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Body Image and Disordered Eating in Female Athletes

Women have been breaking stigmas in sports for generations. Did you know that in 1928 the women’s 800 meter race was removed from the Olympics because of fear that running that distance would ruin women’s physical health? This was not added back until 1960. Women were not allowed to run in marathons until 1984! Women have been paving the way for future generations for decades but not without sacrifice. Eating disorders have run rampant through the athletic community and it is something that is not only normalized, it is encouraged.

The Body Image Battle Among Female Athletes

In the world of health and fitness, you see women on the cover of magazines that have slim waists and strong, non-cellulite covered thighs. We see advertisements that are meant to be women engaged in athletic activities but the models do not fit the truth of the sports they are representing. If you research a photo of a professional wrestler, runner, basketball player, or a golfer I guarantee you they do not have the same “look” as the models in catalogs and websites. This is dangerous for the general population because it creates the idea that women engaged in sports need to “look like that” in order to be active. It is dangerous for athletes because their bodies are not accepted as they are and they feel they are disappointing because they do not look as expected. As you engage in different sports, your body shifts and grows. It is natural for you to have cellulite, stretch marks, and body fat! What is unnatural is a completely flat stomach, protruding bones, and thigh gaps.

Another toxic message these advertisements send is: we have no room for those in larger bodies or who are pregnant in sports. This is simply not true! Athletes do not have a specific set of physical requirements in order to play the sport. Those in larger bodies are just as capable as those with lower weights at performing in different athletic endeavors. Women have also broken the stigma that pregnancy sets you back from athletic performance. In fact, it is typically encouraged by doctors to continue your normal engagement with physical activity when you are pregnant because it can be damaging if you alter your routine.

Women often do not “peak” in their performance as runners until age 25. In their early 20s, it is normal for women to hold onto body fat because this is the age in which bodies prepare for having babies. In the health and fitness realms, having body fat is seen as “bad” and “not athletic.” This is incredibly damaging to the athlete because they are led to believe that their bodies are the enemy. Developing as a woman in sports is seen as a negative and the male body is preferred. Women’s sports are often developed from and compared to men’s sports when they are two very different bodies entirely. Women peak at later ages and their bodies are biologically different from those of their male counterparts.

Problems of Disordered Eating in Female Athletes

One of the most common problems for female athletes is Relative Energy Deficiency in Sport (RED-S). It results in poor health and a declined athletic performance as a result of not providing the body with enough energy to sustain itself. The athlete is left with low energy availability which can lead to the following problems: reproductive issues, increased risk of stress fractures/osteoporosis, decreased immunity, decreased metabolism, low heart rate/heart damage, and a decline in psychological health. When you are not providing the body with enough energy to sustain athletic performance, these symptoms can arise and worsen over time. Unfortunately, disordered eating typically begins in adolescence and can continue into adulthood. They begin at the time your bones are supposed to grow and need all the support they can get. Your body needs fuel, but in a society that equates thinness with athleticism this is a breeding ground for limiting food intake.

These expectations for female athletes are damaging and life threatening. Even if athletes can avoid a full-blown eating disorder, this does not mean they are not suffering. Many tend to develop disordered eating patterns which are just as dangerous and even more difficult to spot. We need to work toward increasing inclusivity in sports and advertising. We need to increase education about eating disorders and female development for coaches, parents, and athletes as well as normalize talking about the female body and its functions. Decreasing weight and body stigma as well as increasing awareness about disordered eating will surely help make the world of sports a safer place for women.

Peak Psychological Services in Aurora assists female athletes in their journey to heal from eating disorders and learn to appreciate their bodies for what they can achieve, not solely for their appearance. Feel free to contact us at 719.623.2356 to schedule your appointment today.