Last updated 18:37, August 11 2016
OPINION: Women’s sport has a Dirty Little Secret.
It’s staggering under the weight of body anxiety, if you’ll excuse the pun.
As a clinical psychologist, I’m not supposed to say these things out loud. Sports leaders don’t want to hear it; coaches want to ignore it; female athletes (often) don’t want to admit it.
But I’m bored with all that pretence, avoidance and head-in-the-sand naivety so I’ll just say it: women’s sport is so chock full of disordered eating and exercise addiction it’s just not funny anymore.
Actually, it was never funny. But, now, it’s plain old epidemic.
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American Olympic gymnast Simone Biles in action in Rio. The sense of of women athletes being on show can be heightened by their revealing clothing.
I raised the issue with a woman who runs her national athletics programme. “Wow,” she said. “You must come and speak to our national conference.”
She never called.
I raised it with a male sports broadcaster on a high-rating radio show. He changed the subject (male athletes and booze culture is sexier, I guess).
I floated it with a sports boss with international influence.She said she was in a rush to get to a meeting.
So I’m not saying it anymore. I’m going to write it down instead. Just for myself. Call it my therapy.
I see a lot of female athletes in my work. They’re often at their physical peak, honed and sculptured to athletic perfection. But that fine physicality masks the Herculean effort, the obsession, it can take to maintain that form. It hides the negative voices, the brutal self-criticism, the fear of not looking good (or hot or skinny) enough, especially when the television cameras are hovering, the endless comparisons with other female athletes.
Some are on weird or restricted eating plans; others are fasting or vomiting or using exercise to manipulate their bodies and shapes to exacting degrees.
Undiagnosed eating disorders, anorexia, bulimia and the new kid on the block, orthorexia (fixation with healthy eating) are rife. Sports fans see elite athletes on TV or striving for glory; psychologists tend to see athletes when they are stressed or struggling.
For female athletes that frequently means injured. Injury means they can’t play or train — and that causes them to panic.
It’s less the fear of losing fitness or their place in the team, that triggers the anxiety — it’s more that they can’t do the exercise that regulates their weight, that allows them to stay in control, that keeps them feeling okay about who they are. It’s that they freaking out about GETTING FAT.
I went to Taryn Brumfitt’s excellent body image doco Embrace the other day, and I was struck by the implications for women’s sport.
When Brumfitt, an Australian mother-of-three, posted her post-baby naked body online it went viral. As well as the many supporters, the trolls came out to play — male AND female, sadly. (You ugly b****, Get a gym membership, I’d need a couple of stiff drinks to bang that).
Brumfitt’s “reverse” before and after photo went viral. It set her off on a mission to counter body angst and loathing, to promote body acceptance against the societal tide that says we should look a certain way. That’s super-model skinny, for anyone who’s been asleep for the past 30 years.
CAMERON BURNELL/FAIRFAX NZ.Pete’s Dragon Director David Lowry
The trailer for Embrace, Taryn Brumfitt’s documentary on the effects of body image pressures.
Brumfitt noted 70 percent of women dislike their bodies, regardless of how they look. Disgust was the most common self-descriptor. From what we see, psychologists would agree with her; but we’d probably pump the figures even higher.
Naturally those statistics are replicated in sport. Just because women athletes are, er, women. But here are four reasons the struggle may be mightier for female athletes:
1. THE BODY MATTERS, A LOT
Female athletes are very physically focused, because they have to be. Their success, and sometimes career, depends on having the “right” machinery for their sport.
2. they are on show
Female athletes may have heightened body consciousness because they are On Display, often in revealing clothing, like swimwear, leotards, skimpy shorts and dresses.
It doesn’t help that the media often focuses on female athletes appearances, rather than their performances.
Dove’s latest campaign #MyBeautyMySay aims to change the conversation around female athletes bodies. Director of marketing Jennifer Bremner hopes it will help the media realise “it’s probably not appropriate to refer to women’s nipples or ass when they’re talking about their athletic performance”.
This type of body shaming needs to end because, (1) it’s 2016 and, (2) it can lead to heightened body anxiety and shame, both in the athletes and the young girls who look up to them.
3. OBSESSION = SUCCESS
Success demands an obsessive focus on food, diet and body shape/weight which can lead to unhealthy thinking and behaviours.
4. THE COACHES’ ATTITUDES
Coaches’ “comments” to trim down, lose weight. (As one coach screamed at his Olympic-bound pupil who had to weigh in daily as she was going through puberty: “you’re too bloody fat”. She quit, by the way.)
These difficulties used to be a Western phenomenon, but as the world gets smaller and more socially connected, the trend is creeping insidiously across cultures. Even those that traditionally prized larger female bodies.
As one professional coach put it: thin is good, big is bad, regardless of ethnicity. Which is ridiculous because sometimes the very reason you are good at something is that you are naturally built a certain way.
Serena Williams strong body is often criticised as “too masculine”.
Women’s sport needs to own a big — and getting bigger — problem, or at least start by admitting to it. Those of us who support and work with female athletes need to join the move towards acceptance of the bodies we are in.
When sport wakes up, count me in. Meantime, I’m hanging out at Taryn Brumfitt’s place.
Karen Nimmo is a clinical psychologist with a special interest in sports psychology.