Strongly Skinny: How Body Image Effects Women In Track and Field

I have been involved in sports since a very young age – namely, I began to run competitively when I was nine years old. Since then, I’ve raced at national competitions, competed throughout my high school career, and now for my NCAA Division 1 university. When I was looking into which political science class I wanted to take second semester of my freshman year, Women and Politics caught my eye. Not just because I’m a feminist who loves reading about strong women in history, but because one of the topics covered in the course was “Gender and Sports”. I saw it as a great opportunity to converse and learn about many issues surrounding female athletes – issues such as a sizeable wage gap, minimum media coverage, loopholes in Title IX, and, the one I’ve had most experience with, body image.

While Title IX has helped open the doors for women in sports, it has, in some expert’s opinions, actually caused the idea of female inferiority in athletics to be reinforced. Female physical inferiority, and the image it conjures in the average American mind, stems from the idea of perfect female beauty – namely, being thin. Fragility and thinness are the basis of many women’s body image issues, and are what constantly plague female athletes. How can one be skinny and still be strong? The perfect runner – or what many people may believe is the perfect runner – is thin enough to fit the American beauty standards, but not so thin she’s skeletal. How can an athlete toe this line without falling into the trap of an eating disorder?

Being a female athlete, specifically a female runner, has always come hand-in-hand with body image issues. For overall NCAA Division 1 female athletes, about one third show signs of already having or being at risk of anorexia and disordered eating. Some of the risk factors that the National Eating Disorders Association lists include social atmospheres putting pressure on females to be thin, having anxiety surrounding performances, and having an identity that is solely based on sports. An over-inflated belief that having a low weight will give the athlete better performances and training in that sport since childhood are also cited as risks. Sports that are most at risk are endurance sports, sports that focus on the individual, and sports that emphasize appearance and weight.

Eating disorders are only a branch of a larger issue, though, for female athletes. Disordered eating is part of the Female Athlete Triad, a term for the three interlocked conditions a female athlete can contract. Amenorrhea, or disrupted menstruation, disordered eating, and osteoporosis and other bone conditions all feed off of each other; once one occurs, it can set off a chain reaction throughout the female body. For example, energy deficiency from an eating disorder can cause an irregular period, and an irregular period can, in turn, affect bone health, causing stress fractures and early osteoporosis. Having one, two, or all three of these could cause serious health issues for a female athlete.

As I looked further into factors that put female athletes at risk, and what the consequences were, the more I recognized my own sport – and myself – in the research. My sport, long distance running, is an endurance sport that focuses on the individual. I have done it since I was a young child, and most of my self-worth comes from how I perform in it. I had struggled with my body image and an eating disorder in high school and, now, to an extent in college, stemming from my running. I had experienced both amenorrhea and stress fractures from my low weight and disordered eating. While I had known of some extreme cases, I hadn’t realized that it was so prevalent throughout the sport. I decided to interview three female runners from different stages in their careers to see how running, and the culture of running, affected how they viewed their body, if they had experienced anything like an eating disorder, and what they thought could be done to help the epidemic that was taking down female runners left and right. They were a girl from my high school team who ended up quitting, my high school coach who was a previous college athlete at the Division 1 level, and a woman who went to the 2012 and 2016 Olympics in the 5,000m.

I came up with seven questions to ask each runner:

  1. When did you start running?
  2. How did running at a high level of competition in high school affect how you looked at your body?
  3. How does racing at the level you are at now affect how you look at your body?
  4. Do you believe a majority of college female runners have an eating disorder, are recovering from an eating disorder, or have thought about one?
  5. Have you ever felt the need to change your body to fit your sport?
  6. Do you believe enough is being done to help female runners with serious eating disorders/body image issues?
  7. Do you think that part of the sport puts an emphasis on weight and appearance – beyond being healthy? Is this a part of the sport that we can change?

From there, I brought together the answers to show how body image in distance running affects the female athletes who compete in it.

When asked when they began their running career, Sophia (the girl who decided to quit in high school) started to be serious about running in her freshman year of high school. Carrie, my previous coach who ran for the University of Michigan, started in track as a fourth grader, and was a sprinter and jumper until she joined her college team, where she became a middle distance and distance runner. Kim Conley, a 2012 and 2016 Olympian, started when she was 12 years old with a local youth running club.

Since adolescent girls are at a greater risk for eating disorders, whether or not they’re athletes, I asked them about how running in high school affected their body image during those years. They agreed that running made them feel empowered, but felt like an unhealthy standard was starting to be set. “It reinforced that an unhealthy weight for my body was a good thing because I was running well, when in reality I was suffering from a myriad of mental and physical health issues,” Sophia said of her experience. The perceived connection between running well and being tiny caused her to look at her body in an unhealthy way.

For Carrie, high school wasn’t the time where she really saw eating disorders in teammates – it was in college, when she started spending time with the distance runners. In her freshman year, while on a trip to a meet, they were “ eating dinner… [she] was hanging with the distance girls and every single one took the cheese off their pizza.” This was the first time she had seen anyone do that, and it surprised her. “Living with an All-American distance runner who was also bulimic showed me the insidious nature of eating disorders,” she recalls.

At the point they are at in their running now, all three athletes have a positive outlook on their bodies. Carrie, for example, says she is “not training for anything but ‘life’ right now – staying fit and healthy is important for long-term health considerations,” and Kim is running at a very elite level. “As a professional athlete I am more results oriented than I was in high school, but my body is the vehicle by which I yield results, not the result itself,” she says about how she views her body as a professional runner. “I want to run fast times and win races and my body is what allows me to that. All the training, recovery, nutrition are aimed at producing great results on the track. If I don’t fit the stereotype of what a distance runner looks like, that doesn’t matter as long as my body is able to do what I want it to do.”

When asked how prevalent they thought eating disorders were in the sport, all three were unanimous in believing they are widespread. “I definitely think a lot of runners suffer or have suffered from eating disorders. On our varsity team, I knew of maybe two or three girls, who have never opened up to me about eating issues or made them pretty obvious,” Sophia remarked of her high school team. That’s about half of a seven person team, without including herself, or even myself when I ran for that team. “I think it’s important to establish that much like autism, there is a spectrum of behaviors associated with eating disorders. ‘Disordered eating’ is an early stage… full-blown, diagnosable eating disorders are at the other spectrum,” Carrie said. Kim had an especially good point as well, that we shouldn’t “limit it to a women’s program, there are plenty of men that manipulate their diet to try to make themselves leaner and faster,” since the ideal of thinner being faster permeates throughout the sport.

When asked if they had personally felt the need to change their body for the sport, Carrie and Kim both felt like they had not. “[A]t the end of the day, what matters is the result that my body can produce in a race; how my body looks isn’t the goal in and of itself. I fuel my body to perform in training and racing at the highest level possible,” Kim said. Carrie feels like she had “been blessed with a naturally lanky body… whether [she] was training 50 miles/week or not training at all.” For Sophia, she originally joined the sport to change her body, then became competitive in it. “I started out running in order to help me lose weight (along with other unhealthy tendencies)… It did reinforce that this weight loss was a good thing, though, because everyone seemed to be as small or smaller than I was. I used this as an excuse that it was okay to lose more weight because other people were thinner and seemed to be fine, when in reality they were probably struggling as well.” She used the initial weight loss, the success that came with it, and then what she saw in other runners to justify losing even more weight, beyond a healthy level.

Since the issue of eating disorders had been established within the sport, did these athletes believe enough is being done about it? “Eating disorders are too prevalent in the sport to say that enough is being done. Looking back, I was very fortunate to be surrounded by coaches that helped shaped a healthy mindset toward my body,” Kim said of her experiences and opinions in the sport. Carrie, a high school coach herself, said that “coaches nowadays understand that too skinny [equals] injured (and that too heavy [equals] slow).  It is up to the coach to find a balance in addressing these concerns, and athletes should work hard at finding out what weight they perform the best at.” Sophia believes that “there’s only so much other people can do. I had a coach who addressed the issue and put an emphasis on the fact that she didn’t want anyone running if it meant sacrificing health, but it’s up to the girls to listen… I believe that there is a lot being done to help female runners with disordered eating, but you can’t force them to get better. Something has to click, and until then they’ll want to continue whatever their vicious cycle may be.”

What is, in their opinion, the part of the sport or the culture of the sport that causes this though? Can we change it? “For better or worse, body weight does impact performance — it’s hard to dispute that. Fortunately, there has been a movement to focus on being fit/strong as opposed to ‘skinny’,” Carrie said. “There will always be athletes that are willing to manipulate their diet to lose weight, and when they lose weight they will see an immediate improvement in performance,” Kim remarked. “A shortcut to success is seductive to athletes at all levels.”

For Sophia, she didn’t see a direct part of the sport that emphasises weight, but she does see a link between the two. “Throughout all four years of high school running, I truly believed I was too big to be a runner, so I kept trying to get smaller and smaller. Seeing so many thin girls being successful in the sport warped my image of ‘normal’. Underweight girls began to look healthy because that’s what I was used to seeing. There was nobody telling me that I needed to be thinner – it was mostly my own perception of myself and what I thought I should be.”

Each one had something unique and personal to say on the subject – but the overall message remained the same. Running made them feel empowered – but eating disorders and body image are parts of the sport that needs to be addressed. “As cliche as it sounds, embrace your body for what it is. You’re meant for so much more than looking a certain way, and the sooner you realize that the farther you’ll get in life,” was Sophia’s last advice on the topic.

How does this specific issue – body image and eating disorders in female runners – affect gender and sports, or even feminism, as a whole? By looking at an environment and culture where being the thinnest is equated to being the best, it gives a unique look into a severe case of America’s obsession with female body image and what feminine beauty is supposed to be. The goal of stopping sexism in athletics should be to create an environment where everyone is welcome to compete no matter what their body type is, and should feel comfortable doing so. By tackling sexism in sports and the greater American culture, by shutting down the idea of the perfect feminine body, and by providing help to those suffering from an eating disorder without shaming them, this can be achieved. With all of the strides women have made, especially in sports, this should be our next hurdle to tackle.

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