Athletes and Body Image Issues

Written by Ron Thompson, PhD, FAED, CEDS, Co-director of The Victory Program at McCallum Place

Sport is a microcosm of society. That is, what we see in society, we will likely see in sport, including body image issues. Unfortunately, those issues tend to be more complex and conflicted for athletes, especially female athletes, than for the general population. Athletes have the same risk factors as non-athletes, but they also have risk factors unique to the sport environment or to a particular sport. Recent research suggests that athletes have two body images—one in sport and one outside of sport. Thus, they are at risk in either or both contexts. In The Victory Program at McCallum Place, we have found our athletes to experience body image issues in one or both contexts. Athletes must deal with “competitive thinness” issues and tend to make unhealthy body comparisons in both the sport and societal environments. Most of these comparisons within the sport will be made with teammates but could also involve competitors. The same kinds of “fat talk” that occur among girls and young women outside of sport occur within the sport environment. Although considerable weight and body image pressure stems from coaches, recent research suggests that weight and body image pressures from teammates may be greater. Research with male athletes suggests that these pressures are not solely the province of female athletes.

Another factor for athletes that tends to exacerbate body image concerns is the conflict many feel when making their bodies more muscular through sport specific weight training. Although the stronger, more muscular body can facilitate sport performance, some female athletes feel that it is a disadvantage with regard to attaining/maintaining society’s thin ideal. Such concerns more often occur in the so-called “non-lean” sports, which essentially include any sport that is not an aesthetic (i.e., gymnastics, diving, figure skating, etc.), endurance (i.e., distance running, cycling, triathlon, etc.), or weight class (i.e., wrestling, lightweight rowing, martial arts, etc.) sport. Regarding “lean” vs. “non-lean” sports, research suggests that although the prevalence of disordered eating/eating disorders is higher among lean sport athletes, many lean sport athletes are not dissatisfied with their bodies. This suggests that their attempts to decrease body weight or body fat is related to the demands of their sport or coach. On the other hand, while the prevalence of disordered eating/eating disorders is lower in non-lean athletes than in their lean sport counterparts, body dissatisfaction tends to be greater. Perhaps for this reason, the use of pathogenic weight loss methods tends to be higher among non-lean sport athletes as compared to the lean sport athletes.

An additional factor that can affect body image in athletes relates to revealing sport attire. This issue primarily affects sportswomen, although recent research suggests that some male athletes may be affected as well. A uniform can be “revealing” based on the amount of skin revealed or how tightly the uniform conforms to the body. Such a uniform can increase body consciousness and body dissatisfaction, which in turn can increase the risk of unhealthy dieting and disordered eating symptoms. Purely from a sport performance perspective, these uniforms can also distract the athlete, affecting sport performance. As mentioned previously, sport is a microcosm of society. In that regard, we see not only body image issues and eating disorders in sport; we also see what appears to be sexism or even sexploitation regarding the revealing nature of the uniforms for female athletes, but the issues is not consistent in sport. For example, in sports like swimming and diving, male and female athletes wear revealing suits. The fact that both genders wear revealing uniforms suggests a “functional” rationale for the suits; that is, they facilitate performance, such reducing drag in the water. However, in many sports (i.e., track and field, volleyball, beach volleyball, etc.), the uniforms for women are more revealing than those for men in the same sport, suggesting that the issue is not one of functionality. Rather, it appears to be related to sexism or even sexploitation in an effort to increase attendance and/or obtain financially lucrative endorsements. Such uniforms not only increase the risk of disordered eating, they facilitate unhealthy body comparisons. They may even affect whether a young girl chooses to participate in sport. Girls have reported that they have opted not to participate in a particular sport because of what they would have to wear (i.e., short, tight spandex in volleyball, “bunhuggers” in track, etc.). One of the positives about sport is that it provides girls and young women with an opportunity to engage in healthy competition with other females in a way that has nothing to do with weight or physical attractiveness. However, we must deal effectively with this uniform issues in order to protect that opportunity.

In conclusion, athletes, especially female athletes, are more at risk for body image problems and eating disorders than the general population. For that reason, they need specialized approaches to identification, management, treatment, and prevention. When possible, they should be in treatment with healthcare providers with experience in treating eating disorders and athletes, but who also understand and accept the importance of sport in the life of a serious athlete.

Learn more about The Victory Program at McCallum Place at 800-828-8158.

Ron A. Thompson is a psychologist in Bloomington, Indiana, specializing in the treatment of eating disorders. He is also a consulting psychologist for the Athletic Department at Indiana University and has served as a consultant on eating disorders to the NCAA and on the Female Athlete Triad with the International Olympic Committee Medical Commission (IOCMC). He coauthored the Disordered Eating section of the IOC MC’s Position Stand on the Female Athlete Triad, the NCAA Coaches Handbook: Managing the Female Athlete Triad, and Managing Student-Athletes’ Mental Health Issues for the NCAA. Dr. Thompson recently became a member of the NCAA Mental Health Task Force as the eating disorder representative on the committee. Dr. Thompson also assisted in the development of the Healthy Body Image Project for the 2010 Youth Olympic Games. His publications include the books Bulimia: A Guide for Family and Friends, Helping Athletes with Eating Disorders, The Exercise Balance, and Eating Disorders in Sport. He has presented lectures and workshops at more than 110 regional, national, and international meetings, including presentations at the United States Olympic Training Center, the Dutch Olympic Training Center, and the Swedish Sports Federation.

Dr. Thompson is a Fellow in the Academy for Eating Disorders (AED), where he cofounded the AED’s Special Interest Group on Athletes. Dr. Thompson and colleague Dr. Roberta Sherman jointly received the AED’s 2008 Leadership Award for Clinical, Administrative, and Educational Service.