Weight and Body Image Issues in Female Athletes: Part 1 of a Two Part Series

BY: Alexandra Koszeghy and Cynthia Bulik, PhD

DATE: 16 May 2017

Female athletes not only face stress and pressure in relation to their sport performance, but also face (stated or unstated) pressures regarding their body shape and weight. Even though the focus should be on athletic performance, female athletes are often in a position of worrying how their bodies look in the clothing (or lack thereof) that is the norm for their sport. They are also often on the receiving end of comments made about their body by coaches, officials, commentators, fans, or even teammates. In a recent study, Tackett and colleagues reported that nearly half of collegiate female athletes were required to participate in regular weigh-ins—meaning that all team members are weighed to ensure that they are staying in an expected weight range. Taken together, it comes as no surprise that many female athletes struggle with body image issues, a desire to lose weight, and even frank eating disorders.

In fact, Tackett found that more than half of collegiate female athletes stated that they wished to lose weight and 75% of them reported using weight management strategies to prepare for weigh-ins. Weigh-ins contribute to athletes believing that they should weigh less, that weight loss is associated with better athletic performance, may increase reliance on unhealthy rapid “weight loss” strategies, and may contribute to the development of eating disorders.

Trends in athletic “fashion” also increase pressure to look a certain way in athletic clothing. A simple comparison of men’s basketball and women’s beach volleyball illustrates the contrast across sexes and sports. Outfits have been shrinking over time in track and field and even clothing in cold venue sports like figure skating has trended toward less material and more bare skin. Considering that female athletes are expected to wear such revealing clothing in front of large audiences and HD television screens that reveal every detail, it is not hard to understand why many athletes feel pressured to attain a certain body-ideal.

Another factor contributing to disordered eating patterns and body image issues in female athletes is the lack of nutritional awareness and lack of nutritional counseling for female athletes. Somewhat surprisingly, female athletes tend to be relatively uninformed about proper nutrition and receive their nutritional guidance from uncreditable sources, such as friends and magazines (Rash et al., 2008). This can lead to the development of unhealthy eating patterns and unhealthy approaches to weight loss.

Finally, many female athletes think that the loss of menstrual periods (or menstrual irregularity) is a sign of being fit. This is entirely untrue. Formerly known as the Female Athlete Triad, now renamed as Relative Energy Deficiency in Sport (RED-S)—acknowledging that this occurs in both female and male athletes—means that athletes are expending more energy than they are consuming. This means that the athlete is consuming fewer calories than she or he is expending and can lead to decreased muscle glycogen stores, fatigue, dehydration, loss of concentration and motivation, depression, electrolyte imbalances, irritability, poor sleep, increased risk of infections and illnesses, and deteriorating sport performance.

Athletes are incredibly dedicated to their sports and sport participation can and should be a positive experience that imparts life lessons far beyond the specifics of the sport. Moreover, if you think about it, athletes provide hours and hours of entertainment annually to every one of us who watches sports events on television or live. It is critical that individuals engaged in sports at all levels are provided with accurate information about nutrition and sport performance. Body shaming, weigh-ins, blaming poor performance on high weight, or attributing good performance to low weight are all activities that detract from the positive impact that sport has on the lives of athletes.


Next up: The Impact of Performance and Appearance Pressures on Male Athletes


References and further reading:

Rash, C. L., Malinauskas, B. M., Duffrin, M. W., Barber-Heidal, K., & Overton, R. F. (2008). Nutrition-related knowledge, attitude, and dietary intake of college track athletes. Sport J, 11(1), 48-55.

Tackett, B. P., Petrie, T. A., & Anderson, C. M. (2016). The frequency of weigh-ins, weight intentionality and management, and eating among female collegiate athletes. Eating Behaviors, 23, 82-85.

Read the International Olympic Committee consensus statement on Relative Energy Deficiency in Sport here: http://bjsm.bmj.com/content/48/7/491

Read our previous blog post on Relative Energy Deficiency in Sport (RED-S) here: https://uncexchanges.org/2017/04/06/what-is-relative-energy-deficiency-in-sport-red-s/