No Place for Body Image in Sports

Body image is affecting high school athletes today as it did in previous decades—perhaps even more so.  It used to be an issue solely pertaining to teenage girls, but that’s no longer the case as many male high school athletes are overly concerned about their body image as well—especially as juniors and seniors when body development occurs at different rates for that age group.

Girls with larger frames can feel as though they are heavy and inferior to teammates who are slender.  Boys whose muscles have not developed can turn to try questionable supplements in an attempt to gain mass.

Obsession about perceived negative body image is a major problem for many high school athletes—including many that try to hide their anxieties.  It’s important for parents of athletes to be on the lookout if their son or daughter is carrying such feelings.

“Everyone is beautiful,” says Kate Leavell, a girl’s lacrosse coach who writes blogs on her site, kateleavell.com.  “Have you ever seen someone who didn’t fit the typical media driven definition of beauty that literally to you was the most beautiful person in the world? Their inner beauty mixed with their unique features were the parts of them that made them the teammate you loved. And when you see them they make you smile. That’s the beauty we want our players to find. The beauty in being their own imperfect but wildly wonderful self.  Sports are a great way to find that because of the opportunities to really bond with each other, shine through athletic abilities, show their unique personality, and build each other’s confidence in what makes them well…themselves!”

Comparison in sports is rarely a good thing, says Leavell, and it is certainly the foundation of body image issues.  Parents should stop their son or daughter from comparing their physical characteristics with others on the team.

Leavell reminds parents about the power of words, so it’s important to speak positively to their child athlete. “What our kids hear us say to them, about ourselves, and about others becomes their inner voices. Our goal should be strong, healthy, happy, and confident athletes, and remembering to address and plan for body image insecurities is a vital part,” she says.

Leavell recommends that parents talk to their child about healthy food choices, cardiovascular fitness, strength, speed, and agility. Don’t talk about weight, size, being too heavy or scrawny, or bulking up, being too slow, etc.

She also asks parents to encourage eating for recovery and to feed muscle. Athletes need fuel to practice and compete.  Sometimes we focus on whether the athlete is overeating, and don’t think about the number of calories need to perform their sport.

Leavell suggests that parents seize the opportunity to initiate conversations about body pressures—the pressure to look a certain way. “Fitness models, professional athletes who get down to unrealistic body fat percentage for a few days for a photo shoot have tainted what our kids believe an athlete should aspire to look like,” she says.  “High performance athletes have much more body fat in competition than they ever would for a photo shoot. You may not think your team thinks about these things, but they do.

“Our goal should be strong, healthy, happy, and confident athletes, and remembering to address and plan for body image insecurities is a vital part.”