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Backlash over the athlete body

It's been interesting to hear the reactions to Kara Goucher's recent Facebook post which was a response to the body shaming within Oregon's Track and Field program).

From "amen" and "enough is enough" to "she's so thin, what is she talking about" and "she has body dysmorphia if she thinks she has fat" the feedback has been mixed. I assume that most reactions to the Oregon situation of fat shaming and eating disorders are outrage and sadness whereas some people are finding it hard to believe that an athlete like Kara Goucher would have body image issues - especially when the pictures she posted were what appeared to be a lean and fit athlete.

There's a lot to unpack here but I will try my best without writing a book on this topic. Although I've probably written over a hundred articles/blogs on this topic so I could very well turn that into a book. Nonetheless, here we did we get here?

Diet Culture
Diet culture is a system of beliefs that values health, well-being, thinness, appearance and shape. Diet culture conditions people to believe that thinness equates to health, fat is unhealthy and achieving the idealized body makes you more morally superior than others. Diet culture offers programs and products to help you achieve an ideal of what is considered "healthy" or "fit". If you don't match up with an idealized image, diet culture wants you to spend an excessive amount of time, money and energy trying to change the way that you look. Diet culture demonizes certain foods and styles of eating and praises others. This makes you feel guilt and shame for eating certain foods as diet culture emphasizes "good" versus "bad" foods (which change by the season), encourages you to restrict calories and normalizes critical self-talk. Diet culture teaches you that your self-worth is measured in pounds and you are only as good as your size. Diet culture doesn't need you to "be on a diet" to be caught up in the culture of dieting. Diet culture needs you to be insecure about your body (ex. cellulite, stretch marks, weight, rolls, skin, wrinkles) for diet culture to profit. And how do these insecurities arise? Often from social media, television, advertising.

Idealized Body Image
There's a good chance that as you scroll through social media, browse through a magazine or watch TV, you instantly start to compare your body to others. Somehow, you have a picture in mind of someone who has a perfect body and you envy that body (or what that person has achieved because of that body). Where did this ingrained idea of a "perfect" body come about?
Throughout history, we as a culture (and society) have been obsessed with size. It's become attached to our identity. This obsession with size has created a construct of the "ideal" body. From curvy and thick to thin and childlike, this image has changed many times throughout history. Unfortunately, as this ideal changes, people (primarily women) try to conform to the "ideal." Interestingly, the highest prevalence of disordered eating occurs at a time when the "ideal" woman is thin. With a strong divide in the way bodies are presented on the media, thinness is celebrated whereas larger bodies are highlighted as unattractive and unhealthy. When we are inundated with images of a particular body type that is viewed as healthy, attractive, healthy, successful and beautiful, we are taught to believe that this particular body type is ideal. This matters because constant exposure to images promoting thinness, muscularity or both contributes to body dissatisfaction and low self-esteem. Aspiring to this ideal figure can cause people to engage in disordered eating behaviors such as restrictive eating or purging or excessive exercising. With so many images reinforcing a similar type of body, this sends the message that a certain body is more preferred than others.

Body Shaming Athletes
Diet culture and the idealized image always go together. Given that so many people are dissatisfied with body image, diet culture is there to help you do things (ex. weight loss, dieting, exercise) to help you achieve that image – all with the promise that you will be healthier, more attractive, happier and more successful when you meet that idealized image. Although media plays a vital role in formulating what is attractive in society, comments made by coaches, journalists and commentators can lead to body dissatisfaction. Many authority figures are predisposed to an aesthetic bias that thinner is better. Lighter is faster. Fat is slow. Imagine two runners showing up to practice. One is curvy around the midsection and the other is lean and defined. Due to society’s idea of “fit” and healthy, the curvy girl is more likely to be told by coaches, commentators and the media that she doesn’t fit the expectations of an ideal runner’s body. She may be told to lose weight to improve her chances of being successful at races or she may be told that she’s great for a “bigger” athlete. We don’t need society/coaches/commentators to put athlete bodies and sizes into boxes to label, objectify and to discriminate. But there’s a good chance that you may already do this. How many times have you looked at an athlete at the start of a race and assumed that this athlete was “fast” based on their body composition? Athletes are stereotyped every day. Far too many coaches (typically male) assume that diet and exercise are the only factors that contribute to a person’s weight or size. Instead of celebrating that everyone is born with a body that is unique to them and to encourage them to embrace their unique qualities, body shaming is common in many sports. One of the many reasons why athletes become dissatisfied with their bodies is because of body shaming. Inappropriate, negative or attitudes towards a person’s weight or size is wrong and unfair. When your coach adds pressure on you to lose weight or to look a certain way, you become fixated on achieving that image. Nothing else matters. And this isn’t limited to curvy athletes like the example above. Even lean athletes that meet an “idealized” image can feel dissatisfied with their bodies. Again, we are mislead to believe that thinner = happier and healthier. 

Health at Risk
Diet culture, an idealized image and comments made by coaches/commentators have made you believe that your body isn’t good enough. In an effort to fit the body ideal, diet culture sweeps you up and reminds you of all of the tips and tricks for changing your body composition - all of which are extreme and unhealthy. Whereas you may have started with good intentions to change your diet to become a better athlete, trying to meet a body ideal is almost always damaging to mental and physical health because the focus is on the image of your body - not on the function or health of your body. Your genes play a very important role in determining how much you weigh throughout your life. More or less, you have a genetic code for your body type and that blueprint is a weight range that is one that you can healthily maintain. If you try to step too far outside of that range (ex. weight loss) your body systems will make changes to try to get you back into that weight range. Fatigue, hunger, cravings and headache are a few symptoms that you may immediately feel. But that is why the diet culture has taught you tricks on how to boost energy through coffee, curb cravings with sugar-free foods and fight hunger with willpower and water. Your body will always defend your set range to keep you healthy. This is why so many athletes experience short and long-term (and often career-ending) health issues as a result of insufficient caloric intake relative to energy expenditure. For most athletes, to achieve an “idealized” image that you are told (or you think) will make you a better athlete, you are approaching a losing battle as you attempt to fight evolution – your biology, your brain, your organs, your immune system, your digestive system, your hormones, your metabolism. It’s important to remember that you are not just an athlete, you are a human being. 

With so much more that I can unpack as it relates to diet culture, an idealized image and disordered eating I’d like to leave you with this. 

Many athletes have an unhealthy relationship with food and the body. Many athletes develop disordered eating or an eating disorder. 

As the narrative continues that “lighter is faster” and “thinner is better” it’s critical that we – as a society - control for disordered eating. When an athlete improves performance because she lost weight, are we celebrating her weight loss as a result of an eating disorder? Is anyone looking after her mental and physical health? Are we looking after long-term health? Was this weight loss induced by fat-shaming and weight stigma? Are there warning signs for an eating disorder? Is this athlete maintaining a normal menstrual cycle? Is this ‘perfect’ athlete body being referenced and glamorized something that is universally achievable and realistic? What kind of messages are being sent to athletes with "normal" bodies? Encouraging or celebrating weight loss reinforces that fact that athletes are judged by their body image.

You are more than a view of your body. Respect your body. Don't diet. Don't self-deprecate. Workout because you love what you can do with your body - not because you feel you need to change it.

If you maintain a healthy relationship with food and your body, you nourish and fuel your body and you train in a systematic and smart way, your body will naturally transform into the perfect YOU for optimal performance.

Trust me.

Because there are far too many testimonials of athletes who have tried to optimize performance through dieting and/or over-exercising and it's never the fairytale story that we are made to believe by diet culture and the media.