The impact of Competitive Sports on Body Image

What is Body Image?

'Body image' is the perception that a person has of their physical self and the thoughts and feelings that result from that perception.

Just looking at that definition, we can see that there are multiple places where negativity can take hold. From 'the perception that a person has of their physical self' to the 'thoughts and feelings that result form that perception'.

If someone suffers from body dysmorphic disorder, their perception of their physical self is likely to be very distorted. Furthermore, if someone suffers from an eating disorder or from generally negative messages about body size and so on, then their thoughts and feelings resulting from their body perception is likely to be very skewed.

There are many things that can influence our body image in day-to-day life, as discussed here. This blog is going to look specifically at how the world of competitive sports can impact on an athletes body image.

Eating disorders in professional athletes

Being a professional athlete is a gruelling and demanding lifestyle, which requires a lot of hard work, control, and dedication. Within the world of professional sports, there is such a focus on the athletes body that it almost seems as if their body is not their own - it seems that anyone is allowed to comment on the ability or imperfections that they see.

Although negative body image doesn't always result in an eating disorder, sadly the final result of prolonged negative body image - paired with the perfectionism and control often associated with professional sports - is likely to be an eating disorder.

The characteristics that help athletes at the highest levels to excel are also found in those with eating disorders: high self-expectations, perfectionism, competitiveness, hyperactivity, repetitive exercise routines, compulsiveness, drive, a distorted body image, preoccupation with weight and dieting, and a tendency toward depression.

According to a 1999 study of college athletes by the National Collegiate Athletic Association in America, professional athletes many be two to three times more likely to have an eating disorder than the average person. A 2004 study of top athletes in Norway reached a similar conclusion, finding that 13.5% of athletes surveyed had an eating disorder, compared with 4.6% of the control group.

The same across Sports?

Different sports require different things from their athletes. Some require speed and brute force, others require dexterity and flexibility. Something that they all require is strength.

One study found that those participating in sports that required leanness - gymnastics, swimming, dancing, wrestling, etc - showed higher rates of disordered eating and eating disorder symptoms when compared to athletes whose sports do not have such body weight or shape restrictions (Kakaiya, 2008).

In some sports, as above, there is an advantage in weighing less, such as in gymnastics. However, there are sports in which the aim is to be extremely muscular, such as body building and weightlifting. In all of these sports, on different ends of the spectrum, there is a heavy focus on food intake, being weighed, aesthetics, and physique. Such focus can have a negative effect, when the body's appearance is so tightly linked to winning.

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