Recreation and Sport Studies

Studying, Experiencing and Facilitating Kinesiology, Recreation and Sport through Wellness and Physical Activity

Combating Body Image Issues in Athletes

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As a graduating undergraduate in RSS, an article I would recommend reading is:

Howells, K. & Grogan, S. (2012). Body image and the female swimmer: Muscularity but in moderation. Qualitative Research in Sport, Exercise and Health, 4(1), 98-116.

A surprising number of athletes suffer from body image issues.  It is most common in sports that are judged rather than sports that are not.  Sports with the highest rates of body image issues are gymnastics, swimming, and dance.  The reason for higher risk of eating disorders with judged sports is because there is a higher value on the aesthetics than the skills.  Synchronized swimmers are told that they all need to look the same; the same size muscles, the same skin color, etc.  The article I chose to do my critical review was about body image and female swimmers and how they view their muscles on and off the pool deck.

The article looked at two focus groups of female swimmers, one group was between the ages of 14-18 and the other was 19-56.  Howells and Grogan, the authors, discovered three main findings; the impact of swimming on the body: muscularity but in moderation, body confidence as transient: age matters, and influence of others.  For the first finding perceptions of increased muscularity were different between the age groups.  Although some muscularity was acceptable to the adolescent swimmers as muscle indicated strength, fitness, a toned body and well-being, some conflict occurred; the girls were aware that muscle was contrary to the thin ideal that their social selves aspired to.  By adulthood, muscle was welcomed as it indicated vitality, youth and health.  The adolescent swimmers reflected that their bodies were contrary to the thin ideal subscribed to, and seemingly achieved by their friends. Consequently, they perceived that they were less attractive and more masculine; this affected their confidence.

The age difference made a difference of how they perceived their muscles; while the adolescent swimmers were confident in swimsuits on the pool deck they were not comfortable in their social context – they compared themselves to their friends and what they saw in magazines and the media.  However, the adult swimmers were not concerned with their muscles or what the media was portraying, instead they were proud of their muscles because they had broken free from the stereotypical remarks that older women have flabby arms and legs.  The last finding of influence of others correlates to the second finding because media portrayal is a big influence on adolescents.  Despite being critical of the cultural thin ideal, seeing it as ill looking, and unhealthy, the adolescent swimmers still compared themselves unfavourably to it.  They explained the differences between themselves and the ideal as being personified by their masculine shoulders and large thighs.  The differences were perceived as being indicators of popularity, with those who had achieved the thin ideal being more popular than those who had not.  For the adult swimmers someone who was very influential for them were their coaches; for example some of the coaches told the girls to lose weight.

This article really opened my eyes to this issue and how it can be detrimental to young females.  It made me want to help young girls realize how special their muscles are and that they should be nothing to be ashamed off out of their sport context.  I think that because I read this article it will help make me a better coach and teacher because I will be able to catch the signs and help the girls before it gets out of hand.  I recommend this article to other kinesiology students because we all have a connection to adolescents; whether we are coaches, want to be a teacher, have children, are in the health and wellness stream; being aware of body image is one thing but learning about where and how it evolves for everyone is another and this article does a great job on explaining their findings.

by Emily Mallett

Some interesting links:

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