Reviewed by Smitha Bhandari, MD on April 19, 2022
There’s no denying that there are many benefits to sports besides physical health. For girls and women, sports can be empowering. They can build confidence, social connections, and leadership skills.
But the sporting environment can also place unique pressure on athletes, and that stress can lead to body image issues, especially for female athletes. But body image hasn’t always been a topic of conversation in sports. “There’s a tremendous amount of shame, stigma, and secrecy,” says registered dietitian Paula Quatromoni, DSc. She’s an associate professor of nutrition and epidemiology at Boston University.
Recently, more female athletes have shared their struggles with body image, including Olympic figure skater Gracie Gold, professional runner Allie Ostrander, and current and former soccer (football) players in the United Kingdom. They’ve described how a negative body image has affected their mental health and performance. They want more people to know that the pressure to look a certain way can cause harm.
Body Image Pressures in Sports
Body image refers to how you picture yourself – your body shape, size, or weight – and how you feel about your body. What’s considered a “desirable” body is often influenced by images in the media and society’s beauty standards. While body image issues can happen to anyone, women and girls tend to be more dissatisfied with their body, compared to men.
For female athletes, sports can raise body image concerns. Athletes are judged based on what their bodies can do: Did they win or lose? Shave fractions of a second off their time? Improve their score enough to edge out the competition? Set a new record? Still, many women – including athletes – feel pressure to look a certain way. And often, mainstream culture has pressured women to conform to a certain size at the expense of their strength.
That’s started to change. For athletes of all genders, prioritizing training, nutrition, strength, and recovery are all essential to their athletic performance. But unattainable body goals are still a source of pressure for some people. For example, in a survey of female college athletes, 68% said they felt pressure to be pretty and 30% said they were afraid of becoming too muscular.
It’s not surprising then that athletes can become overly focused on their appearance. Almost 80% of elite sportswomen said they were conscious of their body image.
“Athletes are under tremendous pressure to perform,” Quatromoni says. “It’s very easy to identify the body as a place to mold, shape, and change to get a competitive edge.”
You may compare yourself to other athletes you see on social media or to professional athletes. As a result, it’s easy to believe that you need a certain body type to succeed.
While a body’s makeup plays a role in performance, it’s not the only factor. Yet in endurance sports, many athletes and coaches believe that a thin, lean body will make you a faster runner, swimmer, or cyclist. This belief has been passed down from one generation to the next. Athletes may try to change their bodies to be leaner because they think it will lead to better performance.
For athletes in sports like gymnastics and figure skating – and highly athletic arts such as dance – people are often judged on how they look in addition to their skills. “It’s your aesthetic, your costume, how you interpret the music, and your body is part of that,” Quatromoni says. Plus, athletes often wear clothing that exposes much of the body – which can leave it open to public commentary, especially on social media.
Even if a coach or teammate notices that someone has a negative body image, they may not say anything. “They don’t want to rock the boat. They don’t want to upset the athlete,” Quatromoni says, especially if the athlete is performing well. That dynamic creates a culture of silence.
What Are the Risks of a Negative Body Image?
If you’re not happy with how your body looks, it can be a slippery slope.
“Athletes will do whatever they can if they believe it’s going to make them a better athlete,” Quatromoni says. You may change your diet or exercise habits, and your body may not get all the calories it needs. “If you’re training on empty with no fuel in your tank, you’re fatigued. You’re not recovering. You’re more likely to get injured,” she says.
Athletes who don’t eat enough are at risk for the female athlete triad and relative energy deficiency in sport (RED-S), conditions that can lead to poor bone health, absent and irregular menstrual cycles, and health concerns like higher cholesterol. For example, studies show that female athletes’ risk for bone stress injuries is 4.5 times higher if they don’t eat enough. And those who missed their periods also skipped more days of training.
Kara Bazzi, co-founder and clinical director of Opal: Food and Body Wisdom, an eating disorder treatment clinic, says if you’re preoccupied by body image concerns, it can affect your mental health. According to the National Eating Disorders Association, people who have a negative body image are more likely to have low self-esteem and depression.
You may also be more likely to have disordered eating habits or an eating disorder like anorexia or bulimia. Nearly half of female athletes – 45% – particularly in sports where a lean body is considered important, have disordered eating or an eating disorder. And eating disorders have the second highest mortality rate of mental illnesses.
What You Can Do
If you are struggling with body image concerns, Bazzi says one of the first steps is to pay attention to them. She says it’s important to recognize that it’s not your fault. Instead, you’re surrounded by a society and culture that overemphasize appearances. “It’s not that, ‘I’m the failure.’ This is a broken system,” she says.
Bazzi and Quatromoni say we need more nutrition education and eating disorder prevention programs, especially in sports. These resources can provide athletes with tools to navigate their relationship with their body and food.
One step is to notice when body image concerns crop up. Is it when you scroll through social media? If so, Bazzi suggests you block or unfollow accounts that make you dislike your body. It can help to talk to a mental health professional and a registered dietitian too. Look for those who have worked with athletes and body image issues.
Remember, there isn’t just one body type that’s successful in sports. Many body types perform well. “We have to look at the whole person in front of us to understand what’s going to help them maximize their potential,” Quatromoni says.