• BT Sport survey delivers stark confirmation that body image issues are a worrying problem within women’s sport, with 80% of the athletes stating that they feel pressure to conform to a certain look and body type
• 89% say that they empathise with the feelings of insecurity expressed by the former swimmer and Olympic champion Rebecca Adlington.
• An overwhelming number feel these issues are not just confined to sport, with 97% claiming the problem stretches to women in wider society.
• Victoria Pendleton said “I kind of accept it as part of being a female athlete, and it’s something that I regard as part of my job. 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.”
According to striking findings released today by BT Sport, body image issues are a serious problem for female athletes.
Supporting the recent admission by double Olympic Champion Rebecca Adlington that she was insecure about her body, an overwhelming percentage of female athletes confessed they feel similar pressure.
80% of athletes that responded to a survey conducted by the BT Sport website stated that they feel pressure to conform to a certain look and body type. The athletes also expressed almost unanimous support for the former swimmer, with 89% of respondents saying that they empathise with her feelings of insecurity over body image.
The survey also revealed that over two-thirds of the respondents believe the media and public are more concerned with how a sportswoman looks than her achievements.
Over three-quarters confessed this pressure had directly influenced their behaviour, with diet (87%) and exercise and training regimes (71%) affected. One athlete acknowledged it had affected her diet to the point that she developed an eating disorder, while another admitted she had prioritised striving to be thinner above her performance within her sport: “Sometimes it has meant my diet no longer is optimum for performance but becomes optimum for looking slimmer/thinner.”
A number of athletes feel the added pressure of investing in their appearance as well as their performance. Sophie Christiansen, the Paralympic dressage triple gold medallist said: “The most noticeable pressure is my appearance in terms of hair, make-up and contact lenses. I enjoy dressing up but my disability means that this is hard for me and so I actually have to pay a hair and make-up artist when I go to high profile events.”
According to a staggeringly high percentage of the athletes this mentality is far from confined to merely sport, with 97% claiming the problem stretches to women in wider society.
One athlete said: “This goes completely beyond sport and just body image. This is to do with how women are viewed in society full stop.”
Among the principal causes of these issues, the media emerged as one of the biggest culprits, with 66% believing it to be behind the problem. “I think the worse thing is the media’s disproportionate criticism of body image. A picture of a celeb with a red circle round the tiniest bit of cellulite is just totally stupid,” said one respondent.
Another athlete added: “My sister had an eating disorder for 12 years. It’s tragic and so many young people suffer and I believe this is partly due to what people perceive as 'beautiful' because of what we see in the media.”
It also emerged that some of the pressure comes from within sport, with 61% saying fellow athletes contribute. Other internal causes cited were coaches and national governing bodies. One former athlete said: “My coach was very critical and bloody minded about us athletes being the right weight but constantly changing the goal posts and judging what we had to eat.”
Social media was also blamed, with 42% attributing the problem to having to look good in photos on social networking sites such as Twitter and Facebook.
A further reason for the widespread issues is the pressure put on the athletes by themselves, with 14% saying it came from within. Downhill bike racer Rachel Atherton commented: “[It comes from] feeling that I do not deserve to call myself a professional athlete if I am not the owner of a stick thin body with visibly bulging muscles attached, zero body fat or gorgeous skin that isn't weathered from the elements.”
Speaking in reaction to the survey results, recently retired three-time Olympic cycling medallist Victoria Pendleton told BT Sport she feels the pressure to look good comes hand in hand with being a sportswoman. “I kind of accept it as part of being a female athlete, and it’s something that I regard as part of my job,” she said. “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.”
• 80% of respondents feel under pressure to conform to a certain type of body image.
• 66% of respondents cited the media as a source of pressure closely followed by 61% citing fellow athletes.
• 76% said that the pressure to present a certain type of body image had influenced their behaviour with 87% saying that it had influenced their diet and 71% saying it had influenced their exercise regime.
• 67% of respondents believe that the public and media values their looks over their achievements in sport.
BT Sport’s body image survey was sent out to elite female athletes, para-athletes and those just retired from swimming, football, cycling, tennis, golf, athletics, snow sports, cricket, equestrian, triathlon, hockey, rugby, volleyball, badminton, boxing, canoe, basketball, rowing, gymnastics and weightlifting. Results are based on responses from 110 athletes from across those sports. The survey was conducted anonymously, although some athletes chose to put their answers on record. Some participants chose not to answer all of the questions, with percentages shown based on responses received.
To view the full survey results please visit: http://sport.bt.com/womeninsport/bt-sport-survey-body-image-insecurities-rife-in-womens-sport-S11363867248465
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Notes to editors