Athletes and Their Body Image

Most people struggle with their body image. Society is quick to judge and criticize, and we find ourselves constantly conscious of how we look. We see celebrities and professional athletes, and they become the standard for the ideal body.

However, despite having fit bodies, it may surprise many to learn that athletes are often the ones most conflicted with body issues.

Many athletes struggle with finding peace with their bodies. The emphasis on achieving the optimal body shape and size to play at peak performance is prevalent in sports culture. They find themselves making unhealthy body comparisons in not just the sports environment but the societal one too. They compare their bodies with their own teammates as well as the competition.

And unfortunately, much of the pressure that athletes receive about their bodies come from their coaches who push them to reach a certain weight in order to be at peak performance. The ideal weight is different for every sport. Athletes are feeling the pressure to be leaner or gain more muscle mass to be faster or stronger.

Another factor that can affect athletes’ body image are revealing sports attire or uniforms. This issue has primarily affected female athletes. Uniforms that are tight fitting can cause women to compare their bodies with their peers and opponents. You’ll find these revealing uniforms in swimming, gymnastics, volleyball, and track and field. Noticeably, the female uniform is much tighter and shorter than the male counterpart in some of these sports.

Sports attire that conform tightly to the body increases body consciousness, leading athletes to feel dissatisfied with their body. And when they are unhappy with their body image, they become susceptible to eating disorders.

Eating disorders like bulimia and anorexia are not uncommon in athletes. Ron Thompson, Ph.D., a consultant psychologist to the Indiana University Athletic Department and specialist eating disorder treatment says that “eating disorders occur in all sports, but sports with the greatest risk for eating disorders include those referred to as ‘lean’ sports.” Lean sports are sports that have a weight-class requirement or the belief that a low body weight or lean body is a competitive advantage. Lean sports include gymnastics, diving, rowing, ballet, running, cycling, jockeying, wrestling, and martial arts.

The problem is that athletes relate their bodies to skill and performance. Sports culture dictates that they can only achieve athletic success once they hit a specific weight or achieve a particular body composition in order to be high-performing athletes. While there may be truth behind this, it doesn’t help athletes in accepting their bodies as they are.