An invisible image

An invisible image

The challenges for athletes when body image seeps into sports

Published on November 25, 2015

Rachel Shafran, CC ’16, has been a dancer for as long as she can remember. She has memories of dancing in her crib and begging for ballet lessons as a toddler.

Shafran got her wish at the age of four. She quickly fell in love with dance, getting upset when her rehearsals were shorter than usual and wanting to spend all her time at the studio. She continued dancing all through elementary school and junior high, and found herself dreaming of becoming a professional ballerina.

But that dream was shattered one day in seventh grade when Shafran decided to share her goal with an instructor.

“Very kindly and in a very necessary way, she basically said, ‘No major ballet company in the world is going to let you audition for them.’”

As it turned out, it had nothing to do with the performance abilities she had honed over nearly decade of ballet—it was her body. Thinking a slimmer frame was the answer, Shafran resorted to unhealthy eating habits.

In the physical arena of sport, athletes fully rely on the interaction between mind and body to perform. But if that body doesn’t fit the idealized image of what an athlete needs to succeed in their sport, the stage or court that was once a sanctuary can become a battlefield between an image and reality.

The athlete inside

According to the NCAA, one in every four female college-age athletes and 20 percent of male collegiate athletes engage in disordered eating patterns.

Ron Thompson, a consulting psychologist for Indiana University’s athletic department, has worked with eating disorder patients for 36 years, spending 30 of those years with athletes. Thompson has also consulted on the issue of athletes and eating disorders for the NCAA and the Female Athlete Triad as part of the International Olympic Committee Medical Commission.

As co-founder of McCallum Place’s The Victory Program, Thompson has dedicated a significant portion of his professional life to working specifically with athletes who struggle with eating disorders and disordered eating, often in the name of athletic achievement.

“Their belief is that ‘If I can just lose some weight or some body fat, I can perform even better. Or if I try even harder.’ It’s built into the system, it’s built into being a good athlete,” Thompson said. “But it relates to making an eating disorder worse, it relates to developing disorders … and there are certain sports that have subculture aspects of that that also increase the risk.”

Other risk factors that can put athletes at risk for developing some type of eating disorder or patterns of disordered eating include familial issues and participating in sports focused on individual performance and sports that focus on specific physical dimensions, such as weight and muscle mass.

“The interesting thing with body image issues is that for people that finish treatment, even after they finish treatment, there’s stuff left over,” Thompson said. “And the body image stuff is the stuff that’s the last thing. People are bombarded with it everywhere you look.”

ESPN’s “Bodies We Want” is one of many outlets that displays the imagined athletic body. The section of the magazine’s annual Body Issue features photographs of nude athletes with hints of strategic covering. And with social media platforms making professional athletes more visibly accessible than ever, physical prototypes in sports have become even more widespread.

“We need to realize that the sport is a microcosm at society at large, and what we see in society, we’re going to see in sport,” Thompson said. “So there’s that emphasis on thinness, that emphasis on losing weight, and the belief in sport for the last 25 years has been that the thinner is the winner.”

“The belief in sport for the last 25 years has been that the thinner is the winner.”

—psychologist Ron Thompson

Building back up

But some have made strides to address the lengths that athletes will go to achieve the body necessary to compete.

Markus Scheidel and Zack Hernandez, both members of the Columbia wrestling team, grew up on the mat. Despite competing in a sport of weight classes, both expressed a culture of health rather than just weight, and one that didn’t stress a certain type of body to define the sport by.

“A lot of coaches try and emphasize that certain people are better at losing weight and certain people wrestle better at lighter weights, so I had my choice,” Scheidel, a junior, said of his career. “Focus on losing weight is not, shouldn’t be, a real pivotal part of the sport.”

“That’s the beauty of wrestling. Really, the perfect body in wrestling is just whatever wins,” Columbia head coach Carl Fronhofer said of his program, which does not encourage cutting weight quickly. “Especially in our style of wrestling in the U.S., we’ve had guys who have won that are long and lanky who’ve had a kind of leverage and they’re able to use that. And we’ve had guys who are short and compact and can be explosive and powerful and real jacked.”

Hernandez, a senior, said he’d never cut weight in college until this past year, when he moved down from 184 to 174 pounds over the course of the summer offseason. For him, the focus wasn’t the result on the scale, but on the mat.

“I think you have to have the right guidance, the right coaches, support system around you,” he said. “You have to know the right things to put in your body.”

For Fronhofer, the culture of the sport his team exists in now has evolved significantly in recent decades. Growing up in a wrestling family, the eventual All-American practiced and competed in an era when weight-cutting regulations were not in place.

During the 1997-98 season, extreme weight-cutting measures—including the use of controversial supplements—resulted in the deaths of three collegiate wrestlers, prompting NCAA officials to implement regulations for weight management in wrestling.   

“I think we had a pretty dark image to our sport as a result of the weight cutting. If it meant that it was going to cost somebody their life, it’s obviously not worth it—they needed to change the rules,” Fronhofer said. “I’d say it took five to seven years after they changed the rules to when you really saw the shift in the culture. Because you can change rules to protect people, which is good, but it doesn’t really change people’s minds. That takes time.”

“I think we had a pretty dark image to our sport as a result of the weight cutting.”

—Columbia wrestling coach Carl Fronhofer

Though regulations have made weight gains and losses more manageable—1.5 percent body weight per week is now the maximum—Fronhofer, Hernandez, and Scheidel all agreed that pre-existing body issues could come to the forefront if the right support systems aren’t put in place.

“I think having smart, level-headed people around you is very important. Regardless of that, you’re going to find people that have issues from every walk of life,” Fronhofer said. “So if people take things to the extreme—an extreme that could hurt themselves—that was probably just going to manifest itself in some fashion.”

Advancements in body image and eating disorder studies over the last 30 years have led to increased preventative measures—including those taken by the NCAA with wrestling. But factors an athlete faces outside of the sport arena—media, peer pressure, and self-image—can surpass any of these measures and further complicate an existing condition.

Fronhofer went on to share a story of a collegiate swimmer he knew who faced the issue of balancing her athletic body with that of a college-aged woman. After returning home for the summer, comments from friends regarding her athletic stature led the young athlete to cut back on weight lifting and training, negatively affecting both her mental health and performance in the pool.

“It screwed her whole career up—she could have been really good and mentally healthy,” Fronhofer said. “And by the time she graduated, she really just wasn’t swimming anymore. It was like a switch.”

Pressure points

That switch is one that has been studied by specialists like Thompson for decades. After treating collegiate athletes for most of his career, he has seen an immense variety of cases in all sports, ranging from rowing to gymnastics. Regardless of the sport, all collegiate athletes face the same risk factor: transition.

This era in an athlete’s life combines the risk factors of major life adjustments, new levels of performance pressure, and the act of balancing the body image of both an athlete and a regular student.

Of the percentage of college athletes who struggle with some type of eating disorder, the highest rate of diagnosed eating disorders is among female athletes in aesthetic sports like dance and gymnastics, according to McCallum Place.

“I’ve treated males with all kinds of eating disorders. And that includes a football player. They happen.”

—psychologist Ron Thompson


With a significant disproportion of female over male reported cases, Thompson says the treatment methods and awareness tools needed for males haven’t received nearly as much attention as they should.

“I think that we have been gender biased. Most of what we know about eating disorders and disordered eating, whether with athletes or non-athletes, really is just about what we know about women,” he said. “I’ve treated males with all kinds of eating disorders. And that includes a football player. They happen.”

Fitting an image

In her ninth year of ballet, Shafran found herself in the crosshairs of disordered eating habits, a developing body, and a deep desire to slim her physique to the shape of a ballerina.

The body of a professional ballerina requires a small head, a perfect 90-degree hip turnout, high foot arches, and a long neck. And this is only the start of the long list of traits that are not only genetic, but impossible to achieve regardless of how many hours a dancer practices.

“It was like, ‘I can work through it. I can make my legs hyperextended and give myself good feet and make my waist shorter. And it’ll be great.’ None of those things are possible,” Shafran said. “I was never going to be built like a Russian prima ballerina because my dad has flat feet and severely hypo-extended legs, and that’s just a fact of the matter.”

Facts aside, acceptance of her body became increasingly difficult as she began auditioning for summer dance intensives in eighth grade. Being exposed to the young dancers outside of her studio made Shafran realize there was a common body type in ballet—and she didn’t have it.

“I realized going to these auditions that I didn’t look like the other girls,” Shafran said. “And it wasn’t a weight issue, it was my legs were just proportionally much shorter. I had much more muscular legs. My feet weren’t as pretty. My turnout wasn’t as great—my hips just don’t move that way.”

The hardest part for her, however, was realizing that these differences weren’t something she could change. This was especially difficult because Shafran had been fighting for a year to change her body to fit a certain image—a weight image—that she had assumed would help her overcome the obstacles that seemed to be keeping her from dancing professionally.

“There’s no nice way to hear that your body is going to stop you from doing what you want to do,” she said. “But for me as a 13-year-old who had spent the past year effectively finding ways to not eat food, hearing that the problem I thought I was solving wasn’t even the problem was a lot to handle. You grow up thinking if you’re skinny enough, you can do it, and come to later realize that that is not the case.”

“There’s no nice way to hear that your body is going to stop you from doing what you want to do.”

—Rachel Shafran

The image of the slim ballerina-body and the need to conform to it is one that Shafran struggled to shake, especially as she continued performing through the years. In between costume fittings and measurements, Shafran noticed a culture of apologies for body size and a theme of dissatisfaction.

“I don’t want to perpetuate the stereotype that every dancer has an eating disorder, because that’s not true,” she said. “That being said, there is to some extent an expectation—or at least, I felt some expectation in high school—that even if you didn’t actively have an eating disorder, you would never be satisfied with your body.”

Moving forward

According to Thompson, athletes have proven to respond equally well to the traditional treatment methods created for non-athletes. But the motivation for getting better has to be aimed at the thing they love most: their sport.

This characteristic makes them unique patients, but ones that have an inherent ability to take on the disorders they face.

“These people are used to working hard,” Thompson said. “They’re used to taking on challenges. If something’s hard, that doesn’t stop them.”

And as for Shafran, she’s still dancing. The senior serves on the executive board of the student dance group Orchesis, and she is involved in three to four shows a semester.

Though she still has the same passion for ballet she felt as a child, Shafran said she’s still coming to terms with the dark times that resulted when a negative body image seeped into the sport she loves.

“It’s not the kind of thing where you just wake up one morning and think, ‘I love my body. Everything’s great.’ You learn to deal with and live with and regulate so that you can be a functional, healthy human,” she said of her eating disorder.

“As hard as that was to go through,” she says, “I learned a lot about myself having had that experience and continue to learn about myself as I try to cope with it.”



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