My sport was soccer: where we got physical and dirty; wore over-sized uniform shirts and shorts; and wore shin-guards, covered to our knees with sock. Besides emphasizing needing strength and power in our bodies, nothing was ever discussed as far as body weight or shape–at least in my experiences. In fact, it was a style in my day to wear larger clothes to compete in. I used to stare at other athletes in various sports who needed to wear and compete in either a leotard, spandex, or even a swimsuit, and wondered how they felt comfortable competing in front of such a large crowd with so much skin and body exposed.
There is no doubt that as athletes, and women, we feel an immense amount of pressure to appear a certain way, and strive to attain a body type that fits the mold of what society portrays as beautiful, sexy, and attractive–all while competing in our sport. We feel it enough, and are so extremely sensitive to the issue without having people criticize us. Therefore, when a comment is made it can feel so unbelievably devastating and debilitating. As a result, it can cause incredible damage to our psyche, self-esteem, and ability to perform academically, athletically, and socially.
Since Kick The Scale has been founded, there have been several student-athletes who have reached out with gratitude, and have expressed similarities related to my story. One in particular has been a standout collegiate gymnast. She has enlightened me on a sport, in which I was fairly unfamiliar, and has continuously described the struggles they, as athletes, endure purely based on their uniform. Even with an incredible support system and encouraging coaches, she has experienced significant hardship related to diet, exercise, and body image. Therefore, when she sent me this article in April, the day it was published, she felt so validated by her ongoing thoughts as her peers publicized how gymnastics has damaged their entire being.
Unfortunately, the student-athletes who have vocalized their issues at Penn State University blame their coaches for body-shaming them, criticizing their body weight, and demanding performance, regardless of injuries, pain, or suffering. The combination of self-pressure and coaches degradation resulted in an attempted suicide, multiple transfers to other universities and programs, and several gymnasts just quitting.
I suffered from an eating disorder as a women’s soccer player; where body shape and weight were not a focus, nor a topic of discussion. I had inspiring, motivating, and positive coaches who did everything they could do to keep me healthy and get to my healthiest state. I can’t even imagine having experienced what these athletes did, and hope their story opens the eyes to others about how our coaching, leadership, and mentoring significantly impacts and influences young individuals.
If a woman is competing at the collegiate level in any sport, she obviously strives to perform at her best. She obviously has proved her commitment to her sport, teammates, and herself, and demeaning comments become exacerbated to individuals with these competitive personalities. While it is important to challenge our athletes and students, it is more important to stay positive and recognize when one needs an extra boost of confidence. Ultimately, as coaches and teachers, it is our obligation to make these women the best people and athletes they can be–and shaming them is not the way.