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The Relationship Between Sports, Eating, And Body Image Disorders In Women

Photo courtesy of Forbes

Navigating self-esteem and confidence are hard enough for women who are not athletes. Subjects of body esteem and confidence in female athletes have been popular topics of discussion among coaches, teammates, and psychologists as more young women participate in sports across the world. Eating and body image disorders are a growing concern among competitive female athletes who are attempting to conform to the sociocultural aspects of the sport.

Trying to navigate male gender norms that have been associated with sports could also leave female athletes with a lost sense of femininity. As a competitive female athlete who has dealt with an eating disorder and body image concerns, a better understanding of how different aspects of sport influence body esteem can provide me and other athletes with better support and resources in mental health.

C.S. Neumann, a credible author in psychology, argues that female college athletes' being at risk for certain mental disorders may result from sociocultural factors and pressure from individuals within the sporting environment. His research team suggests that sociocultural factors within the sporting environment, like favoritism of lean bodies and sport-sanctioned weight classifications, could put athletes at risk of disordered eating and dietary restraints.

He claims that athletes become dissatisfied with their appearance as a result of weight and appearance pressures from coaches, teammates, and sports judges throughout the collegiate season. Female athletes internalize high standards for how they should look and become more dissatisfied with their bodies when they are unable to reach those standards.

The prevalence of self-reported dietary restraint and body dissatisfaction could be because athletes train and compete in an environment where they’re constantly focused on their bodies and the way they look. Competitive body comparison among female athletes could result in dietary restraint as they work to look like their more successful teammates or competitors. 

M.C. Steinfeldt, a credible sports psychologist, suggests that conformity to gender norms associated with sport participation may correlate with body esteem in female athletes. His research team argues that certain masculine norms, specifically risk-taking, are possibly linked to higher levels of body esteem among female athletes. Relational norms that involve valuing relationships and collaboration with others could also boost female athletes' body esteem.

While the risk-taking and relational norms may yield more positive results in body esteem, Steinfeldt and his research team suggest that the pursuit by female athletes of portraying a traditionally feminine appearance may cause them to have body dissatisfaction. They also suggest that those female athletes may have a hard time balancing their athletic physique with the ideal feminine body, which could negatively influence their body image. The way athletes perceive themselves, as overweight or underweight, may also predict variation in body esteem, implying that the increased risk of eating disorders among female athletes may be due to pressures to conform to ideal feminine body standards.

There are many reasons why female athletes resort to disordered eating to pursue a certain athletic look or to perform better at their sport. A lot of the issues stem from negative body image and norms associated with male sports that are integrated throughout the sport through coaches, teammates, and judges. A better understanding of the correlation between aspects within the sporting environment and female athletes' body esteem and eating habits could help future female athletes become the best versions of themselves they can be in their sports and their everyday lives.


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