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!
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.