Body image and the athlete is a tough topic and a complex one. We’re focusing on the female athlete for this article, but by no means is this issue unique to women. Athletes often struggle with body image. Why? There is some sort of societal “ideal” and typically we see this come through in the media. Check out the latest cover of any major endurance sports magazine and you’ll see a very fit and lean athlete.
Every cover also seems to have the “5 ways to lose 5 pounds now” headline. We can be overwhelmed with seeing what we are not and think that is how we are supposed to look. A study showed 69% of girls in 5th-12th grade reported that magazine pictures influenced their idea of a perfect body shape.1
For the endurance athlete, weight is important as it affects performance. For the elite athlete, it is very important, and probably why an eating disorder rate of 20 percent was found in elite athletes, compared to 9 percent of a female control group.2
I’m going to focus on the age grouper, as that’s what most of us are. If you ask a female age grouper why they got into endurance sports, chances are a good number will say “to lose weight.” We train for fitness and to be healthy. And while a better body and improved health is often the result, we need to remember we aren’t elite athletes when we look in the mirror.
We also tend to think of body image issues deal with people thinking they are too heavy, but we can’t forget the opposite. Some are naturally thin and have a hard time gaining weight. Because they look to be more the current “ideal,” we don’t realize that they might be struggling with their image as well.
Regina Hammond, MS, RD, Director of Nutrition for Trismarter.com tells us that, “No one is happy with what they see in the mirror 100 percent of the time, and that is okay. The struggle is when someone does not believe that they deserve to like what they see in the mirror, they don’t think other people value what she sees in the mirror, or the focus on imperfections outweighs the ability to physically train or it affects her health.”
Here are a three things to think about that can help put your body image into perspective.
1. What is Your Ideal Body Image and Why?
Do you think “I need to gain or lose 5 to 10 lbs” every time you look in the mirror? Did someone from your past (or present) put it in your head? Or is it truly realistic due to health concerns? The why is most important here. Write down your thoughts, read it a few times, and see if it really makes sense. Regina approaches this with her athletes by asking them how their body helps them excel at their chosen sport.
I’m reminded of a talk by Vern Gambetta I was at a few years ago. He’s probably a big fan of Meghan Trainor’s hit ‘All About That Bass.’ He mentioned strong glutes are often an indicator of a good athlete…
2. Are You Healthy?
Do you get regular physical exams with blood work that show you are healthy? If your exam along with blood pressure, resting pulse, metabolic function, and other blood work shows that you are in good health, then you are in a good place.
Do you understand the role of food as it relates to providing you the energy to succeed in your sport? To have a positive body image, you need to have a positive relationship with food. This means you understand that you eat good food for good health and performance, but don’t deny yourself the not-so-healthy stuff on occasion.
The book “Racing Weight” by Matt Fitzgerald, is a great resource and contains excellent whole food recipes for a healthy, balanced diet for the endurance athlete. But the title (in my opinion) indicates we all should strive to reach this ideal racing weight. Not everyone is going to be a super lean endurance athlete, and not everyone needs to be.
3. If You Aren’t Where You Want to be, How Much Effort are you Willing to put Forth to Reach Your Goal?
You might remember the picture of Dara Torres on the cover of Time Magazine before the 2008 Olympics that highlighted the amazing physique of 40-year old mother. I’ll be honest, I took that image and thought “Wow! I’d like to look like that.” (I don’t, and that’s OK.) We need to remember she is:
- an elite athlete whose life is dedicated to getting her body into the absolute best shape possible and
- had a whole team of people helping her reach her goals.
If you are the typical age group athlete with a family and full-time job, by all means it is very important to take care of yourself, get the sleep you need, and eat a diet of primarily whole foods. But we are only human and can only handle a certain number of stressors. As with any goal, be realistic on where you are, where you want to be, and how much effort you are willing to put in to get you there.
If you find you are having trouble accepting your image, or have specific goals and want to make sure you reach them in a healthy fashion, it is a good idea to seek out the assistance of a professional sports dietitian. Be healthy, be fit, and be proud of who you are.