PRESS BOX: There is no ‘perfect body,’ not even in sports

Illustration by Lauren Johnson

Tagwa Shammet, Opinions Editor

This story discusses body dysmorphia and eating disorders. It may be triggering for some readers.

Throughout humanity, our society has struggled to define what the perfect body is — curvy, muscular, skinny, fat. All of these words present an extremely toxic environment within the conversation surrounding an individual’s body.

The concept of the perfect body has created a consistently harmful view of oneself. Many people of all ages, genders, etc. struggle with their body image. Between disordered eating and body dysmorphia, the perception of one’s body has provided major insecurities to many.

There is a large misconception that athletes are excused from these insecurities. That could not be further from the truth.

Think about it: athletes’ entire careers are contingent on their bodies. A gymnast must be light on her feet. A defensive football player must be strong. A sprinter must be fast. All of these requirements can affect an athlete’s body and their image.

As a society, we’ve begun to move away from encouraging toxic body images, instead focusing on body positivity. However, this evolution seems nonexistent in the sports world. Coaches and staff continue to push athletes into unrealistic body goals that are unhealthy. 

It isn’t just eating habits that come into play due to these body image issues. Athletes have a desire to strengthen their bodies — some don’t care about the cost. Athletes have even undergone surgery to help their bodies keep up with their sports. 

Former Olympian Kristen Maloney shared her story with ESPN, retelling the horror stories of the eight surgeries she underwent when she was a gymnast to help fix her foot. Nearly 20 years later, Maloney is still suffering with the aftermath of her operations, the worst being her regret.

Maloney did not undergo her surgeries for cosmetic reasons, however her surgery just goes to show how much work an athlete puts into maintaining their body. Maloney changing her body can have a direct effect on how she views her body. 

Athletes can develop serious body dysmorphia simply because their body has been changed, which can encourage other unhealthy habits.  

Earlier this year, the University of Michigan sought to understand disordered eating in athletes. Their research found a massive correlation between disordered eating in female athletes and the power dynamic found within their coaching staffs.

The research focused mostly on NCAA Division I female runners. I found this to be such a sufficient test group. 

In high school, I was on the track and field team as a discus and shot put thrower. I witnessed the gruesome training the track runners had to endure. They were constantly conditioning themselves to be light on their feet and run faster. However, many of them had extremely concerning relationships with food. Instead of replenishing their bodies with food before and after a practice, they stayed away from food to enhance their speed. 

This is a normality in many teams across the world. In fact, the University of Michigan noted, “The prevalence of disordered eating among female runners is twice as high as non-athlete peers.”

The fundamental issue within this dilemma is the perpetuation of these toxic body images by coaching staff. A coach is meant to be someone who has your best interest at heart, someone who encourages your success. They are supposed to be a mentor to athletes all over.

However, when a coach encourages body image ideals within their teams, they can directly harm these athletes and their self image. If a person were to call a stranger in the street fat, there would be uproar. How come we don’t reciprocate that outrage when it comes to athletes?

I understand that athletes have certain weight and body goals that they must upkeep. However, I will never be supportive of the bullying athletes endure. They are still human beings. Sure, they may be more physically gifted than the rest, but they work extremely hard to attain their goals. One of those goals should not be reaching an absurdly “perfect” body.

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