Updated: Oct 19, 2021
I can’t remember the last time my friend and I FaceTimed and she didn’t talk about the way her body looked while she was at practice or discuss the new fitness regime her personal trainer recommended for her. Post the how-are-yous, the I-miss-yous, and sharing memes, our conversations always steer back to her talking about how aspects of her body hinder her ability to perfect the sport she engages in. After I respond to her concerns with reassurance and positivity, I continue listening to her complain. I’ve always wondered what my life would be like if I was a student athlete, and our conversations at times, satiate my curiosity.
There are obvious challenges that come with being an athlete that I would have to live with if I was dedicated to a sport—the fear of failure or under-performance, the crucial act of maintaining good relationships with coaches, the struggle to stay motivated, and the possible anxiety of creating a life beyond a career in sports—however, the late night conversations I’ve had with my friend, have encouraged me to question whether being an athlete would’ve changed the way I view my body.
Chasing the ‘Ideal’ Body for Performance Advantage
Although there isn’t necessarily an optimal body type for a particular sport or position within a sport, it isn’t a coincidence that people with certain body shapes perform better than their competitors who have a different build. A five-foot-tall person is not as likely to become a pro basketball player as a six-foot-tall person is. While hard work, practice, and technique contribute to skill and talent, those extra inches help a taller basketball player shoot the ball without having to cover as much distance as a shorter player has to.
In swimming, a flexible, more lean physique is a “huge asset” as it allows a swimmer to be able to quickly rotate their body and lengthen their strokes. A study concluded that a lower body fat percentage, that is—the amount of fat that the body is composed of—is associated with performance advantage for a runner. In comparison, wrestlers have to maintain a body weight that is fit for their individual weight class to be able to maximize their strength advantage over their opponent. The body requirements for different sports often lead to athletes chasing the ‘ideal body’ that will possibly improve their performance.
Rising high school senior Jillian Pohoryles is on her school’s Poms dance team. “Since I was 7 years old, we would do conditioning every day at practice to keep us in tip-top shape. Our so-called ‘role models’ were the girls at those competitions with skinny physiques and toned bodies. We were trying to meet that standard so we could even the playing field to compare only our dancing. Body image was extremely important,” she said. She acknowledged that the dance world is accepting and that the stereotype that dancers have to be lean should be debunked. “A lot of dancers feel the pressure to be a certain body shape and weight. I, myself, also feel the pressure of fitting a certain body type.”
Rising Brown University freshman Julie Yeo, who has been skating for the synchronized skating organization DC Edge admitted to Lenses in an interview that because the premise of her sport focuses on uniformity, it’s easy to want to “fit in” with everyone else on her team. While she can’t think of any deliberate unhealthy decisions she’s made throughout her skating career, she has had unhealthy expectations for herself. “It depends on the team, but I’d say that most synchro skaters have similar body types, especially when it comes to more competitive divisions. With all the physical demand of the sport, there’s pressure to maintain a stereotypically ‘fit’ body type. The pressure to fit in and match the team can be powerful.”
Frequent Comparison Damages Body Image
Athletes who are a part of a team sport at times find that their body image is confronted when they are pressurized to change their body shape to fit in with their counterparts. “I’m still learning to love my body, and I’d be lying if I said skating didn’t heavily influence my insecurities. Synchro, as a sport that is hugely female dominated, has exacerbated any existing self-esteem issues due to the constant comparison,” Yeo said
Rising high school senior Anela Trakic, who runs for her high school’s cross country team, has found herself comparing her body size and shape to other females on her team who are thinner. “Although during the summer and cross country season I gain muscle and often physically feel better, being around other slim individuals has a negative impact on my thoughts and views of my body.”
The Pressure to Succumb to Appearance Ideals
Popular culture has damaged body image by normalizing public discussion of weight and “stigmatizing” overweight people in various forms. The ‘Culture of Thinness’ that the media has endorsed has led to body dissatisfaction among females, forcing them to adopt societal standards of beauty.
Research published by Eastern Illinois University shows that athletes “have two body image perceptions,” one that is encouraged by their sport and one that emerges from societal pressures. While female athletes are struggling to attain a body that looks feminine, they are also “at risk of having a negative body image and practicing unhealthy behaviors, which are compounded by aesthetic and performance demands of their sports.” “I struggled with my small height and I also hated the look of my ‘bulky’ or ‘athletic’ build sometimes. It was this delicate balance between wanting to be a strong and powerful athlete, while simultaneously desiring a slim, ‘feminine’ figure,” Yeo said.
Joy Shi, who will be continuing her swimming career after high school at the California Institute of Technology, concurred with Yeo. She views the comments she receives about her thick arms and wide shoulders as a reduction of her femininity. “A lot of other girls will comment on them as if [what they are saying is] a compliment but I always felt bad about them. The comments made me feel different—kind of less feminine than other girls and that made me self conscious.”
As per The National Eating Disorders Association (NEDA), male and female athletes are at risk of developing eating disorders such as Anorexia Nervosa and Bulimia Nervosa. The desire in athletes to attain a certain body may be fueled by body dysmorphic disorder, which compels them to continue thinking about an imperfection they perceive in their appearance.
Athletes’ perceptions of their body image may continually change as they approach settings outside of their training facility or competition area. Trakic feels vulnerable when she’s running in public in front of strangers. “I often do not go outside on runs alone due to the fear that those in cars or on the sidewalks will judge me for the way I look.”
While there are athletes who are influenced by societal expectations, there are also those who aren’t. Football player and rising high school junior Aditya Khanna has never been affected by social norms regarding body weight: “I have not been influenced by a certain societal expectation. If I do exceed a certain weight I personally bring it down through dieting or exercise due to my own wish.”
The Pressure to Perform
For an athlete there is also a collective unconscious pressure to perform and it can influence mental health. “The biggest part of skating that hurt my mental health was feeling the need to constantly impress—the idea that I was always being watched, always being expected to do better and prove myself. It became toxic quickly, and even made my performance worse at times,” Yeo said.
Rising junior Jasmine Gong who wrestles for her high school team feels a constant pressure to prove her value as one of the only female wrestlers on the male-dominated team. “I often feel outspoken or even degraded when I train somewhere where no one respects me as an athlete. I still struggle to identify as an athlete, even if I’m competing and training, and I think that stems from the lack of belongingness I feel from participating in a male-dominated sport.”
How Injuries Affect Mental Health
Mental health in sports can be disturbed by injuries. Athletes may respond in different ways upon being injured because “there is no predictable sequence of emotional reactions to athletic injury.” However, “injuries are particularly found to be associated with depression in athletes” and can lead to mental disorders as well as stress. Yeo recalled an emergency surgery she had to undergo one year that prevented her from travelling with her team to the two biggest competitions of the season. “Injuries can definitely be difficult to deal with during the season. Most of the time, you have to sit out for the safety of the team. It can truly be agonizing to sit on the sidelines, apart from your team. After working so hard to get to that position, it can break your heart to have that experience and time with your team taken away,” she said.
Pohoryles injured her hip flexor and knee doing a Russian jump during her sophomore year of high school. As a result, she couldn’t practice with her team and felt helpless at competitions and events where the team performed. “Sitting out at practice and competitions was one of the worst things I’ve had to do in all my years of dance. I would cheer on my teammates and help with everything I could behind the scenes, but all I wanted to do was be on that floor performing for everybody,” she said.
Athletes can continue to play regardless of an injury depending on the amount of pain the injury has caused or if a medical professional has confirmed that it will not further cause complications. The sprained ankle Gong had at her first wrestling match didn’t prevent her from wrestling that day. “Injuries, even minor ones, can force you to lessen the intensity of your training or even sit out from practice. If you wrestle a match injured, usually your adrenaline overwhelms you and you forget about it until it’s throbbing after the match,” she said.
Shi who has a dryland exercise regimen claimed that after she couldn’t swim for over six months when she got tendonitis in her shoulder, she realized the importance of maintaining a diet and exercise routine off season. “I’ve learned that what you do outside of the water is so important in preventing injuries,” she said.
The Positive Impact of Sports
Being a student athlete is undoubtedly difficult, especially when there is high exposure to societal expectations and pressure coming from different directions. However, athletes continue to deal with stress over body image and injury because the sport they engage in gives them happiness. “Running helps me cope with stress, be more productive, and is always enjoyable with friends. Running after school during cross country practice helps me forget about the stresses of school,” Trakic said.
Her sport has allowed Gong to learn to appreciate her physique and embrace her body. “Wrestling, like any physical activity, is a good outlet for any outside stress, and it’s also allowed me to view my body as an instrument for athletic performance.”
Sports also allows people of the same interests to form lifelong friendships and develop confidence “I have learned to love the dancer and person I am and continue to be. Dance really lets you express yourself, and being on a team allows you to share a bond with people who have the same interest. It’s where you get to meet people you can call family,” Pohoryles said.
Yeo has been able to find a sense of purpose through skating that she has always craved. Her sport has allowed her to achieve goals and she acknowledges that like everything in life, skating has its ups and downs. She wants athletes like her to know that they are not alone: “To all my fellow athletes out there, it’s okay to be struggling with body image.”
Through Teen Lenses: How does the sport you play affect the way you view your body?
“With any sport, your body is a machine that puts out what you put in. I work to take care of my body and remain fit enough so that I’m healthy and able to play the sports I love successfully. Of course there are those that I look up to in terms of fitness and skill, not in comparison, but motivation to be the best version of myself.” Iman Idrissa, Rising Senior at Thomas S. Wootton High School, Rockville, MD
“I think being an athlete definitely changes your perspective on body image. Playing so much and exercising has helped me realize that a healthy body image isn’t just being stick thin and having a flat stomach. When you are stronger and have more muscles, it helps with almost every single sport. With my personal experience, I’ve never felt influenced by a coach or anything related to field hockey when I think about body weight or dieting. Sometimes I let my own anxiety over my weight take over when I see all these stick thin girls on social media, but I mostly push those thoughts aside and eat anything I want. Playing field hockey definitely encourages me to eat more healthy.” Carrie Wang, Rising Junior at Thomas S. Wootton High School, Rockville, MD
“In general, when I would still swim competitively, I’d always think that my body wasn’t enough. Since swimming is a sport that requires a perfect dose of body fat and fat-free muscles, as a skinny person who hardly grows any muscles, I always felt that my body needed more mass. I’d always compare my body with those who perform better and constantly monitor my diet. Looking back, I would say that I looked at my body in a judgmental way when I swam. The sport had undeniably shaped how I measure my body as I constantly examine and compare myself with my competitors. There are multiple factors that influenced how I view my ideal body, and those are my athletic identity, and my performance. If you swim, you will probably be proud of your broad shoulders, even if you are a girl. Since my body was not so cooperative when it comes to growth, I often had a feeling that my body failed my identity as a swimmer. But speaking of the most influential factor, it will be my performance. Honestly speaking, performance is the one thing that an athlete cares most about. It got disappointing every time you realized that the reason you didn’t win the race was largely due to your body size. It gets discouraging especially when you look at the video of your race after a season of diligence, seeing your competitors performing with less flexibility or less perfection in each stroke, but still managed to touch the board 0.01 second earlier than you did simply because they had longer limbs. However, in my case, I didn’t get any external pressure for my body image nor did any coach or friends change the way I viewed myself. The only external factor will probably be the swimmers’ community on social media, where I saw images of professional swimmers. I myself was the source of motivation and pressure on my view of my body.” Evelyn Yuen, Rising Freshman at the University of Maryland, Baltimore County, Rockville MD
“I have to say that swimming has really positively influenced how I view my body. I like being in shape and having muscles and things like that, but I also know that this isn’t an opinion shared by everyone. My team has really helped with my self-esteem and overall anxiety during competition. On my team we don’t really have a problem with traditional sex roles, everyone is very positive and we all encourage each other. My coach also encourages us to eat healthy and has given us some meal plans but has never explicitly told someone they were over/under weight. Whenever we discuss weight and dieting it’s always a whole team conversation, no one is singled out.” Anonymous