How and Why Female Athletes Changed Their Aesthetic Standards- And Why You Should Too

One of the greatest changes that followed my attitude shift towards exercise and nutrition is my relationship with my own body. I noticed over time that my goals have been changing from aesthetics to functionality. The idea became centered on “what can I do to achieve this skill/lift this weight/complete this workout?” rather than “how can I look like her/fit into this?”. This was even further propelled forward as I delved deeper into my sport, which turned out to be very explosive and physically demanding. I didn’t really notice this shift for a while, I just felt a relief from the anxiety inducing, eating disorder-triggered negative thoughts that I would experience all too frequently. Slowly, I came to see physical changes that accompany increasing strength and athleticism- I no longer had thin, delicate arms, but rather they looked toned (bordering on strong!), my body became more proportional (instead of being perpetually bloated), and my abs started to show through (despite me not specifically targeting them for weeks at a time).

All of these changes startled me, and I was pleasantly surprised that I didn’t actually mind no longer looking dainty and small. I enjoyed my new strength, being able to keep up (a little) with my boyfriend during workouts, and seeing personal progress that didn’t involve starvation and the diminishment of my physical size. This got me thinking- I can’t be the only girl that has experienced the confidence boosting effects of increased strength, right? So I decided to speak to other female athletes of varying ages to learn about their experiences with body image before and after starting their athletic journey, and to compare any changes in attitudes in opinion that they had to mine.

Woman deadlifting Pixabay

I interviewed multiple women in my life with different athletic backgrounds and goals, asking them to define athleticism and where they stand in it, their history with body image, and their current relationship with their bodies and how it has changed over the course of their athletic journey. There were many common opinions between their responses which I hope can inspire some of you to take a few steps further in your athletic journey, or at least begin questioning society’s perception of female physical perfection.

One of the biggest commonalities that I noticed between the answers is how empowered these ladies felt once they relinquished their desire to conform to society’s standards, and began focusing more on functionality and strength rather than size and slimness. As one of the interviewees noted- “[her] strength motivated her to stop shrinking herself as a person to fit somebody else’s needs.” I thought this was a very powerful message. Physical strength has helped me gain so much confidence, not only because I felt that I looked better, but because I became confident in my own physical being. I no longer felt like I needed to shrink to hide the abomination of my body, but rather I felt strong and confident to face challenges and take up physical space. I now want people to look at me, because I am proud of what I made, and even if it might not strictly fall into the category of “fit” nor “slim,” the amount of mental change that stands behind my physical progress is what I feel people are truly looking at.

 

Etsy

Another commonality between the interviews was how much influence other strong, confident women around the interviewees influenced their desire to grow. Between responses such as “I saw all the strong women at the CrossFit gym, and I thought they were so bad*ss- I wanted to be able to do the cool things they did” and “I was looking at the women that were competing at the very top levels, and I admired their strength,” it was evident that these athletes were not turning to Victoria’s Secret models for inspiration anymore. I think this speaks volumes to the nurturing effect of woman to woman support rather than competition. Having a role model to strive for, to have someone to look at and see that there is a better quality of life, relationship with your body, and level of confidence out there for you can be so inspiring and encouraging. I gained this support from online figures that showed me another, unrestrictive way to live. However, I feel like if there was someone in my real life that I could share my experiences and concerns with, someone that could guide and encourage me, I would have gotten to this much healthier spot much faster.

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Finally, another fascinating trend that I found was that none of the ladies I interviewed defined athleticism as being a professional, or even a competing individual. For all those of you who don’t classify yourselves as athletes simply because you aren’t part of a team, I am here to say that it truly doesn’t matter. A trained coach and a competitive athlete defined athleticism as “anyone that takes a daily consideration into their fitness or sport.” A young athlete that has never competed in her life explained that “an athlete is someone who actively and consistently participates in a sport or other intense physical exercise and does it to make progress, not for the sake of competition.” At the end of the day, the only competition that actually matters in the athletic world is competition with yourself, to do better and push yourself to surpass your past accomplishments. You don’t need to have a bunch of medals to prove your hard work. Dedication, persistence, passion, consistency and a constant goal to improve are what makes you an athlete, not standing in first place. I think this is another very important lesson to internalize: The only person you should be competing with is yourself. There will almost always be someone better and someone worse than you, and there are a billion and a half factors that make you and the person next to you perform differently. Work on your strengths, focus on your weaknesses, and strive for personal growth rather than external wins- that is what will motivate you the longest.

After recording and relaying everything I drew from these interviews, I would like to quickly summarize the main takeaways for myself that I gained once I was finished: 

  1. Athletes are not determined by competition, but rather by dedication.

  2. Stop shrinking yourself physically and emotionally to fit into society’s box- grow yourself, exercise your confidence, and gain appreciation for your body and the incredible things it can achieve. It doesn’t necessarily mean that you have to get huge- I will never be huge, not matter how much I try. Rather, focus on functionality and health rather than conformism and weight, and watch your body blossom.

  3. Support each other on your journeys, don’t compete and compare. Having a society of women that uplift each other and motivate each other to do better for themselves is so much more productive and healthy than a society of women constantly at competition with each other (Who can be the skinniest? Who can lift the most?). Through mutual understanding and support, we can eradicate this false notion of slim idealization, and rather promote an accepting culture of health and living life to the fullest.

I hope that these messages inspire some of you to take a few steps towards goal independence, personal growth, and disregard for outsider opinions. These athletic women have shown me that oftentimes, with physical strength comes emotional and mental strength, and I believe that those two things are most important, above all else.