Training to Be Thin: Female Athletes Join “The Conversation”

“I wanted to be a great swimmer, but more than that, I wanted to be pretty, skinny, and perfect.”

– Amanda Beard

The world has been aTwitter with Ashley Judd and #TheConversation after Judd’s op-ed in the Daily Beast on the objectification of women. The discourse has been impressive and – as even Judd admits – the fact that it has continued beyond a 24 hour celeb news cycle seems to indicate that “The Conversation” is bigger than her. There has been an outpouring of support from women (and men) around the world – with many sharing their personal struggles with body image. One I found particularly touching was this piece from a 22-year-old Australian biomedical engineer. Worth a gander.

And then Amanda Beard joined in. Beard, for the few that may not know, is a 7-time Olympic medalist and has been put forward as the sexy face/body of female Olympians (including spreads in Playboy and Maxim). Her memoir, In The Water They Can’t See You Cry, hit bookshelves this week. And it turns out the woman who looked like she had it all (and all together) is no different from the rest of us – riddled with insecurity.

Her story struck a particular chord with me having grown up as an elite female athlete. This is sad to say and admit, but I often think about how much different or longer my soccer career could have been had I never become aware of my body as an object – and remained content with my body as an instrument.

Growing up I was a tomboy. Happily. I played every sport imaginable and loved being physically active. Never occurred to me that my hair was a knotted or that sweatpants, umbros and sambas were not appropriate school attire. I never once thought about how I looked while I was competing. I never noticed whether my uniform fit snug or loose. I just played.

Until high school. Junior year.

Suddenly “diet” entered the lexicon of my teammates. And not just any teammates – the skinnier-than-me ones. We’d have team dinners and girls who previously boasted about how many plates of spaghetti they could eat made a conscious (and vocal) effort to stick to a small portion and skip dessert.

Somehow, in that moment, the world shifted under my feet.

I became aware of what I was eating and how much. I was conscious of how my uniform fit. Whether tucking my shirt in made me look slim or bulky. Whether I wore my hair the way the pretty girls did. These voices were screaming in my head all the time. At first I could put them on mute once the whistle blew or practice began. But they became more and more difficult to ignore.

That summer I wound up at a National Camp as part of the Olympic Development Program (ODP), playing with and against a hand-picked group of girls from around the country. I was sort of the newbie. Everyone else had been “in the system” for years, but I showed up from the unlikely state of Massachusetts. The ODP program is frankly full of a lot of bullshit and politics. There are “reasons” why certain people “make it” and others don’t. They tended to be from certain states, or from certain club teams, or were trained by certain coaches. But despite the BS, it was sort of the pinnacle and meant – at least on paper – that you were legit.

When I was called on to participate, I was thrilled, excited, intimidated and plenty surprised. This was a significant step toward my childhood dream of playing for the national team.

But once I arrived? All I felt was fat.

All the girls around me were skinny, toned, fit super-athletes. Next to them I felt like a chubby scrub. I trained as much as they did. I was in great shape. I was a fitness junky! But I just didn’t look like them. Years ago, this comparison wouldn’t have even occurred to me. But now, it was all I could think, see and hear. This running loop in my head: I’m fat, they’re skinnier than me, why don’t I look like them, I need to look like them. I barely remember anything else from the experience.

And so began my confused quest to be a skinny elite athlete.

A few weeks later I traveled to Europe with the same group of girls to compete against the Italian National Team. I worked my way onto the starting squad. I felt more comfortable and confident on the field. I felt good and was playing well.

At the end of the trip, the coaches held 1:1 sessions with each player to give feedback on our performance. They praised me, said I’d played really well and that the “veteran stars” of the squad wanted me on the field.

But then they told me I should work on my fitness.

The truth is that every athlete could always work on their fitness. Being fit is essential to soccer. So yes, could I have been fitter? Sure. Did I feel like my fitness held me back from performing at my best? Not at all.

To me, this confirmed my worst fears – I wasn’t thin enough. Because in my head, the only difference between my fitness and that of the other players was my body size.

And this is where Beard’s story really hits home for me. She was/is one of the greatest swimmers in the world. She’s blessed with phenomenal talent. She could dominate the world of swimming. All she should have cared about was training to win. But no. As she said: “I wanted to be a great swimmer, but more than that, I wanted to be pretty, skinny, and perfect.”

A few years later in college, after going through various cycles and types of self-abuse in order to attain “peak physical form,” I showed up at pre-season – a much smaller version of myself. How I got there was not the stuff of champions. But the stuff of the disordered. Eating just enough to avoid fainting mid-stride. Running for calories, not distance. Training to be thin. All my coach saw was “fit.” He pointed me out in front of the whole team as an example of diligent training. He told me my legs looked completely different, stronger than they’d ever been. In reality, I was relying on caffeine, not muscle, to stand.

In her memoir, Beard describes a similar experience after starving herself for a photo-shoot. Just reading this makes my stomach turn.

“Shaky, starving and exhausted, I was desperate to know what they were thinking. I read lots of meaning into the littlest details, paranoid from too little food and too much caffeine.

“Halfway through the shoot, while we were on break, a representative, whose job it was to make sure the photo shoot stayed on message and produced the images the company wanted for the campaign approached me.

“‘You are looking really good,’ he said with a smile. ‘Really fit.’

“I represented the ideal athlete, super slim and defined. Only, this type of definition came from lack of muscle as well as lack of body fat. My look was completely unrealistic for anyone truly competing in a sport. It put me in an impossible situation: be skinny and be strong.”

What breaks my heart is that I know Beard and I are far from the exception. I fear that this struggle is the norm. Eating disorders among female athletes are incredibly common (particularly when you consider the un-reported) as we struggle to meet at least two different physical standards – being an athlete and being a woman – set by at least two different groups – men and women, not to mention coaches and peers.

I wasted so much time and energy training to be thin instead of training to be a better player. How different would my experience have been had I not been distracted by this? How much further would I have gone? How much better would I have been? Would I still be playing now? These issues plagued me for the rest of my career and I know I’m not alone.

Sport and competition are supposed to be liberating and empowering experiences for women (and men). Supposed to give the body a physical function – a purpose beyond just looking a certain way and fitting into certain clothes. Yet for many of us, it’s no longer an escape. It’s the lucky few who can stay above the fray and not be pulled down by societal expectations – not let their bodies be hijacked. The ones who can find a way to keep playing for the love of the game – bodies be damned.

How different would it be if we could compete with the lights off? How many more stars would we find?

I want to personally thank Beard for sharing her story so honestly. And Judd for facilitating such a powerful discussion. And everyone else who has opened up so bravely. By being honest about our experiences, we’re making millions of women feel a bit less alone and a bit less insane.

Looking at athletes like Beard used to make me so angry and frustrated. How could she be so strong and yet so thin? Why did I have to starve myself to get her “fit” body, yet she could eat a full, balanced, nutritionist-recommended meal? Now I know why. She didn’t. And most of them don’t.

But we should. And we can. And we will.

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2 thoughts on “Training to Be Thin: Female Athletes Join “The Conversation”

  1. Since 1995, I have trained more than 600 teen female athletes. A part of my integrated training program is “Eating 4 Daily Energy.”

    I ask a question that just about everyone answers correctly: “is this picture (holding up an image from a magazine of a female) really this individual”? They answer NO – it’s airbrushed. Intellectually, most young females know that being this thin is an illusion, yet the vast majority of females will try to attain this look.

    Therefore, you and Amanda Beard are not alone. Trying to convince a teen female athlete that being fit for her body type is always my goal. Fit to play sports is being able to develop optimal power so a female athlete can perform in her sport(s) minimizing their risk for injury and having FUN!!

    Your blog is important for parents and their daughter-athletes to read and understand that the pressures on youngsters to be thin is very real and unhealthy.

    • Hi Warren,
      This is so good to hear! Wish I’d had a trainer with your approach when I was competing. I cannot agree more about the importance of having good role models. Your athletes are in good/lucky hands!
      Sara

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