Female Athletes and Body Image

Athlete Volleyball Female Players

The culture of sports and athletics can be rewarding, but it doesn’t come without its risks. In a realm where physicality and the body are so integral to one’s performance, it isn’t surprising that athletes are susceptible to disordered thoughts, feelings, and behaviors related to food, exercise, and the body. This can often lead to body image issues.

These challenges are perpetuated in athletic culture, with coaches and trainers often pushing extreme exercise and dieting behaviors. The risk to the individual’s body, mind, or future is, sadly, rarely valued over their athletic success.

Female athletes are particularly susceptible to this for many reasons. Often, women are judged based on their aesthetics and physical appearance to a higher degree than men. This is particularly true in sports, as more female sports involve revealing and tight clothing such as dance, gymnastics, cheerleading, etc.

Additionally, female bodies are judged more harshly even when their body type or makeup directly correlates with their athletic success. Muscular women are judged and called “manly” despite these muscles helping them in their particular sport. While our bodies are incredible machines that assist these women in achieving their goals, their value is minimized, devalued, and treated more as a prop than a tool.

The risk this creates is apparent, with female athletes showing similar prevalence for eating disorders than the general population, with female athletes showing 0 to 21% prevalence and the general population 0 to 27% [1].

Body image has a lot to do with sports and eating disorders and absolutely impacts the relationship between the two. One study recently considered how self-conscious body-related thoughts and emotions change over time for female athletes [2].

Female Athletes battling body image issuesThis study notes that self-conscious thoughts and feelings could result from a concept known as Objectification Theory, which posits that “societal practices of sexual objectification socialize women to adopt an observer’s perspective of their bodies – which is manifested as body surveillance [2].”

Body surveillance is defined as “the habitual or preoccupied monitoring of the body’s appearance and attractiveness.” As the study goes on to detail, body surveillance is theorized to lead to a series of negative psychological consequences, including depression, disordered eating, and sexual dysfunction, via the mechanism of a heightened body-related shame, and perhaps even body-related guilt [2].”

This study looked specifically at female athletes and found that “negative self-conscious emotions tend to increase and positive emotions tend to decrease over three years in adolescence” with body surveillance being a chief predictor of this change [2].

The study had classified these negative emotions that increased over time as shame and guilt and positive emotions that decreased over time as “authentic and hubristic pride [2].”

These findings are concerning yet unsurprising, as Objectification Theory emphasizes that, from a young age, women are socialized to view their bodies not as their own valuable machines, but as objects to be judged externally.

For female athletes, coaches, trainers, judges, and competitors, all treat the person as if they have chosen to put themselves up “on the chopping block” to be judged. In reality, what these female athletes consent to is to be judged on their performance, NOT their physical appearance.

Anybody can be successful and find joy in any type of movement, whether competitive or not. A female living in a more athletic body should not feel they are risking their self-view or body image or that they need to risk their health in order to participate in a sport that they love.


[1] Coelho, G. M., Gomes, A. I., Ribeiro, B. G., & Soares, E. (2014). Prevention of eating disorders in female athletes. Open access journal of sports medicine, 5, 105–113. https://doi.org/10.2147/OAJSM.S36528

[2] Cabiston, C. M. et al. (2020). Changes in body-related self-conscious emotions over time among young female athletes. Body Image, 32.

About the Author:

Image of Margot Rittenhouse.Margot Rittenhouse, MS, PLPC, NCC is a therapist who is passionate about providing mental health support to all in need and has worked with clients with substance abuse issues, eating disorders, domestic violence victims, and offenders, and severely mentally ill youth.

As a freelance writer for Eating Disorder Hope and Addiction Hope and a mentor with MentorConnect, Margot is a passionate eating disorder advocate, committed to de-stigmatizing these illnesses while showing support for those struggling through mentoring, writing, and volunteering. Margot has a Master’s of Science in Clinical Mental Health Counseling from Johns Hopkins University.

The opinions and views of our guest contributors are shared to provide a broad perspective on eating disorders. These are not necessarily the views of Eating Disorder Hope, but an effort to offer a discussion of various issues by different concerned individuals.

We at Eating Disorder Hope understand that eating disorders result from a combination of environmental and genetic factors. If you or a loved one are suffering from an eating disorder, please know that there is hope for you, and seek immediate professional help.

Published May 5, 2020, on EatingDisorderHope.com
Reviewed & Approved on May 5, 2020, by Jacquelyn Ekern MS, LPC

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