Getting caught in the dangerous cultural juxtaposition between female athlete body and beauty standards
By Olivia Goldenberg
Growing up, I didn’t watch much TV. The TV I did watch was carefully monitored by my parents. I didn’t watch Disney princesses, or SpongeBob; I watched the tapes of the 2004 Athens Olympic Games rowing highlights, the Nutcracker, and Miracle on Ice. As I grew older, I started to watch movies and shows, read magazines, and be exposed to more and more media. The women I saw portrayed were often skinny, tall, and not exactly the athlete type.
I was an ice hockey player and a rower. My hockey program at Milton Academy had me lifting two to three times a week and skating five to seven times a week. I was expected to be strong and fit. I gained about 8 pounds my first varsity hockey season. I was lifting for the first time in my life and having to eat more to keep up with all the skating. The weight gain made sense. Then I spent the spring rowing and gained more muscle, then even more during an intense summer of hockey training. I started to look different. My entire body was gaining visible muscle, and as a result the size of my arms and thighs started to change. I was no longer the string bean I had been all my life. I didn’t really have a problem with this at first, though; in fact, I didn’t even notice.
Sophomore year of high school, I was introduced to lightweight rowing. I remember one day being randomly told to hop on the scale to have my weight recorded. The next day I was informed I would be racing not only in my usual open weight boat, but in a lightweight boat as well. I didn’t quite understand what that meant so I went along with it. I quickly learned it meant I had to be under 130 pounds to compete. That wasn’t an issue for me at the time, as I was hovering around 122-123, so I went along with my life, raced in the boat, and ended up doing quite well.
Then the season was over, and I returned to ice hockey for the winter, still completely oblivious to the idea of body image dissatisfaction or eating disorders. Over that winter I gained about five pounds lifting and returned to rowing in the spring weighing closer to 128. When it was announced I would be spending my time that spring racing lightweight, I was again unphased, as I was still under 130. I didn’t see an issue. Others around me who were closer to or over 130 started to engage in behaviors such as restricting, and more and more often the conversation became focused on how hungry they were, or how anxious they were about weigh-ins.
Without realizing it, I began to buy in. I began to think obsessively about my food, and my hunger, and how much I weighed. I worried about weigh-ins and dropped my weight intentionally to make sure I was nowhere near 130 so I wouldn’t have to worry. I began to adopt the traits of those around me who I saw as my superiors due to their age and experience.
As this was happening, I began to pay more attention to how my body looked, and quickly realized I didn’t fit the typical beauty standard. My shoulders looked too broad in most “cute” dresses and shirts. My thighs were not tiny and uniform. I had muscular arms that didn’t fit the slender t-shirt sleeves of my peers. I began to feel that I had to lose weight, that I had to be smaller, to fit in. One half of me had the burning desire for speed, strength and fitness, while the other half cared only for the number on the scale and the picture in the mirror. As an athlete, I wanted nothing more than to be able to ignore that second half. I felt stupid doing anything that didn’t help my athletic self, and starving myself to fit an unrealistic beauty standard wasn’t helpful. I was afraid to come forward because I felt my desires to be an elite athlete would be questioned if I admitted to not always being able to win that battle between eating and bettering myself athletically, or restricting my food intake and unintentionally harming my athletic ability. So I didn’t say anything. And I didn’t do anything, or get any help.
In my senior winter I developed what is called female athlete triad, a form of extreme overtraining where your body begins to shut down different systems in response to not being nourished enough while being overworked physically. The first system to go is often your energy availability, then your menstrual cycle, and finally your bone health. My systems were depleted. I had to take over two months off to recover enough to train again, but still to this day am dealing with the effects. I have not had a regular period since 10th grade, and my bone health has been affected such that the density of my bones is below the healthy levels of a normal person my age. There are still times when I lose energy and have to scale back my training. I may be in recovery for the next one, five, 10 years. I really do not know.
Could this have been avoided? I believe so. If there was not such a secretive culture among female athletes about eating disorders, and if more strong, muscular women were portrayed in the media, perhaps I never would have gotten to that point.
Perhaps if I had seen strong women in the movies and on TV being portrayed as the beautiful, desirable ones, then I wouldn’t have thought my own body needed to be changed, shrunken, to be desirable and acceptable.
Perhaps if eating disorders in general, but especially among female athletes, were not so taboo, I would have spoken up sooner, and gotten help earlier.
I do not fault my sport, or any sport, for the prevalence of eating disorders among female athletes. In fact, I do not fault anyone. I see this as a cultural fault. We need to work as a culture to change the messaging around not only what a beautiful, strong and powerful body is, but also how we talk about our own discomfort and insecurities with the body we have. If we can do that, we can build a more inclusive and open culture within women’s sports.