A number of athletes and former athletes, including Olympic medallists Victoria Pendleton and Rebecca Adlington, have spoken out about body image in women’s sport following a BT Sport survey into the issue.
The survey, conducted as a result of Adlington’s teary admission of feelings of insecurity while sharing bikini time in the camera-infested Jungle of I’m A Celebrity with Miss Universe GB, Amy Willerton, confirmed that the former swimmer is not alone - body image insecurities are rife in women’s sport.
Several figures in sport have gone on record to speak in more detail about how they, and those around them, have been affected by the issue – and what needs to be done.
Victoria Pendleton – Three-time Olympic cycling medallist
“I kind of accept it as part of being a female athlete, and it’s something that I regard as part of my job, in order to create a certain appearance.
"It’s a harsh reality that you don’t have to be just talented, physically, you have to also be prepared to change the way you appear.
“I have, on occasions, had my muscles softened or reduced (via airbrushing in magazines) to look smaller and more feminine, in my form. I was actually quite saddened by it, because I’ve worked really hard to build those muscles, that's taken hours in the gym, and (they) want to make my back smooth. It’s not really what it’s about.
Dedication and hard work should be the focus of what women strive to achieve in sport."
“I think that it would be really valuable if women were celebrated for their achievements more, separately perhaps from their male counterparts, to give it value and meaning without it being patronising and offering an award up just for the sake of it.
“I think that dedication and hard work should be the focus of what women strive to achieve in sport and that should be the bit that’s commended.”
Rebecca Adlington – Four-time Olympic swimming medallist
“It’s the same everywhere. In films, on posters, in magazines, in advertising - every single thing you see: what’s beautiful in a woman is stick thin, big boobs, pretty face. Well, what makes that beautiful? Why isn’t something that’s normal beautiful?
“People said to me after the Jungle: ‘God you don’t seem to be an insecure person.” And I’m not insecure when you put me in a pool. I’m confident. I’m so lucky I found swimming as a young girl. My body became my power. I’m so appreciative I have big shoulders and the body I do because, yes, it might not be your standard big-boobed figure but, hell, it’s given me four Olympic medals. I can’t complain about it too much.
I do appreciate that men have the same insecurities, but I think it’s a bigger issue in a women’s life. It’s magnified."
“I’d just love young girls to find something that gives them confidence rather than be sitting at home thinking: ‘OMG, I’m not the pretty one in school’. I was one of them. I’ve got two sisters and they were exactly the same. So were my friends at school. I do appreciate that men have the same insecurities, but I think it’s a bigger issue in a women’s life. It’s magnified.
“It needs to be discussed. Instead of individuals letting it eat away at them. We should start to see a lot more real women, including sportswomen.
“What I loved about the London Games was seeing Jess Ennis on the front of magazines and all the other female athletes in the media day after day. People who are healthy. Not airbrushed size zero models. We need to see more people who are beautiful for what they are and what they have achieved.”
Toni Minichiello – Coach of Olympic heptathlon champion Jessica Ennis-Hill
“There have always been issues with body image within women’s sports because words like ‘muscular’ and ‘strong’ are not necessarily words female athletes want to be associated with due to their masculine context.
“I’ve had a young girl who basically ended up with an eating disorder because one of her classmates at school - he suggested she was ‘muscular’, and she really wasn’t in the sense that I would define it. I think some people find it a bit threatening if some people are toned to a high level.
“I know high jumpers who smoke to keep their weight down and get very, very thin. They can get quite ill. There is a video out there called ‘The Price Of Gold’ where a male high jumper talks about how basically he couldn’t eat because he felt an extra pound in weight might damage his performance. He had to retire in the end.
There are health implications - if you take it too far.
The preoccupation with being ‘stick thin’ and a healthy diet/lifestyle don’t always go hand in hand, unfortunately."
“It’s not just sport, it’s society’s problem. The preoccupation with being ‘stick thin’ and a healthy diet/lifestyle don’t always go hand in hand, unfortunately.
“What I often got from the girls I work with is: ‘Oh, I’m getting too muscley’ and it’s a difficult one, finding a balance as a coach. I try to reassure them and say: ‘You’re building a body to perform and do particular things that not a lot of human beings can do.’ My focus, if I’m honest, is who they are, their personality, not what they look like. It’s the inner spirit that’s important not the outer aesthetic.
“I try not to sound judgmental when I talk to my athletes. I’m very cautious. It’s not something that is addressed enough in any coaching framework. In the end, it’s about relationships, and nudging people towards balanced, diets to make sure they stay healthy and fueled for the level of sport they play, as well as reassuring them that “muscles” are good things to have in their work.
Sophie Christiansen – Seven-time Paralympic dressage medallist
“(There needs to be) more role models and models in general of different body types and looks in the media.
“My disability also has a part to play in how I look - I feel like I have to over-compensate to look good, to prove that just because I have Cerebral Palsy it doesn't mean that I'm not ‘attractive’ or can't fit in.”
Rachel Atherton – Downhill mountain bike World Cup champion
“The media plays a huge role. Featuring and following female athletes of all disciplines creates a wider and more honest portrayal of women of athletes for youngsters.
“When I feel unhappy or wish I was ‘skinny’ I look to Lindsey Vonn, the downhill ski racer. She is incredibly strong and built like a horse! She is the picture of a female athlete and encourages me to lift my weights proudly in the gym.
We need to show that being pretty, strong, healthy and attractive isn't down to your dress size."
“Of course, it is important for women to look like women, it is part of our charm and what differs us from men, but we need to show that being pretty, strong, healthy and attractive isn't down to your dress size.
“I think women in sport have to pave the way by looking attractive to sell the sport, but to be proudly strong and show that being skinny or having straight teeth can sometime be a hindrance when it comes to getting the job done bl**dy well.
“It’s important to me to show young girls that sport can give them a confidence, a life appreciation that exercise cannot. Being outside, in the elements, pushing your body: with that come lines, wrinkles, scars and extra body fat to protect you when you crash!”
For the full results of BT Sport's survey, click here.