After watching the video linked to your blog, I was shocked by just how much the thoughts of women and children varied. We are all unique and have values that need to be respected. I often think that despite many female athletes looking for the perfect body image, it shouldn’t be overlooked that some men do too!

    It would be fantastic to have provincial/federal governments fund programs to help females suffering from eating disorders. Not only to be able to provide them with education, but more importantly educating those who oppress women from being who they naturally are.

    Here’s a link to a video about healthy body image which may interest you:


  3. I am extremely interested by the topic you wrote your blog on Hannah, I am utterly surprised that one third of the female college athletes could be diagnosed with an eating disorder, that is a very high number and is a major cause for concern. Growing up in the sport of gymnastics, I who am not very big was probably always considered the “fat one” in my groups compared to the rest of the gymnasts at the time. My body suit I ordered was always bigger then the rest of the girls. This made me feel uncomfortable in my own skin and I never realized what I was doing wrong. Until I got older I started realizing some of the girls that I had trained with had eating disorders which is very unfortunate. Its to bad that the media of sport portrays that woman have to be small and skinny to achieve anything in sport, they have to look a certain way and fit into size 0 to be “beautiful”.
    Until this day I still hear woman complain about their weight on a constant basis, I am even guilty for it myself. All we hear these days is “look slim” , “lose weight” we are like robots being managed by the social media. I strongly agree with you when you say that everyone should be educated on eating disorders and that our body’s should be celebrated no matter what they look like, I love that point.
    Desiray, W

  4. Really great blog !

    I think this is a topic that should be better studied by coaches. I really enjoyed your paragraph where you spoke about the Olympic athlete whose coach complimented her on her weight loss, and in turn inspired the thought “well I can look better”. It is so common that people will say to others “you look like you lost weight, good for you!”, and it is primarily a compliment, although some may have not lost weight in a healthy manner. I completely agree with your statement that although females are no longer constrained from participating in sport, they are constrained into eating disorder behaviors. Sport can be so competitive and when participating at a competitive level, people will do whatever it takes and I agree that it commonly leads to eating disorder. Ive participated in sport where a friend had developed eating disorder behaviors, but as a bigger girl her weight loss was considered “awesome” and from that received more playing time. I think it would be great to have more education within sport (athlete and coach) on how to recognize or avoid eating disorder behavior and what a healthy body image and eat behavior is. Changing the way we compliment someone on body image change would also help reduce increasing the popularity of eating disorder in sport. Saying things like “you’ve lost weight, you look great” can reinforce ideals that thinner is better, and also instil self-conscious thoughts about future and current weight, and also negative views on their body in the past. Understand that whether you are fit, thin,overweight,underweight, or any other body type, body dissatisfaction can exist. Having more education and awareness of this would be great!

    Awesome blog,
    I think so much can be said about this topic.

    • “Essentially, an athletes’ hunger to win sometimes takes precedence over actual hunger.”
      That line immediately caught my attention and wow does it resonant.

      Loved the points you brought up in this blog Hannah. Really hit home in that video how much we are taught by society to hate certain things about our body and that they do not just come naturally.

      Being an athlete too I was able to relate to hearing/seeing some of my friends and even myself struggle with our body changes while being trying to perform at an elite level. One of the points that really struck home was when you mentioned how coaches really have an affect on us as players greater than simply teaching us about the game but also shaping our mentality on how we view our body. Similar to how Kathy had a coach comment on how her losing weight looked good I had comments like that throughout high school as I grew increasingly taller. That made me focus on my weight in an appearance way as the key for how I would adapt as a player instead of focusing on how my body used its height and weight for athletic abilities.

      This line really stuck with me too “Women and girls are no longer constrained from participation in sport. However, female athletes seem to be constrained INTO eating disorder behaviours.” I definitely agree with the need of education and awareness for athletes and their family

      It is hard for female athletes to separate body appearance when every advertisement or female role model is succumbed to the scrutiny. I saw this advertisement a while ago of my favourite model actually – thought back to it how it related to this and how females in the media are starting to fight against the constraints which will hopefully lead to society following along– https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=H-V7cOestUs

  5. This was a great post Hannah! You brought up some great points about how women are perceived in society today. It is unfortunate that the reality of being an athlete comes with its own challenges of becoming someone you may not be. Eating disorders have been a big a issue in sports because of how society thinks athletes should look. Being strong, toned, and muscular are characteristics of how people view athletes in today’s society. After taking class with Scotty, it came to my attention that eating disorders have become a big issue. Many athletes are forced to change their body that will improve their performance, which can lead to eating disorders. Wrestling is a great example of a sport that probably gets quite a bit of attention for eating disorders. athletes are categorized by weight so many athletes diet and/or cut to meet their weight goals.

    Media plays a great role in how women should look. Advertisements are portraying women to look lean and fit and to look after their bodies. I can’t agree more with your statement about coaches. They play a huge role because athletes listen to what the coach says, and your example with the former olympic gymnast Kathy Johnson is perfect for the situation. I’ve personally heard coaches tell athletes they need to lose weight for the upcoming season because he needs them to improve their performance. I’ve heard this more often with a female sport this year and honestly I didn’t see an issue with her weight. It’s little things like this that can be said by a coach that could lead to women develop eating disorders.

    I believe we can reduce the amount of eating disorders that occur among athletes by changing how we perceive the “ideal” body image, and be careful with what we say to athletes. Education is probably the best way because it will not only educate the athlete, but their family and friends, as well as the public.

    Zoran V

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