More than just looks: the cycle of body shaming in female sports

For athletes everywhere, us included, when we lace up our shoes and put on our uniforms, all we have in our mind is one thing: performing. Within this umbrella term of “performance” falls all the hard work, time spent training and hours dedicated to preparing to play the games we know and love. Athletes shape their lives around their practice schedules and recovery sessions in hopes that their commitment to their sport will shine once the lights come on, and it is ultimately time to compete. This passion and drive is what keeps athletes going, the idea that hard work will one day turn into real, tangible outcomes that reflect their previous efforts. Everyone can see the performance, but not the endeavors one undertook to get there.

At the very least, this ideal is seen in male sports, as the performance is what catches the eyes of spectators and reels them in to enjoy athletic glory alongside the athletes doing the competing. However, in female sports, there is one thing that ultimately stands in the way of partaking in victorious moments such as these: our bodies.

While the human body is essential for performance, it too often becomes central to athletic spectatorship, drawing away from the initial purpose of simply competing for the love of the game. Those on the outside, meaning the audiences that watch such sporting events, can serve as an avenue for support and encouragement, however, they can also find a way to act as the greatest critics of physical traits that are of no importance to how one is able to perform in their respective sport. Even more disappointingly is that those on the inside, such as coaches and other authority figures, that reap this same mentality, allowing for societal norms and personal judgements to interfere with the mentorship that should be taking place. 

This is creating an unhealthy environment for up-and-coming athletes, especially for girls, where judgment is based more on their appearance rather than their athletic ability. Therefore, sports become more than just an arena of free-spirited competition, turning into a site for destroying young female bodies at the expense of inflicting personal guilt, shame and ridicule upon hard-working athletes.

In professional sports, in order to get sponsorships, athletes are required to stay relevant, which ultimately comes back to one thing: winning. Winning is made to seem like it is everything. Winning more races, games or matches inevitably means more sponsorships, more prize money, more fame and more glory. But at what cost? 

Most recently in the news, the running community was struck by Mary Cain’s story in a piece in The New York Times titled “I Was the Fastest Girl in America, Until I Joined Nike,” which is part of a series “showcasing the insurgent athletes dragging women’s sports in the 21st century.” The piece told Cain’s story as the youngest American track and field athlete to make the World Championship team at age 17 and how she signed onto the best track team in the world, Nike’s Oregon Project, to help further improve her skills. 

But instead of improving as an athlete, Cain’s coach, Alberto Salazar, seemed to be more focused on her weight. He even gave her prescriptions for birth control and diuretics to help her maintain her weight. “It reached a point where I was on the starting line, and I’d lost the race before I started because in my head all I was thinking of was not the time I was trying to hit, but the number on the scale I saw earlier that day,” Cain said in a video with The New York Times. 

The immense pressure from Salazar to perform at her best level led to self-harm and thoughts of suicide. “I wasn’t even trying to make the Olympics anymore. I was just trying to survive,” Cain added. 

The most unfortunate part of Cain’s story is that she is not the only one. 

When the piece came out, there was overwhelming support for Cain and people echoing her story. Amy Begley, an Olympian and former Nike athlete, tweeted that “After placing 6th in the 10,000 meter race at the 2011 USATF championships, I was kicked out of the Oregon Project. I was told I was too fat and ‘had the biggest butt on the starting line.’” 

Steve Magness, a former Nike coach, said that he witnessed what Cain and Begley were saying while he worked with Nike from 2011 to 2012. “It was the norm. It was part of the culture. It was abhorrent,” he tweeted. 

But this should not be a norm that we see in professional sports. With all eyes pointed to professional athletes, quite literally, the whole world is watching, meaning that young children with aspirations to enter these professional arenas are taking notice. What happens in professional sports inevitably translates to amateurs, with these messages permeating dreams and consuming young lives. Having a skinny appearance does not imply athleticism, just as having a broad appearance does not signify the inability to compete.

Why is it that we have this ambiguous need to accept our bodies, when this idea of approval should never be in question. These pressures, as has been explained, are not simply coming from within, but reflect external forces that are burdening women in unequal proportions. Take it from Serena Williams, one of the world’s most successful athletes, even when not discriminating along the lines of gender. After winning countless titles and remaining amongst the top ranks in her sport, this powerful, relentless and diligent athlete nevertheless is subjected to body comparisons, shame and ridicule from countless others. 

There is a fine line between one’s “performance body” and one’s “female body,” with society telling us that the two are unable to coexist. However, figures like Williams are constantly battling this assumption, showing young women that this implied societal rule of body acceptance is not something ingrained in us but is rather something that must be achieved.

Instead of focusing on our outer appearance, we can continue to reaffirm the resilience of female athletes and support their growth as both athletes and women. Younger generations look up to professional athletes as inspiration. But if they continue to see only thin women in the professional leagues and listen to the chatter that shames athletes’ bodies, the cycle perpetuates.

Outer beauty is overrated. All that matters is the love for the sport, passion to keep going and a determination to be the best we can be.

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