Proud2Bme | 3 Ways to Create a Safe Space for Athletes of All Sizes

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3 Ways to Create a Safe Space for Athletes of All Sizes

By Rachael Hershon--Back when I was in high school, I was a varsity softball player. I’m sure many people would be in shocked by the previous sentence, seeing that I am clearly a fat woman, and that I was even fatter in high school. I do not fit the stereotypical depiction of the slim, athletic woman, and that's OK! I was honestly never the athletic type to begin with (regardless of my size). 

I never liked sports—I was always the kid who liked to read, write, draw, etc. I didn’t really gain an interest in sports and fitness until a friend of mine (who happened to be the captain of the varsity softball team) encouraged me to try out. She talked about how friendly the team and the coaches were, how much fun she had at the games and practices and that I would probably get in—we went to a private high school with an enrollment of about 380. 

The team really needed more players. I’ve always been the type of person to push myself, and I thought this would be a great way for me to do so. After the tryout, I was hooked (exhausted, but hooked). I had a great time and my teammates and coaches were beyond supportive of my efforts. I have zero complaints about my own coaches. They were absolutely wonderful people, and they cared a lot about me and my teammates. They never made me feel ashamed for my size, and never correlated it to my athletic ability, which was refreshing.

I know that there are several young men and women who do not fit the typical perception of what “athletic” looks like, and they often come under criticism from their coaches. I am so lucky to have had a positive experience. However, the one thing that was disappointing to me was the lack of accommodation the school had regarding the size of the uniforms. Most of the uniform—a jersey, socks and a visor—fit fine, but there was no way my softball pants would zip up.

When I went to the athletic director’s office to see if the school carried larger-sized uniforms, she apologized and told me I would have to buy my own pants. I felt so much shame that I couldn’t fit into the uniform pants. It made me feel like I didn’t belong on the team—that I was too fat to play the sport I had enjoyed. This bothered me much more than I let on to my teammates. 

In retrospect, I do not believe that I should have felt ashamed—but the school should have. It was no secret amongst my teammates that the athletic director and our head coach constantly butted heads (which meant that we were denied new uniforms year after year). However, the athletic director seemed to assume that only people of certain sizes would be playing sports when she ordered the uniforms. It made me wonder how many people of size had given up on sports in high school because they were afraid that they could not fit into their uniforms. The world of athletics/fitness is riddled with misperceptions of the link between the body's appearance and athletic ability. This is an issue that seriously needs to be remedied (like, c’mon, not all skinny people are athletic, just like not all fat people are lazy).

Here are three suggestions for coaches/fitness/health professionals who are interested in making a safer space for all bodies:

1. Read Linda Bacon, P.h.D’s book, Health at Every Size

This is a must-read for people with professions related to fitness and health.  It’s also a must-read for people who are interested in learning more about health, particularly with regards to size and body image. Dr. Bacon dispels some of the myths surrounding size and health (e.g., the popular notion that being overweight directly causes diabetes, heart disease and other illnesses) by breaking down popularized medical studies and her own studies. This book was a game-changer (no pun intended) for how I viewed my body and my health, and it is one of the main factors that led me to a body-positive lifestyle.

2. Advocate for your players

Though in my own case I knew that there was a conflict between my coach and athletic director, in retrospect, the athletic director’s feelings toward my coach should not have been taken out on the team as a whole. In order to cultivate a more body-positive culture within the athletic community, coaches should advocate for extended sizes for their players’ uniforms. In addition, athletic directors/school boards/whoever is in charge of purchasing the uniforms need to create a more inviting environment for people of size. If this is not possible, another alternative is for the school to purchase a uniform for a player of a larger size when the situation arises. Uniforms are expensive, and expecting a young student athlete to front the cost for a uniform on his/her own punishes the student for having a different shape and size than their teammates. 

3. Watch your language

While I never ran into the issue of my coaches talking negatively about my body or my teammates’ bodies, I have definitely heard of other coaches making comments about their athletes’ weight gains during the off-season. This kind of language or discussion is absolutely unacceptable. I think many high school coaches forget that teenagers gain weight during puberty, which is absolutely normal—not to mention all of the varied, complex factors that can lead to weight gain. Regardless, coaches must draw a clear distinction between the size of their players and their athletic abilities.

For more information on supporting athletes who may be affected by eating disorders, check out NEDA’s Coach & Athletic Trainer Toolkit.  

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