A survey conducted by BT Sport has delivered stark confirmation that body image issues are a worrying problem within women’s sport.

Of the athletes that responded, 80% stated that they felt pressure to conform to a certain look and body type.

Further to that, 89% said that they empathised with the feelings of insecurity expressed by the former swimmer and Olympic champion Rebecca Adlington in her emotional outburst on ‘I’m a Celebrity…Get Me Out Of Here’ late last year.

An overwhelming number felt these issues were not just confined to sport, with 97% saying the problem stretched to women in wider society.

It began with Rebecca Adlington’s tearful admission in the Jungle. “It's... making me very, very insecure that I have to look a certain way. For me, I was an athlete, I wasn't trying to be a model, but pretty much every single week on Twitter I get somebody commenting on the way I look,” she confided to fellow contestants in the camera-covered Jungle of 'I’m A Celebrity...Get Me Out Of Here'.

It was a brief breakdown, but it may have longer repercussions, not for Adlington herself but for British sport and the way it does - or does not - shield its female athletes from the pressures of conforming to a fantastical and narrow conception of acceptability. “Stick thin, big boobs and a pretty face,” as Adlington puts it.

 

In the wake of an equal outpouring of support and trolling for Adlington, a four-time Olympic medalist and World Champion, BT Sport launched a survey to 110 elite athletes from 20 different sports to further the debate.

The results were overwhelmingly in agreement with Adlington, with the media, social media, sports officials, coaches and fellow athletes being named among the influences imposing a perceived and unrealistic pressure on British sportswomen.

It is not the first time the issue has surfaced in sport. Before the Olympics in 2012, Jess Ennis was called “fat” by a high ranking official in UKAthletics to the bemusement of anyone who saw her lithe, athletic physique. At the same time, the triathlete Hollie Avril retired from the sports after a long struggle with an eating disorder which stemmed from the comment of a male coach: “You’ll need to start thinking about your weight if you want to run quick”.

Paralympic multi medalist, Baroness Tanni Grey Thompson used a debate in the House of Lords to express her support of Adlington and fears for the wider world.

She said: “This is a young woman that we should all be proud of. She is four-time Olympic swimming medalist but many will understand how she feels. It is a worrying trend that young women are increasingly put under pressure to conform to a certain way.”

The Sports Minister, Helen Grant, has also lent her support.

“There’s far too much focus on what women look like instead of what they can and do achieve in life," she told BT Sport.

"Our elite female athletes are among some of the most positive role models that girls can look up to, given their hard work, dedication and performances on the track, in the pool and on the pitch. I want all the support they receive to be geared to them reaching their full potential as athletes.”

On-going problem

There are moves to address the issue. Sports like UKAthletics are aware of the on-going problem. They run annual seminars on eating disorders and body image.

“They’re not tokenistic,” said a spokesperson. “At the last one we had in attendance both Head Coaches, our Performance Director and the Chief Medical Officer.”

The uCoach website, the online resource for athletics coaches in the UK, includes a podcast on coach and athlete relationships which looks closely at what damage a spur of the moment comment can have and its impact on athletes.

Are these measures enough to counterbalance cultural pressures? The UK’s top sportswomen have their say.

• 80% of the athletes that responded to BT Sport’s survey stated that they felt pressure to conform to a certain look and body type.

• An overwhelming number of the athletes said these issues were not just confined to sport, with 97% claiming the problem stretched to women in wider society. One athlete said: “This goes completely beyond sport and just body image. This is to do with how women are viewed in society full stop.”

• Also apparent was that athletes related to Rebecca Adlington’s insecurities over body image, with 89% of respondents saying that they empathised with the feelings of insecurity expressed by the former swimmer and Olympic champion.

• The media emerged as one of the biggest culprits, with 66% believing it to be a major cause of the problem. “I think the worse thing is the media’s disproportionate criticism of body image, a picture of a celeb with a red circle round the tiniest bit of muffin top or cellulite is just totally stupid,” said one respondent. Another added: “My sister had an eating disorder for 12 years. It’s tragic and so many young people suffer and I believe this is partly due to what people perceive as 'beautiful' because of what we see in the media.”

• The pressure also comes from within sport, with 61% saying fellow athletes contributed. Other internal causes cited were coaches and national governing bodies. One former athlete said: “My coach was very critical and bloody minded about us athletes being the right weight but constantly changing the goal posts and judging what we had to eat.”

Sometimes it has meant my diet no longer is optimum for performance but becomes optimum for looking slimmer/thinner."

BT Sport body image survey

• Social media took a large chunk of criticism, with 42% pointing to social networking sites such as Twitter and Facebook. “If a man isn't that attractive he just doesn't get put on covers/photo shoots. If a woman isn't she is teased by comedians or made fun of via social media - as if it is part of the job description - how dare she not look gorgeous!!!”

• Athletes also put pressure on themselves, with 14% saying it came from within. Downhill bike racer Rachel Atherton said: “Myself. Feeling that I do not deserve to call myself a professional athlete if I am not the owner of a stick thin body with visibly bulging muscles attached, zero body fat or gorgeous skin that isn't weathered from the elements!!”

Direct effect

• The pressure has had a direct effect on athletes, with 76% saying their behaviour had been influenced. The most common reaction was to change their diet (87%), while exercise and training regimes had also been affected (58%). One athlete said it had affected her diet to the point that she developed an eating disorder, while another admitted she had prioritised striving to be thinner above her performance within her sport: “Sometimes it has meant my diet no longer is optimum for performance but becomes optimum for looking slimmer/thinner....which isn't my body type.”

• Another way in which athletes said they have changed their behaviour is by investing more time and money in their appearance. Para-dressage rider Sophie Christiansen said: “The most noticeable pressure is my appearance, in terms of hair, make-up and contact lenses. My disability means that this hard for me, so I actually pay a hair and make-up artist when I go to high profile events. I do enjoy looking good, but there is an element of pressure.”

• It emerged that the majority of the athletes felt the public and media valued the way a sportswoman looks above her achievements in sport, with 67% believing that to be the case. One athlete said: “Women are still first judged on their physical appearance before their talent, personality and achievements.”

BT Sport’s body image survey was sent out to elite female athletes, para-athletes and those just retired from swimming, football, cycling, tennis, golf, athletics, snow sports, cricket, equestrian, triathlon, hockey, rugby, volleyball, badminton, boxing, canoe, basketball, rowing, gymnastics and weightlifting.

Results are based on responses from 110 athletes from across those sports. Some participants chose not to answer all of the questions, with percentages shown based on responses received. The survey was conducted anonymously, although some athletes chose to put their answers on record.

For the full results of BT Sport's survey, click here.

By Sue Mott and Rachel Griffiths.