• Jessica Nguyen

THe Effect of Body Image on Sports

By Zosia Ridley

It’s true that participating in sports has positive effects: teaching individuals team-building skills, the ethics of hard work, and exercising in general along with the great number of health benefits. However, while youth sports can pose great mental growth, as we grow older and become more involved these simple opportunities for kinesthetic learning could turn into something far more serious. The fine line between reinforced positive effects and the degradation of mental health is being crossed by people, athletic coaches and the sports culture itself. With all sports, there is an extreme focus on stretching the capability of our bodies, as that is the premise of the activity. Pushing your body to the extremes, and therefore being able to excel at a certain sport, can lead many people to grow uncomfortable with the little imperfections they see, and thus, may feel the incessant need for improvement. Even if their current image is one that another might strive for, the competition in sports and constant comparison can put a strain on one's body image. To amplify this feeling, many of the sports competing uniforms can be revealing and tight fitted.

Take the Olympic medalist Anyika Onuora for instance, the British sprinter who has spoken out about struggling with poor body image through her athletic career. As a young athlete, she had a naturally bigger build than her peers, resulting in ridiculing and being called “fat” by the others on sports teams and in her school. During her training, Anyika shielded away from crop tops and shorter shorts because “no one had the same body [as her].” Even with her naturally muscular figure, she was told several times by athletic bosses to lose weight and was often compared to other athletes who didn’t have the same natural figure like her. Their perceived image of a fast runner was someone small and petite, and Anyika did not fit this vision. Being deemed as overweight as a child had a bad effect on her mental health. However being told to lose weight by individuals at the top was far more degrading.

Naturally, some sports have a more cosmetic outlook when competing, such as cheerleading, gymnastics, figure skating, dance, and others. Within these sports, it is, of course, of the most importance to be skilled, but in addition to that, there is a certain body type that is preferred. The emphasis on a certain “look” is far more prevalent in these performance-based sports than others, leading many more individuals to feel uncomfortable in their own skin. Not only do they wear revealing, tight-fitted competition wear, but the standards for a certain body type are a big part of playing the sport. From the stereotyped more “correct” bodies of short lean gymnasts to tall slim dancers, body dysmorphia--an anxiety disorder described mainly by obsessive concentration over minor flaws and imperfections of the body is not a rarity.

Competitive cheerleading, a team-based sport with routines consisting of jumps, tumbling, and stunts, also include tight-fitted uniforms, makeup, big bows, and a world of hairspray. A study shows that there is an estimated 33.1% risk of eating disorders among these athletes, with flyers, a specific position in stunts that are characterized by getting thrown in the air, having a greater chance of body dissatisfaction. In another slightly similar sport, gymnastics, it is known that many competitors are short yet muscular, an ideal figure when flips are the main aspect. The National Library of Medicine concluded that almost 30% of female gymnasts face eating disorders. Lastly, there's the sport of dance. Probably the most widely known sport to idealize the thin and tall body standard. “1 out of 2 dancers suffer from an eating disorder,” says Linda Hamilton, a New York phycologist who has experience working with ballerinas having eating disorders. Dancers all over the world report being rejected from schools and jobs, not because of their dancing ability, but more outrageously, because of their body: they were told they needed more muscle tone, or just were lacking that optimal dancer's body.

Though the world of sports has evolved in many ways, there is still miles ahead for improvement. The mental toll many sports have on young, aspiring, and professional athletes is far too great, and measures need to be taken to control this issue. Feelings of insecurity among adolescents only grow with age and bodily changes. Though it will definitely take time, altering negative sport culture as well as the glamorization of a certain body type within these activities is a must.

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