Body image insecurities


A recent survey conducted by BT Sport has confirmed that body image issues are a worrying problem within women’s sport.  Of the athletes that responded, a staggering 80% stated that they felt pressure to conform to a certain look and body type and 89% said that they empathised with the feelings of insecurity expressed by the former swimmer and Olympic champion Rebecca Adlington in her emotional outburst on ‘I’m a Celebrity…Get Me Out Of Here’ late last year.


Vicky Pendleton Hovis Campaign


I suppose that shouldn’t come as a complete surprise to us.  We discussed the psychological barriers to cycling that women in general, as opposed to elite athletes, face here and body consciousness came out high on the list.


What is more concerning however is that an overwhelming number of the athletes questioned by BT Sport felt these issues were not just confined to sport, with 97% saying the problem stretched to women in wider society.


It began with Rebecca Adlington’s tearful a revelation that “It's... making me very, very insecure that I have to look a certain way.  For me, I was an athlete, I wasn't trying to be a model, but pretty much every single week on Twitter I get somebody commenting on the way I look.”  For Adlington the pressure was to be “stick thin, big boobs and a pretty face.”


Downhill bike racer Rachel Atherton said she put pressure on here self, “Feeling that I do not deserve to call myself a professional athlete if I am not the owner of a stick thin body with visibly bulging muscles attached, zero body fat or gorgeous skin that isn't weathered from the elements!!”


Tracy Moseley World Champion


Interestingly, track cyclist, Victoria Pendleton, was relaxed about posing nude in GQ magazine before the Olympics.   “I don’t suppose it does bother me really,” she said. “I have done a few sexy photoshoots, I’ve been told I’ve got a nice bum, plus when I compete I am wearing a skin suit, so really, what’s the difference?”


That said, she was apparently ‘saddened’ to have her muscles airbrushed out of media images, to make her look ‘more feminine’.


Overall, we wholeheartedly agree with the sentiment Pendleton shared with BT Sport this week: “I think that it would be really valuable if women were celebrated for their achievements more.”


The survey by BT Sport included 110 elite athletes from 20 different sports and the results were overwhelmingly in agreement with Adlington, that the media, social media, sports officials, coaches and fellow athletes impose a perceived and wholly unrealistic pressure on British sportswomen.


Of course it is not the first time this issue has been aired.  Who didn’t shake their head in disbelief when just before the Olympics in 2012, Jessica Ennis was called “fat” by a high ranking official in UKAthletics.  Her very athletic physique proved to be world beating.  But at the same time, triathlete Hollie Avril retired from the sports after a long struggle with an eating disorder which stemmed from the comment of a male coach: “You’ll need to start thinking about your weight if you want to run quick”.


Paralympic multi medallist, Baroness Tanni Grey Thompson used a debate in the House of Lords to express her support of Adlington and fears for the wider world.


She said: “This is a young woman that we should all be proud of. She is four-time Olympic swimming medallist but many will understand how she feels. It is a worrying trend that young women are increasingly put under pressure to conform to a certain way.”


The Sports Minister, Helen Grant, has also lent her support.  “There’s far too much focus on what women look like instead of what they can and do achieve in life," she told BT Sport.


"Our elite female athletes are among some of the most positive role models that girls can look up to, given their hard work, dedication and performances on the track, in the pool and on the pitch. I want all the support they receive to be geared to them reaching their full potential as athletes.”


Different athletic body shapes on the Scratch race podium at the World Track Champs


There are apparently moves to address the issue.  Sports like UKAthletics say they are aware of the on-going problem and they run annual seminars on eating disorders and body image.


“They’re not tokenistic,” said a spokesperson. “At the last one we had in attendance both Head Coaches, our Performance Director and the Chief Medical Officer.”


The uCoach website, the online resource for athletics coaches in the UK, includes a podcast on coach and athlete relationships which looks closely at what damage a spur of the moment comment can have and its impact on athletes.


But the big question is, are these measures enough to counterbalance cultural pressures?


The media have emerged as one of the biggest culprits, with 66% believing it to be a major cause of the problem. “I think the worse thing is the media’s disproportionate criticism of body image, a picture of a celeb with a red circle round the tiniest bit of muffin top or cellulite is just totally stupid,” said one respondent.  Another added: “My sister had an eating disorder for 12 years. It’s tragic and so many young people suffer and I believe this is partly due to what people perceive as 'beautiful' because of what we see in the media.”


The pressure also comes from within sport, with 61% saying fellow athletes contributed. Other internal causes cited were coaches and national governing bodies. One former athlete said: “My coach was very critical and bloody minded about us athletes being the right weight but constantly changing the goal posts and judging what we had to eat.”


“Sometimes it has meant my diet no longer is optimum for performance but becomes optimum for looking slimmer/thinner."


Social media also took a large chunk of criticism, with 42% pointing to social networking sites such as Twitter and Facebook. “If a man isn't that attractive he just doesn't get put on covers/photo shoots. If a woman isn't she is teased by comedians or made fun of via social media - as if it is part of the job description - how dare she not look gorgeous!!!”


The full results of the survey which included 110 elite female athletes, para-athletes and those just retired from swimming, football, cycling, tennis, golf, athletics, snow sports, cricket, equestrian, triathlon, hockey, rugby, volleyball, badminton, boxing, canoe, basketball, rowing, gymnastics and weightlifting can be read here.


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