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She looks like me - female athlete role models

Photo: @ingo_kutsche_photo

When it comes to women in sport, having relatable role models is extremely important. Seeing is believing. When you see a female athlete achieving a goal and you can identify with her, you can believe that you too can also achieve the same things. You have to see it to be it. 

Photo: Grant Halverson, Getty Images

Many female athletes struggle with body image issues. In today's society, mainstream media has an unhealthy obsession with the "ideal" body type. Far too many athletes are bombarded with unrealistic images of how an athlete body should look. Thin arms, toned legs, firm butt, defined abs. Constant exposure to an idealized body type can lead to lower self-esteem and eating disorders. 

As a sport dietitian, tri coach and accomplished triathlete, I use my platform to empower women of all body shapes, sizes and types to feel comfortable in their bodies. My hope is that commentators, media, coaches and the athletic population as a whole can become more accepting and inclusive of all body types. 

Unfortunately, society is hyper-focused on appearance. We continue to hear (and see) the same message......smaller is faster, happier, healthier, better, and more successful.  Instead of educating and empowering athletes to become the best versions of themselves with health-promoting strategies, the bombardment of the "ideal" image increases the risk for restrictive eating, dieting, underfueling, disordered eating, overexercising or an eating disorder. It's not uncommon for athletes to adopt self-destructive habits in an effort to become a better athlete. 

And while athletes do not need to go to extremes to improve athletic performance, it's very difficult for female athletes to maintain a healthy relationship with food and the body when certain bodies are perceived as more attractive and successful than others. A female athlete typically becomes unhappy with her body when it doesn't match the "ideal." And female athletes are often reminded of the ideal due to comments made by coaches, the media, and social pressures. You can't deny that there are "standards" for attractiveness in our society. 

Every female coach, teammate, friend and exerciser can be a role model for the next generation of female athletes. Having role models and people to look up to is key to setting goals, staying motivated and having fun in sport. Representation is very important. Grit, toughness, hard work and resiliency can not be seen in the mirror, on a clothing label size tag or reflected by a number on the scale. Seeing someone who you can relate to is everything.

When role models are discussed, the first thing that comes to mind are high profile athletes. It's the people that we see every day that an make such a big difference. 

When we see successful, confident, fun and strong athletic female role models in a variety of different body shapes, this helps to create positive images and messages as to what the female body can do. It's very difficult for a self-conscious athlete who does not have an "ideal" body to thrive in sport when she doesn't have anyone to look up to. The same goes for minority groups. 

Photo: Getty Images, Grant Halverson

I've been an athlete for most of my life. I've accomplished a lot over the past fifteen years of endurance triathlon racing. I've never felt the need to intentionally change who I am to meet a standard. I am healthy in mind and body. But that doesn't mean that I don't feel judged. I am constantly exposed to particular body types on social media. I realize there is an over-valued belief that a lower body weight will provide a biomechanical advantage.

My muscularity has been a strength of mine. I'm short. I don't have a six-pack of abs, a firm butt or toned thighs. I have a love-hate relationship with running.....not because I am "bulky" but because running does not come natural to me, like swimming. There are days when I experience body-image insecurities. 

But I know that all bodies have their own individual way of reacting to training and nutrition. Athletes come in all types of sizes and shapes. The wonderful thing about sport is that there is no single acceptable body type. Being an athlete isn't about obtaining a "perfect" body. Sport provides an opportunity to celebrate individuality. It's time to put an end to the statement "she's doesn't have the typical body." The pressures of meeting an ideal athletic image can be actively damaging to mental and physical health.

Every body in action is extraordinary. We don't train to be a stationary object. We train to move in remarkable ways that are rarely depicted in the mainstream media. The female athlete body is powerful, determined, sweaty, strong and resilient. 

How can you be a better female athlete role model?
  • Stop the negative body talk. 
  • Show that there is more to sport than being the best. 
  • Refrain from complimenting weight loss (or criticizing weight gain).
  • Celebrate the diverse range of body sizes and shapes. 
  • Let go of judging a body type as "fast" or "race ready."
  • Become aware of your own biases around weight, body composition and health. 
  • Get rid of size or appearance assumptions. 
  • Acknowledge that bodies are allowed to change. 
  • Celebrate your strengths and abilities. 
  • Don't forget to thank your body. 
I wrote this post after being inspired by the recent performance of Ruth Astle at Ironman Mallorca (pictured at the top of this blog post). After watching the race, I told Karel "Wow - she looks like me!" 

Role models can drastically impact our behavior. We have a choice in who we want to model our behavior after. In the pursuit of athletic excellence, find athletes who embody the values, habits, core beliefs and traits that you desire. Even at almost 40 years old, I still look for female athlete role models to keep me motivated.

Thank you Ruth for being a great role model.