Many athletes and feminists share the view that while society as a whole places the most importance on what women’s bodies look like, sports focus on what women’s bodies can do. All the same, females in sport continue to struggle with the cultural and social ideals emphasizing thinness instead of strength, shape and athletic body types. Female athletes are further faced with “sports body stereotypes,” in which “thinness is accepted as both normal and desirable, as well as the presumption of good health with good performance” (Johnson et al, 1999).
Thinness is not necessarily the right measure of fitness and health. The general public often holds misconceptions about how female athletes’ body size and shape should be. But look at a notable exception like the Williams sisters in tennis. They are big, strong, and powerful, dominating the tennis world since they were young teens. Their bodies are far from the cultural and social ideal of thinness.
Due to this emphasis on thinness and performance in many sports, there exists a higher risk of female athletes developing eating disorders than the general public. Research consistently shows that one in three collegiate female athletes develops eating disorders. This is influenced by the sports milieu, as ”the prevalence of eating disorders among female athletes differs based on the sport played” (Perrillo, 2012). The sports that emphasize thinness and weight control have higher incidence of eating disorders. Specifically, those sports focused on aesthetic, judging, and endurance experience a higher risk. “Sports such as gymnastics, figure skating, dancing and synchronized swimming have a higher percentage of athletes with eating disorders, than sports such as basketball, skiing, and volleyball” (Thompson, 2011). When you look at the 2012 London Olympic sports such as tennis, soccer, beach volleyball and basketball, you will observe strong female athletes that don’t fit our cultural ideal.
Years ago, a female track runner from a local college was referred by her father. Upon further assessment, she divulged that her entire team had eating issues, including anorexia, anorexia-bulimia, and bulimia. Upon offering to speak with her team, she indicated that the coach encouraged the team members to be this way. He would emphasize to the young women on the team the philosophy of doing whatever it took to win. This is just one example where improper eating is encouraged rather that discouraged by a coach. It is the more successful female athletes with positive coaching, such as Alison Dunlap (Olympic road, 1996, and mountain biker, 2000) and Misty May-Treanor (Olympic beach volleyball player, 2000, 2004, 2008, & 2012), who express comfort with their body image, confidence, and self esteem.
In expanding girls’ educational opportunities in the 1970’s, the sporting world became opened up to a variety of sports for girls. We now view the big, strong girls with more respect than in the past, but despite this acceptance, we fight against the cultural emphasis on thinness and good looks that continues to predominate as our society’s view of the perfect body image. In the media, the presence of bigger, more athletic body types has become more common, yet we still see such postings on the internet as the 10 hottest women in sport based solely on their thin body types and physical appearance. We continue to work to expand the ideal body image of an athletic girl or woman to include the beautiful body of big, strong, female athletes in addition to the smaller thinner athletes.
Originally written for: DisruptiveWomen.net