The Weight of Body Image, Perfomance & The Female Athlete

“You don’t really look like a climber,” he said as he looked me up and down. 

 

At first, I felt a little sting, but remembered it wasn’t the first time my ability was judged by my body. I remembered training for a marathon the year before, and also being told, “You don’t look like a runner.” I heard this yet again when I began racing mountain bikes, only this time it was my upper body that was too developed. The theme continued as I aged and my body hardly matched other athletes in my sport.

My experience is unfortunately not unique. In some cases this can be a barrier for other women who are pursuing sports for the first time. This judgment is felt twofold by elite athletes, who not only feel the pressure to perform, but oftentimes feel the pressure of looking excessively lean as well (1,2). 

 

In this article, I want to encourage you to drop the notion that being athletic has a certain aesthetic, stop letting your body image get in the way of your potential and train with your unique biology.

Photo: Dave Burleson

the comparison trap

We have all wondered, “What does it take to be a ___ athlete.” The first thing in our minds are typically images of popular athletes in that sport. We tend to make a judgement call, try or not to try, based on comparing our body type to theirs. Statements  like “I am too ___,” or “not ___enough,” can keep us from experiencing a new sport or trying our best. Comparing yourself to others, especially professional athletes, is unhealthy. Focusing on your personal success is the best way to stay out of the comparison trap. 

 

Not all comparison is bad, however, especially when it comes to motivation and representation. Seeing someone who is the same gender, body size or skin color engaging in your sport makes it feel more welcoming and approachable. When we feel represented, it encourages us to try harder, dream bigger and do more. Vicarious experience is a powerful motivational tool.

The Myths Women Believe: It’s Not about Weight

For far too long training plans have revolved around weight loss/management instead of focusing on strength-to-weight ratios. This is in part due to traditional training plans furthering the myth that smaller is better.

Photo: Sav Cummins

Women are more likely to both under eat for their sport as well as not consume enough protein when compared to men (3). It is still tough to get women to strength train and eat more protein for fear of gaining unwanted “manly physiques” or weight. If we are not careful, we can allow our body image to encroach on our performance. 

 

Being muscular is not a look reserved for men. (FYI: Men have to work to look muscular as well, they aren’t born with six-packs.) Women may not need to be excessively lean to be a top performer in their sport, but gaining muscle should be revered rather than feared. There is a lower limit for how strong you can be at a given weight, but there is no upper limit. I join many female athletes in saying that having added weight via muscle has added to my performance. Focusing solely on weight is a losing battle because it is impossible to control. Shifting your focus to how you feel in your body along with your strength-to-weight ratio is a better use of your mental energy. 

 

Most female athletes don’t need another fad diet or weight loss plan, they need more strength.

Harness your Genetics

Body love is rooted in body acceptance and body peace. A way to gain body peace is understanding what we can and cannot control. Things we cannot control are our height, bone structure, body type and family history. Luckily, there is so much more that we can control, like our lifestyle habits including mindset, training with our female physiology, and our nutrition. 

 

One leveler of the playing field is muscle. It helps us balance hormones, increases our performance and protects us against injury. With few exceptions, everyone can build it, no matter their body types.

 

Inspiring athletes that have broken the mold in their sports are Serena Williams, Meagan Martin, Aly Raisman, Lindsey Vonn and Simone Biles. These women have defined what it means to be a top performing athlete in spite of body shamers and critics. They have tapped into their genetic strengths rather than tame them for the masses. Magical things happen when we stop fighting against our body and decide to train with it.

Personalize Nutrition for Performance

Before looking at weight as a barrier to performance, addressing your lifestyle habits and any nutritional gaps you may have should be your first step. 

 

Low calorie diets can lure you in with false promises, but drain your glycogen stores, which causes muscle loss/strength, stress, fatigue, mood swings/emotional stress and even injury. Personalizing your nutrition takes time, but understanding your unique needs will pay off in the long-term. Instead of rushing into an entirely new diet, try beginning with a few changes first and getting really good at those before diving deeper.

Here are some ways to start:

 

  • Attend to your stress. 
  • Make sure you’re getting 7 to 8 hours of quality sleep. 
  • Take proper rest days. You may need more than one or two full rest days given your unique biology. 
  • Get enough protein to support recovery and strength and time it with your training.
  • Add more colorful plants to your plate.

 

If making these changes doesn’t do the trick, talk to a nutritionist about supplementing with vitamin D, magnesium, B12, or collagen, as athletes are highly likely to be low in these vitamins and minerals (4,5,6). By addressing these lifestyle areas first you just might find that weight wasn’t an issue at all.

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conclusion

Remember that we are all biochemically unique and no matter your size or shape, you can find creative and powerful ways to harness your nutrition and training to reach for more. Instead of thinking “how can I be smaller or weigh less,” lean into embracing your unique biology. Athletes come in all backgrounds, skin colors, shapes and sizes, so it’s time we stop comparing and start unlocking our personal potential.

works cited

  1. Kantanista, A., Glapa, A., Banio, A., Firek, W., Ingarden, A., Malchrowicz-Mośko, E., Markiewicz, P., Płoszaj, K., Ingarden, M., & Maćkowiak, Z. (2018). Body Image of Highly Trained Female Athletes Engaged in Different Types of Sport. BioMed research international, 2018, 6835751.
  2. Kong, P., & Harris, L. M. (2015). The sporting body: body image and eating disorder symptomatology among female athletes from leanness focused and nonleanness focused sports. The Journal of psychology, 149(1-2), 141–160. https://doi.org/10.1080/00223980.2013.846291
  3. Bianco, A., Mammina, C., Thomas, E., Bellafiore, M., Battaglia, G., Moro, T., Paoli, A., & Palma, A. (2014). Protein supplementation and dietary behaviours of resistance trained men and women attending commercial gyms: a comparative study between the city centre and the suburbs of Palermo, Italy. Journal of the International Society of Sports Nutrition, 11, 30. https://doi.org/10.1186/1550-2783-11-30
  4.  Mirian de la Puente Yagüe, M., Collado Yurrita, L., Ciudad Cabañas, M. J., & Cuadrado Cenzual, M. A. (2020). Role of Vitamin D in Athletes and Their Performance: Current Concepts and New Trends. Nutrients, 12(2), 579. https://doi.org/10.3390/nu12020579
  5. Knechtle, B., & Nikolaidis, P. T. (2020). Vitamin D and Sport Performance. Nutrients, 12(3), 841. https://doi.org/10.3390/nu12030841
  6.  Heffernan, S. M., Horner, K., De Vito, G., & Conway, G. E. (2019). The Role of Mineral and Trace Element Supplementation in Exercise and Athletic Performance: A Systematic Review. Nutrients, 11(3), 696. https://doi.org/10.3390/nu11030696
Brianna Boney

Brianna Boney

Brianna Boney is a National Board certified Healthy Lifestyles Coach, NASM certified Personal Trainer, Nutrition Coach and Women’s Fitness Specialist. She can be found on IG at @gnarlygirlfitness and her website, gnarlygirlfitness.com

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