The Struggle of Body Image in Female College Athletes

Seven days a week, an average of about 4 hours a day, collegiate sports are more than just a time commitment, they become your life. You train more than you ever have in your life, and you feel yourself getting stronger. Your shot is faster than it ever has been, you are in the front group for your timed mile, and you can even bench more than some of the boys in the weight rack next to you. You feel on top of the world, nothing can bring you down because you know all of your hard work has paid off. Until one Saturday night. You are going out with your friends, you pull out your favorite pair of jeans and become confused when you can’t fit them over your thighs. “I just wore these a month ago, how can they not fit? Looking down at your quad muscles that you were so proud of just a few hours earlier now leave a bitter taste in your mouth. Trying on the rest of your jeans, the same issue. The mirror looks back as you scrutinize every part of your body which seems to have grown in a matter of days. Thoughts race through your mind “How did this happen?” “What guy is going to want to talk to a girl with arms this big?” “Are the only pants that are going to fit over my leg are leggings and sweatpants? Welcome to the life of a female college athlete, where the struggle of looking good enough for a guy to approach you at a party but strong enough to stay on your sports team, becomes all you think about.

In the fitness world, being a female draws a lot of roadblocks. Countless female athletes have been berated for not looking feminine and looking manly. Only a few days after the 2018 Olympic games in Rio, gold medal-winner gymnasts Simone Biles, Aly Raisman, and Madison Kocian were criticized for the muscles that helped the United States come out on top in gymnastics after Biles posted a photo of them at the beach. Comments included "Y'all find this attractive? Lmaaoo, “ugly,”, “unattractive” and “they look like men ugh.” All three of these girls are the same age as college athletes. Even after being crowned best in the world, their appearance was still one of the most important things others were focused on.

27% of female athletes have said that they deal with body image issues. Whether the sport is dance, soccer, gymnastics, or track women's bodies are scrutinized. When we have too much muscle we are called gross or manly, but when we don’t have enough, we are told we are unhealthy and weak. It is a never-ending battle. There is a double standard in the world of athletics between men and women. Men are celebrated when they gain muscle strength and weight, women are shamed. In all aspects of life, we are told that we must be feminine and look feminine. It even comes down to female uniforms. Female sports uniforms often feature tiny tops and short skirts that are not practical. 

The life of a college athlete is centered around structure, it is how we survive. We plan out our entire days almost always planning around our fitness. Athletes are admired for staying after practice to do more training or extra cardio. But at some point this becomes warped and getting in a third workout is celebrated but then so does skipping a meal. The NCAA collected a study that reported that one-third of female athletes reported attitudes and symptoms that place them at risk for an eating disorder. Growing up in sports the idea of “carbo-loading” before a big game or race was emphasized heavily on sports teams. Pasta dinners were held at teammate's houses or in the dining halls. This was the most simplistic idea in a female athlete's mind of “carbo-loading.” We look around and see our teammate's plate full of everything you want to eat, but also everything you are afraid to eat. “How is she able to eat all that and still be thin, I don’t understand?” This is a thought that I am sure all female athletes and non-athletes as well have had go through our heads. We struggle with wanting to fuel our body with the things we know will give us energy and wanting to “be healthy” to look good in everyday society. It is a battle with your body and your mind. 

Fitness tests are held in every sport. There are running tests, plank tests, weight lifting requirements, benching quotas we must meet. Over time your body changes to be able to meet these challenges. So on a Friday when you must have gained enough muscle to squat 120 lbs at your fitness test that morning, but you also must look hot enough to put on a pair of skinny jeans and a crop top, later when you go to a party. You become conscious of the way your calves look when you put on a pair of heels, or how your stomach looks in a crop top. You are aware of the way you stand and where you put your hands and your arms, careful not to flex and make them look “too big.” Athletes are pulled in and out of two different worlds where neither “perfect body type” is attainable.

Body image is not talked about much in college sports. Support for mental health in sports and sports psychology is slowly on the rise for many college teams but still has so far to go. When being advised on how to handle stress, anxiety, and other problems we are told to “leave it off the field,” “don’t let that interfere with your game,” “your head space needs to be where your feet are.” This is all great advice, but college athletes are not being given the tools on how to do this. As a female college athlete, if I was not confident in how I looked, I knew I was not going to be able to perform well. Some female athletes can ignore this, put it out of their minds, and focus on the game, which I think is a talent like no other. But when you collapse at the end of practice or getting dizzy after a few drills because all you have been eating is green juice and lettuce, that is when it is no longer possible to separate the two. 

The stigma around body image issues within the female collegiate sports world needs to be addressed. People need to know that these issues are not only limited to a few sports like dance or gymnastics. Anyone who plays sports deals with this. There have been a few collegiate athletes who have spoken about their histories with body image issues, most famously former Div. 1 USC volleyball player Victoria Garrick. Garrick opened up about her struggles with body image as a college athlete and now travels across the country giving talks about her experience and her effort to combat the stigma. “I could sprint 100 meters in 14.60 seconds. I could single-leg squat 130 pounds, and I could hold a plank for four minutes. All of this didn’t make me any less feminine” (Victoria Garrick, Upworthy). The advice that Garrick gives shows us things that need to be implanted into every sports program for both men and women in the country. Your play is not defined by your body. You are not defined by your body. As female athletes, we are not going to look like the traditional supermodel. Our bodies simply cannot perform at the level of our sport without the strength that we need to build. Society needs to celebrate the female athlete’s body, because we are strong, and we worked hard to get here. I am not on the field to look good for anyone, I am on the field to play.