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Eating Disorders and Body Image in Sport

Eating disorders and body image issues have always been prevalent in sport, but only recently have these issues been brought out of the dark. The stress of performing at a high caliber while achieving academically in university creates high stress among athletes, making these medical conditions extensive. It is no secret that weight categorized sports, such as lightweight rowing, can contribute to the development of these issues and the long-term effects can be devastating. The long-term health damaging effects range from low bone density, decreased muscle function, fertility in women and cognitive functioning (Ekern). It’s time that we discuss these issues and come up with strategies and discussion to change the statistics on eating disorders and promote positive body image to eliminate these diseases.

Having struggled with bulimia myself during lightweight rowing, which spurred a break from the sport, makes this topic hit home hard. The awareness of just how prevalent these body issues and psychological difficulties are, simply from personal experience, makes bringing them out of the dark essential. By forming a strong community and openly talking about this subject I hope we can bring awareness that there are options to overcoming this illness and it is feasible!

Syd Boyes, incredible national team athlete, wonderful friend, and strong role model for women everywhere, has recently started a body image workshop called Beautifully Bold (April 1st, shinefitness74@gmail.com). The workshop put forth by Boyes and Carolyn Martin aims to promote self-love, body image and mental health in female athletes. Syd’s involvement with elite rowing, her nutrition degree, and promoting positive body image has changed lives of many women around her.

Name: Syd Boyes

Hometown: St. Catherine’s, ON

Year: Fourth year

Program: Nutrition and Leadership, Brescia

Sport: Rowing, Team Canada and Western University

Relationship Status: Taken!


Tell me about your involvement with competitive lightweight rowing and the level you have competed at? How has it shaped your character and identity?

“I have been rowing for 10 years, but in 2010 I started rowing for the national team and getting pretty serious. I was drawn to compete as a lightweight because I am only 5’7 and have a slimmer build, making me more competitive in this category. During the year, I have always rowed as a heavyweight, not wanting to make weight except for in the summer for international regattas. I have represented Canada at World Championships in Amsterdam and Rotterdam. My time with the National Team had its ups and downs, my high muscle mass and extremely lean body composition (as a woman) making it a challenging time for me both personally and physically. Just to have an idea of how difficult it was, at one point I was 10% body fat and still had three more kilograms to lose to compete. I have experienced both hardship and great joy through the sport which has shaped who I am today. If didn’t go through the struggles I did then, I wouldn’t be able to empathize with others that have the same body image issues—not even in athletic context, the struggles are so difficult to overcome. It’s constantly in my thoughts even now.”



Can you relate body image to your experience with lightweight rowing?

“In terms of ‘body image’ and how lightweight rowing can really affect this in young women, I have felt stigmatized about the issue of ‘making weight,’ (in lightweight rowing this is meeting the target weight during a weigh-in for competition) and have noticed a lack of support amongst members of the community with gossiping and not being proactive in helping teammates who struggle with this. Women everywhere need to start communicating more about this, coaches need to be more involved in helping, and we need to change the statistics on eating disorders. Body image is something I, and every woman, deals with everyday. No matter what I eat I am thinking, ‘Should I have eaten that?’ It sucks that we have this in our culture. Are eating disorders the norm now? I don’t know, but we need to stop being so overly obsessed with how we look and what we weigh, stop the fat shaming (even at less than 14% body fat), and break this all-consuming mentality of putting girls down and discounting the girl’s struggles by saying ‘she’s so over weight, she’ll never make it.’ We all need to be more empathetic and supportive. Many women have deeper issues that you never know about, which forms these eating disorders and struggles. I’m still working on having a better body image, but I think by starting with loving yourself and all the cellulite that forms is a good start.”

*laughs and loosens skirt button.


What body image challenges have you faced with lightweight rowing?

“Oh man. Alright buckle up. It seems that I was never happy with the way I looked or how much I weighed. Even when I was at my lightest in the sport, I always felt that I could be lighter, more jacked, or pop one more vein out of my arm. The way that we approach food as lightweight rowers has stayed with me long-term. Years of being focused on every calorie and guilt about eating is a real challenge. The issues have stayed with me from being years in an environment where everyone is calorie-focused and overly conscious, I am constantly trying to rebuild my body image. Now, as I am finding my new “happy weight” it is discouraging sometimes to see the weight in my face and bum. But hey! I look like a woman now, I don’t look like a nine-year-old boy: I am learning to love my muscular legs and newfound boobs! *laughs.



What are some strategies you think would be helpful to promote positive body image?

“I think the most important thing to realize first off is that everyone is different. We can’t compare or judge ourselves based on someone else’s weight, height, how they look or what colour their skin is! We need to get away from that and recognize “this is who I am” and appreciate all the things that are beautiful about YOU. For athletes especially, you are training your body to be a machine—which is powerful, agile and strong, meaning you are going to build a lot of muscle and have an unconventional body image as meaning would imply. You can’t be envious of girls that are stick thin with huge boobs, that is a different body type; neither is more attractive than the other. Complimenting others on aspects of them that you perceive as beautiful can go a long way and make you feel better about yourself. For athletics, I think improving communication between coach-athlete about nutrition, weight, and how you are feeling can make a very positive impact on it. Providing resources, such as nutrition/how to make weight safely and sport psychologist counseling, is helpful. Whether you are with a coach, in a bad relationship or anything, you can’t have someone controlling your body—it’s your body and you need to feel comfortable and happy no matter what your weight.”


Why did you start Beautifully Bold? What is the workshop about? Who is involved?

“Carolyn and I started Beautifully Bold because we are both super passionate about these issues. I brought the female athlete perspective to the table, and she had similar experiences with competitive tennis, so the idea just took off! Carolyn has done work in Australia on a very moving series called ‘Embrace Body Image Movement’ and we started brainstorming how to tie the ideas together. The workshop is primarily about promoting healthy body image in young female athletes but also incorporates self-love and mental health. It is mix of seminar, conversation, and learning from others experiences, and we will be getting active too! We will be hearing from a variety of different powerful women in the community: Samantha Penlington (Nutritionist), Emma O’Connor (Martial Arts and Kickboxing at Femme Force Fitness), Syl Motruk (Yoga and Meditation) and Natashca Wesch (Sports Psychologist). It’s a completely free event and we have been lucky enough to have had lots of cool gifts donated: Tatika yoga clothing line, goody bags, David’s Tea, essential oils and some jewelry items.”



How do you achieve self-love?

“Well, self-love is a continuing process and I still struggle with it; some are better at it than others. We are all working on it. I think by starting with not giving a f*&k about what other people think of you is a good first step. As corny as it sounds, this really works. Standing naked in front of a mirror and complimenting yourself makes you feel so much better and brings me peace with my new body. Sometimes you have to laugh about it, squish your belly a bit—love yourself. Also finding things that you are really passionate about (I’m really passionate about coffee), also pursuing things that bring you a lot of fulfillment is very rewarding—equality, body image promotion, and self-love are mine.”


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