Creating Positive Body Image Cultures in Sport: Becoming a Champion for Change
Dr Zali Yager
Sport has the capacity to shape and change lives in significant and formative ways, and we know that moving our bodies is good for us. However the constant attention to, and commentary about how people look as they engage in sport and movement can be really damaging for people across the spectrum from grassroots community sport, through to elite sport contexts.
Thanks to some high profile whistle-blowers, and lived experience advocates, more and more athletes have shared their experiences, so we can learn more about the body image cultures in sport. Athletes have told us:
“The offhanded comments from these coaches, managers and parents, the casual chit chat between girlfriends in sport and toxic messaging from social media really got to me when I was about 17. Male coaches in particular often said hurtful things, which have been imprinted in my mind ever since…”
“I never felt that I fully fitted into the stereotypical ideal of what a female athlete should look like. I was very self-conscious of my body and felt so exposed each time I wore a crop top at a competition.”
“The parents on the pool deck just make casual conversation about how tall, short, lean, or muscular swimmers were- just hearing them talk like that made me realise that everyone was judging my body- and it took the focus away from my performance”
“There’s always a big tub of powder at the back of the rowing sheds, and coaches have been known to suggest that athletes use it.”
Across all sorts of individual and team sports, across all genders, and across all levels, young people and athletes are unintentionally being harmed by the body image cultures they are exposed to in sport.
Evidence suggests that focusing on an individual’s body appearance, physique, weight and composition can be harmful for male and female athletes and lead to body shame, body dissatisfaction, and other risk factors for eating disorders. Eating disorders are serious psychological illnesses, and in current and former athletes it is estimated that eating disorder prevalence is three times as high in athletes compared to non-athletes, and have been worsened by the Covid-19 Pandemic.
There are many guidelines documents about the detection and referral pathways for eating disorders in sport, such as those developed by the National Eating Disorders Collaboration and the AIS. At the Body Confident Collective, Dr Georgie Buckley has translated the evidence around body image and eating disorders in sport to create Sport Guidelines that help athletes, coaches, parents, supporters, and sports media to positively influence sporting culture so that sport participation enhances body confidence, rather than being a risk factor for body dissatisfaction and eating disorder development.
Here is a summary of the guidelines, and how you can be a champion for change, and to create more positive body image culture in sport.
The Body Confident Collective Sport Guidelines are intended for use from a club to an international sporting level. They aim to guide the practices of sports administrators, coaches, parents, supporters, health professionals, team managers, sports media and athletes. These guidelines have been developed to foster sporting cultures that promote positive body image and body confidence, and to provide welcoming, safe and inclusive environments for all bodies.
There are so many opportunities to implement small changes that can have an epic impact on the lives of so many athletes across all levels of sport. We truly believe in the power of each and every person to use their voice and create a more positive culture in sport- so that athletes can have a positive relationship with their body and with food- and focus on performance, on enjoying movement, and on the many benefits that come from sport.
Dr Zali Yager is the Executive Director of the Body Confident Collective, and Adjunct Associate Professor in the Institute for Health and Sport at Victoria University. Visit the Body Confident Collective Website to receive your copy of the Body Confident Collective Sport Guidelines, and contact us at [email protected] if you are interested in working with us at your club or sporting organisation.