Proud2Bme | Dear KJ: How Can I Introduce Body Positivity to My Sports Team?

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Dear KJ: How Can I Introduce Body Positivity to My Sports Team?

"Dear KJ" is a weekly advice column by Dr. Kjerstin "KJ" Gruys, sociologist, author and body image activist.  She holds a Ph.D. in sociology with a focus on the politics of appearance and is the author of Mirror Mirror Off the Wall: How I Learned to Love My Body By Not Looking at It for a Year (Avery Press, 2012). Her work and writing have been featured by Good Morning America, 20/20The Colbert Report, USA Today, People, New York Times, Los Angeles Times, Washington Post, NPR's "Tell Me More," and "On Air with Ryan Seacrest," among others. Find her at kjerstingruys.com.

I'm a college athlete and my team often talks about their bodies in a negative way. How can I work with my coaches/team to create a more body positive atmosphere?

Participating in athletics is a double-edged sword when it comes to body image and eating disorders. On one hand, playing a sport or focusing on training goals helps us remember that our bodies exist to DO things, not just to look a certain way. On the other hand, the physicality of athletic training, along with the pressures of competition, can cause athletes to become obsessive, controlling and critical of their bodies.

Athletes competing in certain sports, such as those that have weight classifications (e.g., wrestling, rowing), aesthetic judging (gymnastics, bodybuilding, ice skating) or those focusing on endurance (cross-country, track and field) have been identified as being at higher-risk for the development of disordered eating. 

Creating a team culture and community that is body positive can go far in helping to prevent body dissatisfaction and eating disorders, not to mention helping to keep athletes healthy and performing at their best. If your coaches are not already aware of the negative body talk that is happening within the team, it’s important that they be made aware of it. I highly suggest that you direct your coaches to the National Eating Disorders Association’s “Coaches and Trainers Toolkit,” which you can find on their website, here.

The toolkit provides a plethora of information, as well as tips and personal stories from trainers, coaches and athletes that can help coaches cultivate a body positive team environment. Here are a few of my favorite “tips on how to provide a healthy sport environment,” from page 32 of the toolkit:

  • Coaches should strive not to emphasize weight for the purpose of enhancing performance (e.g., by weighing, measuring body fat composition and encouraging dieting or extra workouts). Even the slightest comment, direct or indirect, made by an influential coach to an athlete suggesting that their weight is too high can motivate an athlete to engage in unhealthy dieting behaviors. Performance should not come at the expense of the athlete’s health.
  • Pay attention to your own comments and behaviors about size/shape, as well as those of team members, especially body comparisons between/ among athletes. Eliminate derogatory comments or behaviors about weight—no matter how subtle, light or “in good fun” they seem. Understand your role in promoting a positive self-image and self- esteem in your athletes.
  • Avoid comparing athletes’ bodies to one another, especially if the athlete of comparison has an eating disorder. Coaches should also discourage body comparisons among and between teammates, as well as “fat talk” (interactions between teammates that involve negative body talk). This kind of dialogue can trigger “competitive thinness” in some athletes.
  • Provide factual and scientifically supported nutrition information, not personal opinion or fad diets.

On a more personal note, I played basketball and was a competitive runner in track and field during high school. I was struggling with an eating disorder during my last two years of high school, but I can honestly say that participating in sports helped me to recover. Being an athlete made me feel strong and proud of what my body could accomplish.

I was very lucky to have coaches who believed that athletes could come in all shapes and sizes, and who wanted their student-athletes to be healthy and happy. Because I was restricting food and water, I frequently felt lightheaded during basketball practices. This was the first experience that helped me realize that my body was NOT healthier at a very low weight, and that I needed to take better care of my body.

I wish you the best of luck in your important efforts to make your team a body positive one!

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