Body Image and Health in College Sports

Ring GymnastAre college sports having an issue with body image and health? Mental health of elite athletes received a great deal of attention during the Tokyo Olympics. Simone Biles captured public attention as she struggled with the subject. New reporting, though, points to more specific problems with body image and health in college sports, especially among elite female athletes.

Alaina Schroeder, a distance runner at KU, described the pressure she felt regarding body image, driven by DEXA scans to monitor her body composition:

“Achieving a certain body fat percentage was just another thing that you were either succeeding or failing at. Most of the time it was failing at because in everyone’s mind, you could always be lower, which is super messed up.”

Prevalent Eating Disorders

So it should not be surprising that eating disorders are more prevalent in elite athletes than in the general population. Jorunn Sundgot-Borgen and Monica Klungland Torstveit documented this nearly 20 years ago. Back then, they called for coaches, trainers, physicians, and families to pay attention to this risk, but it’s not at all clear that things have improved.

Professor Paula Quatromoni is an expert at Boston University on sports nutrition and eating disorders. She has some real issues with the increased use of body composition with college athletes and told the New York Times:

“This practice is steeped in weight stigma, stereotypes and misinformation. It is not based on sport science, and rarely is the practice managed or monitored closely by qualified health professionals to have any positive outcome. Instead, it can have devastating consequences for the athlete and will sabotage the very goals that athletes and coaches pursue.”

Sexualized Imagery

These issues with body image and health in college sports are inconvenient for the big business of college athletics. Female college athletes now have the potential to earn large sums of money through social media and endorsements. This adds to the pressure these athletes face.

Some are making millions of dollars. But with this opportunity comes pressure to earn that money through sexualized imagery. Different athletes are making different choices about this. The most successful coach in women’s basketball, Stanford’s Tara VanDerveer, regrets the emphasis on this aspect of women in sports:

“I guess sometimes we have this swinging pendulum, where we maybe take two steps forward, and then we take a step back. We’re fighting for all the opportunities to compete, to play, to have resources, to have facilities, to have coaches, and all the things that go with Olympic-caliber athletics.”

“This is a step back.”

Neglecting Physical and Mental Health

This problem is hard to miss. Elite athletes are essential to generating big money for the business of sports. In the process of making that money, the business can easily destroy the physical and mental health of these people who are the foundation for it.

Click here and here for some excellent reporting on these issues. For more on body image in student athletes, click here. Finally, you can find an excellent overview of the complexity of eating disorders in athletes here.

Ring Gymnast, painting by Eugène Jansson / WikiArt

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November 11, 2022