Does Size Matter?: Athletes and Body Image

Gabriella Romney discusses the contradiction in the assertion that a delicate and thin female body is the "healthiest" body choice when athletes, by definition fit and healthy, are still criticised for the shape and composition of their bodies. The decision to become a professional athlete is often a complex one, but it is made even harder when one has to take into account society's opinions of the physical changes your body will undergo. 

We are constantly being reminded of what the perfect body should be, whether through the media, friends, family or any other source of information.  We are taught that 'thinness' is directly correlated with 'attractiveness', that attractiveness is to be revered and desired above all else and that attractiveness is intrinsically tied to your success and happiness. While all of us struggle with conforming to society’s requirement to be thin, as opposed to “fat,” there often lies a subtly different, but still great pressure on athletes, particularly those that are female.

The pressure to have two different types of body - one for sport and one for the world outside of sport – is often conflicted. While a stronger, more muscular body may prove to be advantageous for sport, it contrasts heavily with the glorification of the lean ideal, particularly for women, whose ideal is not only fat-free, but also “delicate.”

Obsessive body comparisons driven by revealing or tight competitive uniforms, coupled with high media coverage and public scrutiny, drives the propensity for eating disorders and mental health issues among athletes. Such body comparisons can not only have detrimental physical effects on the athletes themselves, but also make some, particularly women, reluctant to participate at all.

On the Graham Norton Show in 2012, Jessica Ennis-Hill, Britain’s premier Heptathlete and one of Britain’s most popular sportspeople, acknowledged that, in her teens, the fear of developing a six-pack and heavily defined musculature was a serious factor in her decision to become a high performing, potentially professional athlete, as it was not the desired figure for a woman and would be considered “manly.”

Luckily for Britain and her Olympic team, Ennis-Hill was mentally strong enough to overcome these fears, but this does reveal the contradiction in the image of the ‘ideal’ body. The ‘ideal’ body is incessantly defended by some on the grounds that it is the ‘healthy’ way to be. The opposite of thin is fat, and fat is unhealthily, therefore thin must be healthy. But what does it say about this body goal when the healthiest and fittest members of our society are being discouraged from leading the lifestyle that makes them so, in order to fulfill this image?

The cultural discussion around Serena Williams’ body, for example, is one that has faced significant media attention in recent years but is also highly problematic. She is frequently referred to as manly or savage, in contrast to opponents, such as Maria Sharapova, who fit the lean supermodel-esque ideal. The implication of this kind of scrutiny is that her achievements are only valid if she also fulfills society’s prerequisites of an attractive, delicately feminine woman. Attacking and scrutinizing her physique in this way, rather than celebrating it, highlights the difficulties of being a powerful and muscular athlete.

Yet, many athletes are fighting back with messages of body positivity. Michelle Carter, who won the gold medal in shot-put at the Rio de Janeiro Olympic games this summer, is also a professional make-up artist and is outspoken about body positivity. She has spoken openly about her own struggles with body image, drawing from her experiences with a thyroid condition that caused her to gain weight, and how this related to her ultimate success. She embraces her role as a model of body positivity, and hopes to encourage people to be confident in their own skin.

Similarly, four British paralympians did a powerful and striking nude photoshoot to promote the appreciation of diverse bodies. Tennis star Jordanne Whitley, power lifter Ali Jawad, triathlete Lewis Wood, and sprinter Bethy Edwards stated they wanted to show “you don’t have to be a model to do beautiful shoots” and emphasised that they are healthy and happy in their own skin.

From criticisms of their bodies, to their sports not being acknowledged as “real sports”, female athletes often cannot win. The relatively recent body positivity movement has highlighted that athletes do not come in the same shapes or sizes, nor that they should. The increasing normalisation of different body types among athletes is helping propel the necessary shift from what these athletes look like to what they can do. As Michelle Carter says, "Hey, what matters is how you feel about yourself. If you think you're cute, then you're cute. If you think you're the best, then you can go out there and work hard and be the best."