Sports & body image

When body image controls the athlete

Participation in sports can help girls to develop a healthy body image … or it can make things worse

By Jessamine Von Arx

Talon staff writer

“I started to force myself to vomit in the seventh grade,” said Amy, a Minnehaha student athlete. (Amy is not her real name but she would like to be kept unknown.) “I started because I thought I was heavy and fat. [My sport] has to do with it because I looked at all the other girls and they were all tiny and skinny, and it made me feel bad. I felt like I had to get lighter and skinnier.”

For some sports, such as dance (ballet in particular), gymnastics, figure skating, diving, competitive swimming, cross-country running and long-distance running, having a leaner figure can help those athletes perform better in their competition; at least for the most part, people who benefit from the weight loss don’t realize that it may decrease their endurance, strength, reaction time, speed and ability to concentrate in the long run. One in five women struggle with an eating disorder or disordered eating in the US according to the National Institute of Mental Health.

Younger women are especially vulnerable to eating disorders. Because girls are increasingly involved on sports, one might think they would help develop more positive attitudes towards their bodies but with some sports, the opposite can occur.

With eating disorders affecting these athletes, it is very dangerous and can be fatal if put to the extreme. There needs to be more attention toward showing these young athletes the problems with eating disorders.

Eating disorders are a group of serious conditions in which the patient is so preoccupied with food and weight that they can’t focus on much else. According to the Mayo Clinic the most common types of eating disorders are anorexia nervosa, bulimia nervosa and binge-eating disorder.

“Eating disorders by over exercising and under eating have become a bad trend,” said Josh Thurow, who teaches health and physical education and coaches the varsity girls’ basketball team. “It brings up a lot of concern. I think we have to remember anything done in moderation is good.”

Eating disorders are becoming more commonly associated with sports because of the affect it may have on athletes’ performances.

“I was bulimic off and on for two and a half years,” said Amy. “I did it for so long because I became so obsessed with being perfect, and I was always trying to be better and better. And the lighter I got, the better I would be at [my sport].”

One sport in which weight impacts athletes, even at a top level, is swimming where being smaller or lighter helps with performance.  One study of young elite swimmers conducted by American Academy of Pediatrics showed that 60.5 percent of average-weight girls and 17.9 percent of underweight girls were trying to lose weight. Many of the girls trying to lose weight were reducing the amount of food they were consuming, but 12.7 percent were vomiting.

College and guidance counselor Richard Harris said the reason he thought most athletes have eating disorders is because they thought it would improve their performance.

If playing these sports makes athletes feel negatively about their body should they still be played?

“I still love to watch and do [my sport], but I believe it affects body image negatively because this sport is so focused on perfection and getting better,” said Amy.

Carlin Anderson, a Ph.D and licensed psychologist who works with athletes at the Park Nicollet Melrose Institute in St. Louis Park said there were many different circumstances under which an athlete may feel the way Amy did.

“Research shows that female athletes competing in endurance, aesthetic or weight-classified sports have more body image problems and eating problems than non-athletes,” said Anderson. “However, these affects are slight and can vary depending on level of competition, elite vs. amateur, and gender. Males are less likely to have body image problems than female athletes.”

But many other sports have different effects.

“There is some research that suggests sport participation actually serves a ‘protective’ purpose and leads to increased self-esteem, improved body image and bolsters self-confidence at times, but this affect seems more significant in sports that don’t place a lot of importance on weight/shape/appearance,” said Anderson. “In general, it appears that for girls, sport participation can have a positive effect on their body image, self-esteem and confidence, but for those girls competing in endurance, aesthetic or weight-classified sports, these positive effects may be less strong as a result of the additional negative weight pressures.”

Only 1 in 10 people with eating disorders receive treatment in the US, according to the South Carolina Department of Mental Health.

“I know that several organizations such as [the] NCAA Handbook, American College of Sports Medicine Position Statement, National Eating Disorders Association Coach & Trainer Toolkit, have published information about body image in athletes and the factors that seem to exacerbate it in order to educate athletic groups about how to prevent it and improve body image,” said Anderson. “I know the field as a whole would argue that more education needs to be done with younger athletes, middle school age, to help build positive, healthy body image early on, so they are not at risk of developing body dissatisfaction later in life.”

Since quitting competition in her sport, Amy said,” I have never felt bad about myself since.”

For Amy, quitting something she loved to do was the price she had to pay to regain her positive body image.

“I felt so fat and gross and [thought] no one liked me, but now I see that I have really good friends that truly care about me and they know when I am feeling down,” said Amy. “I feel I can be so much more open with people because when I was puking all I was concerned about was keeping it a secret and never telling people what I was feeling. I now realize how selfish I was and now I have found so much more joy in just focusing on other people.”

If you have some of these same problems there are people you can talk to.

Emily Program

Phone: (651) 645-5323


National Association of Anorexia Nervosa and Associated Disorders

Phone: (630) 577-1330



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