Why are we suffering? How female athletes are affected by body image
Photo credits: The Bulletin
When we hear about sports in the news or the media, there are always two distinctions between athletes: the winners and the losers. There are the ones that triumph and become legends, and the ones who look up at the podium from below, mulling over thoughts that their training and sacrifice was not enough to get them the gold. What we do not see, however, is that suffering in the world of sports does not discriminate between athletes, be it the winners or losers.
What the general public does not see in the media is that athletes, mostly female athletes, not only train their bodies incessantly for years whilst enduring physical hardships, but are simultaneously tormented by insidious mental disorders such as anorexia, bulimia, and suicidal thoughts. These all stem from the same thing: the pursuit of an ideal body image.
The problem with this emphasis on an ‘ideal body’ is that it is sold to female athletes by their male coaches and the male-driven institution that is based on standards put into place by male athletes. If female athletes are being forced to train and perform in the same way that men, who have different developmental timelines, do, then it is no wonder that women in sports are torturing themselves trying to be their best, despite ‘best’ being defined by unrealistic male standards that are unsafe when asked of women.
Lauren Fleshman, a former professional athlete, faced this problem for years during her youth when she was competitively running and trying to mimic the Olympic women whom she looked up to. These women were thin. They had the “ideal” body, and she thought that since she did not look like them, she would never be as great as them. So, Fleshman restricted her diet. Even though she achieved the body she wanted, she had to deal with the consequences of losing her energy as well as her period. Years later, once she realized that this was not in any way normal, she began speaking out and correctly affixed the blame onto the institution by saying, “Until we acknowledge and respect that the female performance curve is different from the male version that sports was built on, girls will continue to face institutionalized harm”.
It is paramount to note that even though professional female athletes competing at the highest tier are dealing with these problems, so too are the average, everyday women and girls that participate in sports at less intense levels. A source who prefers to remain anonymous had a lot to say on the subject, given her vast history with athletics.
Since she was young, the source in question trained in every sport that was available to her, but spent most of her energy training in Karate. She eventually received her black belt and was recruited to represent Canada in the 2020 Olympics, which she was unfortunately unable to attend due to the pandemic. When asked how her experience as an athlete affected her views on body image, she replied by saying, “Being an athlete, I was always very insecure about how I looked. I was always too strong or not strong enough or too chubby…never being happy with how I appeared. And, especially with the media, you end up following all these things online that tell you, ‘Oh, if you do this then you’ll be a better athlete,’ or, ‘If you do that then you’ll look better, be able to perform better,’ and not only does it affect your mental health, but it also affects your performance”.
Commenting on the well-known professional female athletes presented in the media, she said, “In the media, there’s a lot about athletes and what they eat, and how they look: it’s less about how they perform and more about how they appear and what impression their bodies give off to the public viewing them”.
For average athletes who have no claim to fame other than their love and dedication for their sport, it is easy to decipher between athletes that are truly happy and ones who are suffering, simply by looking at their eating habits. Eating regular amounts of food and not having emaciated frames is normal, and when we see otherwise in the media, it is obvious that not only is there a problem in the sports industry, but in society itself: people are influenced by what they see, so if we want to protect our female athletes, then we have to show them that it is ok to be healthy, to be human, to be women.We must reform the athletic world so that every female athlete, be it present or future, has the opportunity to be great as well as happy, healthy, and safe.