Body Image and the Female Athlete

    “Did you hear that K’s quitting swim?”

    Confused, I checked to make sure our teacher wasn’t watching before writing back. “What? Why?”

    She was the best swimmer our school team had worked with in years; the coach was already planning her eventual Olympics appearances. Most students didn’t keep up with school sports, but everyone knew that she was going to be an elite athlete one day.

    “Apparently her mom thinks her shoulders are getting too broad and that she’s starting to look like a boy.”

    My brows furrowed, my reply summing up my only understanding of the matter.

    “Wtf.”

    Since high school, I’ve realized that instead of flourishing in an arena where women are judged on their abilities and not their looks, female athletes are caught in a contradiction. Athletes are pressured to attain a muscular, lean and toned athletic form, as well as a body that is appropriately “feminine.”

    In other words, we need to be powerful and trim, but never “manly.” And that is nearly impossible.

    The folks over at KidsHealth.org describe this pressure well when they explain the “Female Athlete Triad.” The triad is described as the health risks often associated with female athletes, which include negative body image and eating disorders.

    “Many girls have concerns about the size and shape of their bodies,” the website reads. “But being a highly competitive athlete and participating in a sport that requires you to train extra hard can increase that worry… Even in sports where body size and shape aren’t as important, such as distance running and cross-country skiing, girls may be pressured by teammates, parents, partners and coaches who mistakenly believe that ‘losing just a few pounds’ could improve their performance.”

    It’s true. We’re an extremely body-conscious bunch.

    I’ve heard female basketball players long to be a little bit taller, swimmers a little bit leaner, runners a little bit more toned. It’s hard to blame us, with our unforgiving uniforms and the scores of “perfect” athletic bodies we’re surrounded by daily.

    But even the owners of those perfect bodies are not exempt from the struggle; perhaps the most wiry, muscular, perfect runner I know confessed to me how much she wished she had my skin tone, since she felt hers was too pale to look good in uniform.

    I, on the other hand, had spent all season wishing that my backside was as lean as hers, as mine seems to cross the finish line a good three seconds after the rest of me does.

    We’re a group obsessed with the newest protein supplement and fat-loss diet in our quest for the physical perfection that we feel will ramp up our athletic performance. And it gets more serious than that — once in a blue moon, a rumor will circulate about how a woman quit collegiate competition because she succumbed to an eating disorder.

    Yet along with this pressure to maintain an Adonis-esque level of muscle tone, female athletes are confronted with the demands of a society that focuses on “femininity” — namely, being soft, curvy and delicate. In fact, male journalists have decried the loss of femininity at the hands of female athleticism.

    The Turkish columnist Yüksel Aytu?, in his column titled “Womanhood is Dying at the Olympics,” lamented the loss of female “grace and naïveté,” stating, “Broad-shouldered, flat-chested women with small hips are totally indistinguishable from men. Their breasts — the symbol of womanhood, motherhood — flattened into stubs as they were seen as mere hindrances to speed.”

    And this isn’t just the opinion of some backwards-thinking misogynist; many of the comments on his article, including those from American men and women, agreed with the author’s ideas.

    As a result, female athletes are forced to struggle with body images that are completely opposite of each other: Not only are we supposed to look strong and sexy in a tight spandex uniform, we should also look stunning in a ball gown.

    For as long as athletic performance is considered inextricable from physical perfection and the notion of “femininity” implies softness, female athletes will always be caught in the middle, struggling to balance athletic power with socially-acceptable delicacy.

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