Body Image Distortion in Athletes Due to Societal Peer Pressure

Body Image Distortion in Athletes Due to Societal Peer Pressure

Over the years, the emphasis on women being slim and slender, and men looking fit and athletic has increased drastically. While modern television and movies depict female teenagers as being obsessed with their physical appearance, this dilemma actually affects men and women of all ages. With televisions being a universal household item, children are exposed to stereotypical body expectations as adolescents and this image becomes ingrained in their heads for the rest of their lives. The preoccupation with weight and shape is most notable in the realm of sports, where the public often scrutinizes both genders on their body images. This issue touches even little league activities, with the shorter and chubbier children being depicted as the ones who are lousy at wining games. While broad shouldered, strong men are praised, women of a similar build are made fun of and looked upon as unappealing and too “manly”. Similarly, men who are involved in gymnastics have a more lean build, which can be looked upon negatively. Society deems that men without bulky muscles are “stick thin” and women with a larger physique are “too manly” making it seem as if they are not desirable in the eyes of the opposite gender. However, many female and male athletes whose physical demeanor deviates from the norm are happily married, take Serena Williams for example, a tennis player with not only a husband, but a child as well. It is unfair to classify both men and women under these strict categories as it can lead to an athlete’s harmful attempt at losing weight and changing his or her size and shape. In a world where standing out and being unique is reiterated every second of every day, forcing people to resemble a definitive look creates confusion and builds pressure.

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When an athlete appears on the big screen, it is easy to forget that he or she is an actual human being with feelings similar to everyone else, which can attribute to the increased judgments made upon them. When that individual hears talk show hosts or news anchors opinions on himself, it makes him feel pressured to look a specific way.

In one study, males conducted self weigh-ins vs. team weigh-ins for the sport they were members of. The results suggested that self-weighing team members were more preoccupied with their weight and being lean or muscular than others, “required weigh-ins may compel male athletes to engage in efforts to alter their body’s appearance whether by building muscle and/or restricting nutritional intake,” in addition, “If the weigh-in results don’t meet expectations, athletes may develop negative affect, and attempt to manipulate their bodies through dietexercise, and pathogenic weight control behaviors (e.g., vomiting)” (Chatterton, Galli, & Petrie 2016, p. 53).

This suggests not only that males are equally as affected by their visible body type as females, but also that male contestants place a burden on themselves when the number on the scale is outside of the average. This pressure exists not only in competitive sports, like swimming, but in non-competitive sports as well, such as ballet.

Ballet, which does not have a championship at the end of the season compared to football or soccer, still has expectations of a definitive body image. “It was found that the use of mirrors during teaching might be an element which contributed to low body-image. Their body changes are observable to themselves and others, their coaches, their teammates, judges, and spectators. Female ballet dancers are generally 10–12% below ideal body weight and engage in dieting to maintain this weight” (Kosmidou, Giannitsopoulou, et al. 2017, p. 24). However, when dieting does not work, women (and men) involved in ballet and other similar sports, often succumb to eating disorders to maintain a lower weight, “Negative body image is related to unhealthy behaviors, as eating disorders” (Kosmidou, Giannitsopoulou, et al. 2017, p. 24).

Regardless of what type of sport is being played, almost every team member suffers the constraint of needing to look a certain way.

While most of the time, athletes are critiqued for their build and frame, such as broad shoulders and buff arms; it is becoming more and more common to see comments that are presented in a more sexual manner.

Women involved in an aggressive sport often dress up more when they are going about their everyday life, to prove that they are just as feminine as the rest. One female athlete admitted, “I make an effort to put on makeup and dress up after practice so people don’t see a boy, but a girl… Consistent with the finding that they are perceived as less feminine by men and by female non-athletes, it seems that some women are engaging in identity management behaviors” (Duff, Gebelt, & Royce, 2003, p. 56).

While this helps the self-esteem of the individual, it opens her up to more judgment and many times female athletes become objectified as a result.

One study found that body image evaluated in a sexual manner is just as harmful to a person as any other type. “Studies indicate the persistent sexualisation of female athletes by placing emphasis on their physical attributes through sexually suggestive poses, body parts (breasts, buttocks, legs), and revealing clothing… Highlighting sportswomen’s femininity and heterosexuality over their athletic achievements contributes to the notion that women athletes are sexually available objects for male audiences” (Toffoletti, 2017, p. 459). Due to the discomfort and pressure placed on a female athlete, some women have to, “De-emphasize their femininity and mimic men,” (Toffoletti, 2017, p. 461) an action that should not be necessary.

The discomfort felt by being objectified is something that could be avoided if the lengths and types of uniforms female athletes wore were looser and longer.

Ballet dancers, who are typically lean and skinny, in a study reported, “Less satisfaction with their athletic bodies when they wore tights and leotards compared to looser clothing. It was argued that the form-fitting nature of their clothing might have elicited more discomfort in addition to self and other body objectification.” And cheerleaders, “who wore more revealing uniforms (i.e., those that exposed the midriff) reported more pathogenic behaviors (e.g., binge eating, dieting, laxatives, etc.) and body dissatisfaction compared to those who wore less revealing uniforms” (Lauer et al., 2018, p.42). Many have negative thoughts and outcomes because they feel objectified, which affects their performance as well.

This goes to show how clothing in sports (an aspect of physical appearance) affects the dignity an individual has which in turn hinders the ability to play a good game. After all, if men are allowed to wear clothing that covers most of their body, then women have the right to also do the same, and this study solidifies that idea. Body image, especially in females, has always been an issue starting at a young age, as most women do not appreciate their own physical appearance.

“Females (aged 13 to 15 years) frequently reported appearance-based concerns as a reason for ceasing participation in sport and exercise. In a follow up study, teasing and body image concerns appeared to contribute to reduced rates of participation in sports and other physical activities among adolescent girls (aged 12 to 16)” (Devonport, Friesen, et al., 2018, p. 247).

More research needs to be done on how to empower women to join sports and look past their body image in order to continue playing a sport that makes them happy. Although women are the main targets of this pressure, men are not completely immune to similar problems.

Athletes want to look a certain way and believe that if he or she fits, “the ideal physical stereotype is perceived to be more sociable, mentally healthy, and intelligent (Feingold, 1992). People who believe that they meet this physical stereotypical standard will experience psychological benefits in their self-esteem (Feingold, 1992). Further, low self esteem has been shown to have a negative effect on dieting and bingeing behaviors in adolescent girls the ideal physical stereotype” (Milligan, 2006, p. 34).

No person ever wants to be materialized, however, due to it being so prevalent in the modern day, athletes look to that objectification as proof that they are attractive and thus, resort to becoming a stereotype.

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The personal pressures a sports team member places on his or her self along with the way that they are constantly analyzed leads to a need to maintain a distinct outward countenance causing them to develop unhealthy habits. For example, when weight loss doesn’t happen quickly in a healthy way, individuals turn to purging after meals to prevent excess weight gain.

Rock climbers, who are just one example of, “Competitive athletes in leanness- focused sports,” (Boyd, Reeves, et al., 2017, p. 382) need to be slender and have low weight; they can often develop body dissatisfaction because of this. Poor body image leads to unhealthy outcomes such as eating disorders. In particular, “research on a variety of sports (i.e., gymnastics, dancing and figure skating and endurance sports) has illustrated how athletes that are involved in leanness focused sports (i.e., those that perceive performance to be linked to body weight; those that have specific weight-class requirements; or those that judge based on appearance) are believed to be at a higher risk for disordered eating and eating disorders” (Boyd, Reeves, et al., 2017, p. 382).

Individuals who are willing to stop eating or purge after eating clearly believe there is something wrong with themselves. It is not healthy for an athlete to feel the type of pressure that keeping a specific type of physical appearance puts on him/her.

Body image distortion has always been relevant and will continue to remain a problem if changes are not made in multiple areas of an athlete’s life. When they are pressured to look a certain way or when they compare themselves to other teammates, some athletes turn to dieting to control weight, shape, and size.

It is suggested that support groups be given to the athletes to encourage them to look at body image in a positive manner, “Programming delivered at the beginning of a season may help athletes to maintain a positive body image over the course of their season and be less likely to succumb to a negative mood state”(Voelker, Petrie, et al., 2016, p. 128).

The fact that so many athletes are feeling negatively about their appearance and need programs to remind them about positive appearance suggests that they are unhappy and are being pressured by society’s norms. However, the mere support of ones teammates influences how an individual views his or herself.

One study depicted that in a rowing competition for example, if everybody is wearing a one piece without judging how it looks on everyone, all of the members learn to become comfortable in their own skin. It was found that, “Membership in a peer group fulfills the desire to feel connected to others, provides an environment for sharing personal experiences and receiving encouragement and feedback about oneself”(Kerr, MacPherson, et al., 2016 p. 73).

Since a sport would be considered a peer group, the people that are playing the same sport as the athlete have an important role in how the athlete will view his or her own body image. If the athlete were to wear a tight uniform that accentuated all of the wrong parts of her body, her teammates may mock her for it, causing the individual to develop a contradictory perception of herself. If she were to wear something that was more form fitting and looked the same on her as it did on everyone else, there would be no room for ridicule. In addition, multiple people, after viewing images of extremely skinny or muscular people, look at their own body and have negative thoughts.

A study found that, “in males but not in females, Body image perception of individuals in the physical exercise group showed a significant improvement after 6 weeks.” It also pointed out that women in general, have a harder time building up self-esteem and viewing themselves in a confident way compared to men, “There were no differences after the intervention in any of the conditions for females. Males had significantly higher body image both before and after the interventions than females” (Griffin, Kirby, 2007, p. 83).

The suggested solution to this contention is to look for exercises that help an individual become an overall healthier individual.

One research found that, “Body dissatisfaction is not linked with health, it’s linked with a lot of negative things, like eating disorders, unhealthy exercise habits, low self-esteem, and depression. The internalization of the thin-athletic body ideal is particularly worrisome, because you have people trying to become thin through lack of nutrition and then exercising while not properly nourished”(Schreiber, 2016, p. 35).

Athletes who feel lowered self-confidence because of their appearance should aim to be healthy by eating healthier, meditating, and having an overall positive attitude instead of focusing on what others think of them.

When it comes to personal images, it is important to keep in mind that every individual has something they would like to enhance about themselves. The public, unfortunately, puts up athletes, on a pedestal, and when it is noticed that these players are not matching the convention in a physical sense, they are judged for it. Rather than conforming to the ideal body image and shape that is expected of them, these sports professionals should embrace their differences. A sportsperson is a role model for children, and can teach them to love their body image and maintain a healthy lifestyle without turning to malicious eating habits. However, instead of being able to see themselves in this light, due to the pressure placed on these sports competitors by society, they turn to various detrimental addictions of their own.


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