Body Image in Sport, our girls, our athletes, and US!
Who Do You See When You Look In the Mirror?
There has been a media feeding frenzy after the New York Times published an article recently about professional women tennis players, appearance, performance, and results. I’ll offer that some of the counter-articles have totally missed the mark in the name of sensationalism, perhaps by wanna-be journalists trying to make a name for themselves through controversy challenging the giant that is the NYT. One of my favourite fitness writers and amazing athlete herself, Selene Yeager, catches much of the essence of the article but, in my estimation, appears perhaps too finely focussed on some of the backgrounder discussion rather than genuinely hearing the conclusion. Or maybe I’m not getting it because I’m not a woman, and therefore cannot possibly have an opinion on such issues? Fair enough. Selene, we can agree mostly on this one.
The crux of the NYT’s article -I read it the more than a dozen times because I wanted to make sure I was understanding as best I could what was being said, was that sadly, in women’s tennis, there are those players who are more concerned with achieving merely respectable results while maintaining an endorsement-rich appearance, rather than winning, regardless of appearance. After highlighting the reasons for such a motivation expressed by those competitors, their coaches and their agents, the article, in what I consider the absolute best messaging, concludes by quoting one of Canada’s rising stars in women’s tennis: “…Eugenie Bouchard, who was often dubbed “the next Maria Sharapova” as she ascended the rankings last year, said she hoped to gain more strength and muscle as her results have fallen off. “If I start to see it, I’ll be happy,” Bouchard said. “If it’s what you need to lift trophies, who cares what you look like?””
I muttered under my breath while reading “Good for you Eugenie. That other stuff- that’s messed up. Chasing the almighty dollar or worrying about what other people say, instead of wanting to win? None of the Olympic rings has anything to do with that?” And yet here were people openly admitting to these non-competitive agendas. Wow. i guess I’m naive or old school or something, just waiting to win…
“Oh em gee, did they really just say that?”
Are our concerns for image limited to one end of the spectrum of getting bigger? No is the simple answer, and furthermore, it’s not just women. Men too face issues along the same lines, and with similar though male-specific responses to nutritional deprivation, for example. As for finding names for these issues though – how do we get these things so wrong? (wait for it:) You won’t believe this but the term coined by the International Olympic Committee (IOC) and other international governing bodies for major sports, is Female Athlete Triad, from the 2005 IOC Consensus Statement defined as “‘the combination of disordered eating (DE) and irregular menstrual cycles eventually leading to a decrease in endogenous oestrogen and other hormones, resulting in low bone mineral density’(BMD)” Now that you know the moniker and what it is, look back at the term used, and now turn that into an acronym. Really? We need a focus group to come up with a better name than that, please folks. The good news (just barely) is that in recognizing the issue is far more complex and that it affects men too, the broader spectrum is know as Relative Energy Deficiency in Sport’ (RED-S).
Mara Abbott, two times the US National Road Cycling champion and first and only North American woman to win the women’s tour of Italy, the Giro d’Italia Donne, left the sport of cycling after suffering with an eating disorder that threatened far more than her cycling career. While I’m sure she doesn’t recall, I met Mara in Colorado a few times, on our Acacia Park group ride in Colorado Springs, and at the Iron Horse Bicycle Classic Race in Durango. As a fan, I was excited when she won, I was sad for her when she left cycling, and I was ecstatic for her that, through an amazing coach, Dean Golich, she was able to come back to health and back to cycling to claim her second Giro win, and her second Stars and Stripes jersey.
There are athletes who are worried about being too big, at both ends of performance spectrum, both men and women.
A few weeks back I went to supper and I will say, it broke my heart. My athlete was wearing full length jeans. Which of course if it was January would not have been a big deal, but it was July, it was completely out of character for her, and it was 28C outside when we arrived at a local restaurant for a celebratory meal…after she placed 6th in her category and earned a spot to go to the Ironman 70.3 World Championships in Austria next month…in her first attempt at this distance! “What’s with the jeans?” I asked, “It’s friggin’ hot out!” Sheepishly, she told me that she didn’t want her legs to be seen if she wore shorts in public because people would see her thighs. “Oh no” I thought to myself as I looked away and my eyes started to leak, pretending that my allergies were bothering me. You see one of the key ideas you will discover if you check the additional reading I’ve provided, is just how insidious and invasive RED-S can be to an athlete; and to a person. She and I have talked about weight in the past. As can any information be dangerous, there are books written that, when they fall into “the wrong hands” can lead to some messed up eating behaviour. [I will neither validate nor vilify these books and materials by mentioning them by name here]. Sufficed to say, concern with weight and performance has been for my athlete and I, on the other end of the scale, where lighter could be perceived as better, and she has read at least one such book, and it’s a concern for me, as her coach. So we looked at blogs and articles written by women who face similar challenge – fitting into clothes both at the thigh and at the waist, and we agreed that if buying for thighs and tailoring in for waist was how it’s going to be, well that is how it’s going to be. Instead of shaming, we talked about performance and about her amazing bike split on a challenging, hilly course. We talked about her outstanding running successes in 2015 and about her work besting a local master’s swim club in the pool all winter long. We talked about healthy eating, training, rest and recovery and about balance, as much as one can have any modicum of balance while striving to become an elite athlete. We talked about focus – “follow one course until successful” (now that is a cool “acronym/mnemonic “,
right?”) It’s my believe that we will always have to keep a close eye on this issue throughout her racing life, and knowing that I’m not equipped to deal with the issue, we will make sure that we are seeking the right guidance from subject matter experts. Along with Eugenie’s words on lifting trophies, I believe Selene’s words are the best message with which I can support her aspirations:
“If you live your life through your body and let your body take the shape it will naturally take to accomplish those tasks, you are bound to meet and attract other, like-shaped (and more importantly, like-minded) people, who are also in pursuit of activities they love and have the bodies to show for it. Then you can take your like-shaped bodies out to ride bikes and explore the world and appreciate each other and perhaps raise babies that will one day grow up big and strong and love their bodies too.”
These are important messages for all of us: Embrace your physique; love your body, that body that you have created as your instrument of life.
Supporting references and additional reading:
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