Women athletes are still fighting to gain the same respect and pay as their male counterparts, and unfortunately, one big obstacle in the way is undue focus on their looks. Starting at a young age, female student athletes are being fat-shamed by their coaches, according to an ESPN survey. This is just one symptom of the unequal treatment we afford female athletes — and women in general, for that matter.
ESPN surveyed 201 female Division I student-athletes about their body image. They found that 68 percent felt "pressure to be pretty"; 14 percent (including 32 percent of rowers) had suffered from an eating disorder; 30 percent were afraid of becoming too muscular; 31 percent lied about their weight; 37 percent wished their breasts were a different size; and 48 percent wore makeup to competitions. But these insecurities weren't just coming from the women themselves: 20 percent had been called "fat' by a a coach.
A lot of the body-related issues women athletes face are ones women experience in all different professions and pursuits. For example, a SELF Magazine and University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill survey found that 10 percent of women report symptoms that would qualify them for an eating disorder diagnosis. And 71 percent of women who describe themselves as "curvy" have been fat-shamed on dating apps, according to a WooPlus survey.
The fact that these things are happening even more to athletes just shows that we have a long way to go before we value women based on their professional accomplishments, not their looks. Even some of the most famous and successful female athletes experience constant objectification. “Everyone called me fat, saying I was really unfit," Serena Williams said on The Tyra Show after she suffered from an injury and had surgery. "Every paper, the headline was ‘fat, fat, fat.'" Polish tennis player Agnieszka Radwanska's coach told The New York Times he planned to "keep her as the smallest player in the top 10" because "first of all she’s a woman, and she wants to be a woman."
While male athletes face their own set of body image pressures, we rarely, if ever, hear about men who avoid bulking up for athletic competitions so that they can "be men" or feel pressure to wear makeup to games. That's because the ideal society imposes on men is to be big, strong, and powerful, while the ideal imposed on women is to be thin, frail, weak, and beautiful. These aren't really just about physical attributes: They reflect the personality traits our culture tells men and women to cultivate.
The disproportionate focus on women's looks also reflects a trouble belief that their looks are the most important thing about them, no matter how amazing their accomplishments. And as the high rate of eating disorders among student athletes shows, this objectification can have damaging consequences for women's mental health. It can also contribute to the lower value placed on the athletic feats these women perform. Perhaps it's part of the reason why the highest-paid athletes in almost every sport are male.
"For women athletes, loving their bodies is a complicated balancing act of maintaining top physical condition, preventing injuries and ensuring longevity, and battling expectations of femininity and physicality," the ESPN study notes. But the responsibility is also on the media and all of us to stop talking about the appearances of women athletes — and women in all professions — and focus on what they're doing.