24 Jun Under Pressure | Some thoughts on body image and the media in women’s athletics | Alison Leonard

Article by Alison Leonard (GB International 800m runner – PB 2.01)

At the New York Diamond League last weekend I heard the commentator say as Sofia Assefa was leading in the women’s steeplechase that she was “carrying a bit of weight”. As usual, I shouted about it to everyone who would listen, both face to face, and on Twitter. There was a great response on Twitter, mainly from fellow female middle distance runners, especially when Eightlane retweeted me.

I wrote a blog about the comments; truth be told, I wrote pages and pages. It was angry and it was passionate. I finished it and sent it to my friend Jess, a runner from Sheffield who I used to live with, and to my parents. Jess came back within minutes and had loved it, give or take a few grammar crimes here and there. My parents both replied with a more mixed response. They thought it was good and liked my style (they’re my parents, this is the only response allowed), but neither could see why I was so worked up about a few throwaway comments on the TV. My mum mentioned that I’d always been more sensitive about comments on weight than she is, so maybe that was why it had upset me so much. It was interesting feedback; I feel I can rely on Jess and my parents for truthful, accurate feedback, so why didn’t they agree? Why did my parents think I was perhaps over reacting just a teeny bit? I wanted to think about why I felt the way I did, and if my annoyance was justified; this post is the result.

My mum’s comments are completely valid; I am much more sensitive about comments on my own weight or anyone else’s than she is. But I don’t think it’s always been this way. Until I was 18 I lived at home and ate whatever was given to me (anyone who knows my hatred for vegetables will disagree, but I ate everything within reason). I didn’t compare my weight to anyone else, and no one ever commented. With hindsight, I don’t think I would have minded too much if they had.

My first thought was that I had seen too many female runners, friends as well as people I didn’t know personally, destroy themselves through eating disorders, that I was outraged on their behalf, and didn’t want to see anyone else riddled with stress fractures and dangerously underweight in the name of athletics. We’ve all seen athletes in all disciplines struggle with clinical eating disorders and it is distressing to see.

On reflection I think it runs deeper than that, because my relationship with my weight is not as carefree as it once was. In practical terms I eat well (sometimes a little too well) and am a healthy weight, but I sometimes catch myself looking at my wrists and thinking “are they skinny enough?”. I’ve been known to worry that if it looks like I have a double chin in photographs it means I must be getting fat. I don’t wear racing knickers because no one wants to see that wobble.

While in the population as a whole clinical eating disorders affect around 1in 100, in elite sports women they are 20 times as prevalent, with 1 in 5 individuals suffering from an ED (1 in 12 in elite males) (Sundgot-Borgen & Torstveit, 2004). Around half of female athletes display some characteristics of disordered eating. That statistic is frightening, but in my experience, not exaggerated. I am pretty chilled out now, but at one stage when I was running particularly badly, I was reading the calorie content on every item I ate, weighing my cereal and pasta to the gram and skipping meals (as discussed in previous blogs, I was not a very successful disordered eater, and the huge meals I would eat in the evening more than made up for any lost calories…but isn’t that in itself a symptom of an unhealthy relationship with food?). I realise that that is in no way an eating disorder, and would certainly not seek to trivialise EDs and related conditions but most people would admit – it’s not particularly normal or healthy. I think that’s why my tweets got such a response from the female athletics community and why Jess reacted so differently to my parents when I sent them my original blog; most of us have been a little bit messed up by this pressurised environment. Not permanently, not massively, but definitely a little bit.

The root of this weight related panic is hard for me to put my finger on sometimes. I’m not worried about what I look like; I know that I could put on weight and still look good and healthy. I’m worried that if I put on weight I won’t run well.

Because although it isn’t the be all or end all, as someone pointed out on twitter, body shape does play a role in athletics performance. Training is more important, as is style and technique in my opinion, but there’s no denying that carrying less weight can mean faster times. So why is it not acceptable for an athletics commentator to talk about a female distance runners weight, when it’s fine for a horse racing pundit to talk about the weight of a horse, or a football commentator to say a male player is overweight? Because horses aren’t already under tremendous sociocultural pressure to conform to a certain body type. I believe the level of eating disorders in horses is less than 1% (Common Sense et al, 2014).

In my mind, it is simple. Nothing makes sense without context and I believe that is crucial here. It’s the old joke about walking into a field of sheep shouting “mint sauce!”. It’s not good for the lambs (at least for those lambs who understand English). Making throwaway comments about female distance runners’ weight or body shape is of dubious relevance in these circumstances – if it affected their running that badly how come they have Diamond League invites? Meanwhile it adds to the negative influence of fashion magazines and many other sources to pressurise woman in to being something they are not. The climate into which comments are made is important, and in this case, I think that caution needs to be exercised.

Positive role models are surely one of the solutions to the body image problem in female athletics, and I believe it could be damaging to suggest on a broadcast watched by a large number of athletes that a healthy, successful athlete is carrying too much weight. I don’t think the comments were meant to be offensive or hurtful. On reflection it could be argued to be relevant to Assefa’s performance – but I do still think they were ill-advised. I believe commentators should think twice before passing judgement on athletes’ size and shape in the future, and should not only consider the hurt it might cause to the athlete in question, but perhaps also the wider damage that could ensue; damage to the next generation of female track and field stars who might decide they’re not perfect enough to pursue the sport, and those who will stay and push themselves closer and closer to an eating disorder to achieve perfection. That’s a lot of wasted talent for one throwaway comment. It may also be discouraging to those women who run through our streets and at times have to brave the gratuitous abuse that some people think themselves authorised to shout.

I’m going to keep my original angry blog to myself; I think it was in some ways an over reaction to a touchy subject. But overall, for the reasons discussed I think we need to be careful about how we deal with body image in the athletics media. Until we deal with the pressure female athletes are put under to look a certain way, not just in some media but in all aspects of sport, harm will continue. For some that will be no longer participating at any level, for others illness will be either precipitated or worsened. We need to help each other resist the pressure.

Thanks to Carolyn Plateau, who helped me out with the statistics and ideas behind the effects of the media on body image. Also thanks to my parents and Jess Fawcett, for the feedback and proof reading, and for making me consider how I came to my own opinions. Jess, by the way, has her own awesome blog, including this excellent post which agrees with everything I think and therefore must be great. View it HERE.