I imagine that we all have an idea in our own mind of what athletes are supposed to look like. Perhaps ideas such as looking long and lean, sculpted arms, six pack abs, calves that pop out. ESPN does a great job of reinforcing these perceived notions. In the last few days they have announced the 2017 list of athletes for their Body Image issue. Until it's posted, and you're interested in last year's issue, click here. And I admit I get sucked into their vortex of "needing" to look at these fine specimen of world class athletes. Part of me is interested in seeing how different sports create different body shapes. Another part of me admires how dedicated they are to their particular sport and the importance it takes to stay in such great shape to play at such a high level. And then part of me wonders how do they perceive themselves, their peers or the everyday weekend warrior athlete.
In college I had to read a book called Little Girls in Pretty Boxes by Joan Ryan for my sport psychology class. The book was about the making and breaking of elite gymnasts and figure skaters. What (primarily) female athletes endure from coaches to judges to the general public on everything from weight to hair/makeup to smiles, to their outfits. I was appalled at some of the statistics. What I recall a few of them being (since I read this in 1996, they may be off a bit, but you'll get the gist)-
- When Mary Lou Retton won gold in 1984, the average USA gymnast was 5'3" and 115 lbs.
- In 1996 when the USA team won gold, the average USA gymnast was 4'9" and 96 lbs.
- Coaches made athletes run an extra 5 miles if they were caught eating a peach because they were hungry.
- X-Rays of young kids are taken to see if they have "proper bone structure" to be a ballerina.
I have met very few people that have never experienced some aspect of negative body image self talk or shaming at some point in their life.
"Have you gained weight?" "Are you sure you want to wear that?" "You don't look like a yogi." "Imagine how much faster you'd be if you lost just a few pounds." "He's only got one arm, how can he be a pitcher?" "Look, bionic man just crossed the finish line."
These simple one-liners can do terrible things to a person's psyche, both short and long term.
But thanks to social media, two particular articles popped up in my feed today that brought joy to me.
- Target runs ad describing what it means to look like an athlete.
- Runner urges others to ignore haters.
As someone that participates in many athletic or movement based events such as road races, yoga classes, indoor rock climbing, triathlons, I am encouraged when I see all sorts of shapes and sizes participating. It makes me believe that we are on the right path and that one size does not fit all. The next time I look in the mirror, it will be with clarity and confidence that I say, "You are enough." I hope you can say the same.
Have questions about shifting your mindset around body image?