I remember as a young girl feeling empowered by the sports I played, whether it was ringette, soccer, swimming, horseback riding. I gained confidence, felt part of a team and had so much fun! I did suffer from body image issues as a teenager, like many, but it was certainly not caused by my sports. In fact, my body issues developed around the time when I dropped all of my sports and I often wonder how things could have been different if I had stayed in those sports, if maybe that could have been protective?
The relationship between sports and body image is a complicated one. Sports can be positive for body image, but that is not always the case. Unfortunately, in some circumstances the emphasis on the body in sport can contribute to more body preoccupation and even disordered eating. A year ago, I co-wrote an article for the Order of Psychologists with my colleague, sports nutritionist, Alexia De Macar to demystify the subject of body image in athletes and here are a few things we shared.
1) Recreational sports may provide some protection against body dissatisfaction and can be positive for body image. However, as athletes move into more competitive, higher levels of sport the more the risk is heightened for body dissatisfaction, and this is true across all sports.
2) Sports that encourage thinness for aesthetic or performance reasons are those in which athletes struggle the most with body image, and this is particularly relevant for males.
3) As observed in the non-athlete population, in general, female athletes are more at risk for body dissatisfaction than male athletes.
If you see yourself or someone you love in one of the more at-risk categories above, here are a few things to keep in mind that can impact body image in athletes :
1) Athletes are surrounded by people who are trying to help them meet their goals, such as parents, coaches, dietitians, athletic therapists. Athletes are used to getting feedback and using it to improve their performance. This can pose a big problem if the feedback suggests that they try to change their body in a way that is unrealistic or unhealthy for them. When an athlete feels that their body « should » be a certain way for their sport and it does not meet those standards they can develop intense body preoccupation, disordered eating and feel like a failure as an athlete.
2) Periods of transition in the body, such as puberty, can be a time of increased risk for body image among athletes. Some athletes start their sport at a young age not knowing what their adult body shape will be. In those sports in which a certain body type is idealized, puberty can be a very anxiety-provoking time, especially if the athlete feels that their body is changing in a way that no longer corresponds to the ideal for their sport.
3) In some sports, athletes’ bodies can be very exposed, and this can lead to more preoccupation with body image. Some sports have costumes that are revealing for performance purposes (ex. swimming, diving), others for aesthetic purposes (ex. figure skating) and some for sexualization purposes (ex. beach volleyball). Wearing revealing costumes in front of judges and/or the public can lead to anxiety and body dissatisfaction.
Since athletes are more at risk than the general population for disordered eating and can be an at-risk group for body dissatisfaction, prevention is key! An education program for all individuals working with athletes, such as coaches, dietitians, athletic therapists and even parents should be put in place, especially in higher risk sports that emphasize thinness and at more competitive levels of sport. The program should address the following points :
1) Make sure that all individuals working with athletes are informed about which factors can put an athlete at risk for body dissatisfaction, such as making comments on their appearance and practices like weighing athletes.
2) Ask qualified sports dietitians, knowledgeable in eating disorders, to take over anthropometric measurements, including weighing.
3) Have a well-balanced, non-judgmental approach that prioritizes performance and well-being, rather than physical appearance and/or weight.
4) Understand that it is not possible for some athletes to modify their bodies to fit into the ideal set forth in their sport. The body can only be modified so much before there are negative repercussions, both physical and mental.
5) Recognize that the body composition required for optimal performance is not identical in all athletes.
6) Know how to recognize the signs and symptoms of body dissatisfaction among athletes as well as the associated risks such as disordered eating, depression and anxiety.
7) Have a detailed action plan (with flow charts) prepared in order to know how to help athletes on your team who are struggling with disordered eating and/or body dissatisfaction.
Body dissatisfaction is a real problem for athletes, especially women, and particularly in sports emphasizing thinness and at the more competitive levels. Athletes are more at risk if their coaches or others in their environment are making comments about their body weight or appearance or checking their body weight (ex. through weighing). Athletes are also more at risk at times of transition, like puberty, and when they are exposed through revealing clothing in their sport. An education program targeting family members, coaches and professionals working with athletes is needed due to the higher risk for body dissatisfaction and disordered eating in sport. If you are a federation, school or club who values putting athlete well-being on par with performance we encourage you to invest in such education programs for your teams. We believe in strong athletes who feel confident in their bodies and celebrate their uniqueness. If you’re with us, then don’t miss the opportunity to be part of the change towards making all sports a safe and empowering place for athletes’ and their bodies.
If you want more information about education and training on the topic of eating disorders in sport and performing arts, please join our mission at Dare to Fuel Performance by contacting Alexia De Macar, sports dietitian or Jodie Richardson, clinical psychologist.
(1) Bratland-Sanda, S. et Sungot-Borgen, J. (2012). Eating Disorders in athletes: Overview of prevalence, risk factors and recommendations for prevention and treatment. European Journal of Sport Science. DOI:10.1080/17461391.2012.740504
(2) Joy, E., Kussman, A. et Nattiv, A. (2016). 2016 update on eating disorders in athletes: A comprehensive narrative review with a focus on clinical assessment and management. British Journal of Sports Medicine, 50, 154-162.
(3) Voelker, D.K. et Reel J.J. (2018). Researching eating disorders and body image in sport: Challenges and recommendations. Journal of Clinical Sport Psychology, 12, 473-479.