by Aimee Lee ’24
Published Feb. 10th, 2022
“I’m tall and strong, and I love my body,” said Misia Jernigan ‘24, “except for when I go to ballet.”
Misia, a competitive ballerina, struggles with body image in her sport. But she isn’t alone. According to Dr. Ron Thompson, female athletes “are more at risk for body image problems and eating disorders than the general population.”
To push their abilities, athletes can become hyper-focused on their bodies, drawing negative feelings about their physiques.
In addition to internal pressures, female athletes are met with tight social expectations of physique. A 2012 study by Dr. Christie Greenleaf, a kinesiology professor, and Dr. Trent Petrie, a physiology professor, concluded, “body dissatisfaction is considered as a result of the internalization of societal and sport-specific pressures.”
Widely accepted and promoted ideas of a slim body convince female athletes to feel displeased with their own.
Unsurprisingly, the female sports industry exploits sexuality to widen audiences and financial gain, best seen through uniforms. According to Volley Country, while male beach volleyball players can wear loose jerseys and shorts, female counterparts “must compete in bra-style tops and bikini bottoms that must not exceed six centimeters in width at the hip.” Sexploitation convinces athletes that their bodies should be pleasing for viewership, enforcing beauty standards that can damage performance.
Even coaches promote negative body expectations in their athletes. According to psychologists Peiling Kong and Dr. Lynne M. Harris, over 60% of elite female athletes received pressure from coaches regarding their bodies. In a survey of 201 Division I female athletes by ESPNW,, 20% had been called “fat” by their coaches.
Anahat Bawa ‘24, an elite fencer, revealed that private club coaches outside of Montgomery High School “keep tabs to make sure you are keeping yourself in shape. Some even lose interest if their athlete does not look good.”
In many cases, athletes themselves are unconscious of their damaging actions. Anahat says “sometimes it is just natural and I forget but I know I must eat enough for my body to recover and function correctly.”
Although rarely discussed in athletics, body image issues can develop serious eating disorders such as restrictive eating, overeating, binge-eating, and the use of diet pills and diuretics.
However, many athletes find positive ways to ward off unhealthy thoughts and behaviors.
Whenever Misia finds “[herself] counting calories all the time” due to pressures from her private ballet institution, she prevents intrusive thoughts by reminding herself that “there are healthy ways to get the desired physique.”
Women “all need to be supported by each other,” says soccer player and sprinter Gianna Salib ‘22, it “can be intimidating for women but if we have solid support, [goals] seem more achievable.”
Athletes are known to test human strength, endurance, and speed. Yet, concerns around body image are often muted by roaring crowds and awed spectators, leaving athletes at risk of developing an unhealthy perception of themselves.
Perhaps the word “athlete” needs redefining to abandon these expectations, and embrace the beautiful bodies that develop with sport.