While being an athlete can have its glorious and triumphant moments, there are struggles athletes face behind closed doors. Now by struggles I don’t mean injuries, or lack of playing time, or having to retire. The struggle I am focusing on is the struggle with self-image and food: eating disorders. 

According to a study done by Jorunn Sundgot-Borgen in Sports Med, eating disorders are especially high among female athletes compared to non-athletes. 

Females in general are constantly trying to achieve or emulate the “perfect” body in their mind. Influences from society, social media, television, all contribute to this image and the need to reach this ideal look. With impossible beauty standards and unrealistic expectations of body types, women struggle every day with various forms of body dysmorphia. Body dysmorphia is a common issue among women. It causes women to have an obsessive focus on perceived flaws in their appearance.  

Female athletes are already trying to achieve beauty standards as women. In addition, they are also striving for ideal standards in their sports, which can include toning muscles and losing fat. 

Athletes face various pressures every single day. The pressure to win or perform well, in combination with the emphasis on the weight and shape of female athletes, can cause a toxic and detrimental environment. 

In a study of Division 1 NCAA athletes, over one-third of female athletes reported attitudes or symptoms of anorexia. In addition, a Norwegian study showed that 42% of elite female athletes in aesthetic sports and 24% of endurance athletes show symptoms of eating disorders.  

It’s important to understand some of the risk factors that contribute to the development of eating disorders in female athletes. 

Risk factors:

  1. Sports that emphasize appearance or weight requirements
  1. Sports that focus more on individual performance than team performance 
  1. An overvalued belief in the idea that a lower body weight will improve an athlete’s performance 
  1. Being an elite athlete or having trained for a sport since childhood 
  1. Low self-esteem and/or a dysfunctional family or home environment; families with eating disorders; chronic dieting
  1. Peer, family, and cultural pressures to be thing
  1. Coaches who focus on success and performance rather than an athlete as a whole. Coaches who don’t see an athlete as a person outside their sport, only as an athlete 

The four risk factors that are particularly seen to contribute to a female athlete’s vulnerability in developing an eating disorder are: social influences that emphasize thinness, performance anxiety, negative self-appraisal of athletic achievement, and an identity that is solely based on participation in one’s sport.

These risk factors are important to understand and remember when trying to identify if someone has developed, is in the process of developing an eating disorder, or had an eating disorder at some point. 

Eating disorders can sometimes seem like something you can’t prevent from developing. However, there are various protective factors that female athletes, and athletes in general, can enforce within their daily lives.  

Protective factors:

  1. Having a positive coaching style that isn’t performance-oriented is important. The coach also sees past the athlete to the person outside their sport
  1. Positive social influence and support from teammates with healthy attitudes towards size, shape, weight, etc 
  1. Coaches who emphasize factors that contribute to personal success such as motivation and enthusiasm. This means they stay away from emphasis on shape, body weight, or size
  1. Coaches, parents, teammates, and friends who educate, talk about, and support the changing female body. Most importantly the aspects of changing body image within a societal aspect  

The most important thing is for those closest to female athletes to be supporting the individual in a healthy way. Stay away from focusing on body weight, shape, and size. 

Knowing what ways are healthiest to support female athletes can help to create a positive environment that doesn’t contribute or incentivise eating disorders of any kind. 

If you or someone you know has an eating disorder, shows symptoms, or is involved in any of the risk factor situations above please visit NEDA, or call or text 800-931-2237. 

You are more than your body – control your narrative. 

Read also:
How Therapy Made Me Feminist
So You Care About Fat People’s Health
Bulimia: The Struggle, Journey, And Light At The End Of The Tunnel