The triathlete Hollie Avil announced her retirement before the 2012 Games, citing an eating disorder which she said began as a teenager after a coach made an unguarded remark about her weight. Photograph: PA Wire/PA Photos
By ANNA KESSEL
Guardian (Jan. 17) – BRITAIN’S elite sportswomen fear that the way they look is judged to be more important than what they achieve in their sporting careers, according to a survey published on Friday.
BT Sport, who commissioned the report following Olympic gold medallist Rebecca Adlington’s tearful admission about her body insecurities on I’m A Celebrity … Get Me Out of Here!, collated responses from 110 elite British sportswomen across 20 sports on the subject of body image. Despite the successes of women’s sport at London 2012, where Britain’s women alone could have finished seventh in the medals table above Australia and France, society’s obsession with how sportswomen look has had a damaging impact on many of the nation’s leading stars.
A full 89% of the athletes surveyed said they could relate to Adlington’s insecurity about not living up to the female ideal, or as the now retired swimmer put it: “Stick thin, big boobs and a pretty face.” Some 67% felt that the public and media value a sportswoman’s appearance over her sporting performances, while 80% agreed that they felt under pressure to conform to a certain type of body image, with 76% saying that it had influenced their diet or training regimes. Though 97% said they felt this problem extended beyond sport affecting all young women in society, many individuals attributed blame to those working within sport, specifically governing bodies, coaches, and sponsors.
Concern about the unhealthy focus on sportswomen and their body image has hit the headlines repeatedly in recent years. In the buildup to London 2012 Jessica Ennis’s coach, Toni Minichiello, alleged that a senior official at UK Athletics had labelled his charge “fat”, while Ennis’s fellow heptathlete Louise Hazel said she had been subjected to similar comments from individuals within the governing body. The former Olympic triathlete Hollie Avil announced her retirement before the Games, citing an eating disorder that she said began as a teenager after a coach made an unguarded remark about her weight. Last summer John Inverdale’s BBC commentary on Wimbledon’s newly crowned singles champion, Marion Bartoli, provoked outrage when he said, “Do you think Bartoli’s dad told her when she was little, ‘You’re never going to be a looker? You’ll never be a Sharapova, so you have to be scrappy and fight.'”
Meanwhile twice Olympic gold medallist Adlington has suffered an ongoing barrage of abuse over the years relating to her appearance – from being the butt of a comedian’s jokes, to hurtful comments on social media which led to her public meltdown in the celebrity jungle.
The constant criticism and analysis has evidently taken its toll. In the survey many respondents reported feeling upset, angry or frustrated with those seemingly at fault – from the mainstream media’s polarised obsession with criticising or praising a woman’s appearance, to the often one-dimensional marketing approach of governing bodies and sports media. BT Sport itself attracted criticism in recent weeks after its coverage of the WTA golf tour was promoted with the tagline: “The glamour girls are back.”
Several respondents accused their sport’s national governing bodies of putting female athletes under pressure to look good, as one wrote, “in order to be used in media opportunities and from sponsors for the same reason. I feel like if I don’t present myself in a certain way then I won’t be used for media opportunities.”
Another noted: “More stereotypically attractive female athletes get more sponsorship and advertising opportunities. It seems to me that often the ‘worth’ of a female athlete is based far more on how she looks than on her results in sport. Female athletes’ appearance is also widely commented on, often either critically or with a sort of lecherous admiration. This barely ever happens to top male athletes, who are valued on their results and (sometimes!) personality and media relationship.”
One Paralympic athlete commented on how her disability feeds into the equation. “I feel like I have to over-compensate to look good, to prove that just because I have cerebral palsy it doesn’t mean that I’m not ‘attractive’ or can’t fit in.”
Others pointed to their coach as having left them with a life-long sense of insecurity over their weight and appearance, with some saying that – like Avil – they were pushed into eating disorders as a result. “Dieting the way I did to please the coach made me underperform in training on occasion, which in turn caused me more grief,” said one athlete. Another wrote: “I tried to control my eating to a point where I was making myself ill, not getting the right nutrients on board and the hunger caused me to binge.” A recently retired athlete admitted that she still worries about her coach’s view of her appearance.
With women’s sport high on the political agenda – and Maria Miller, Helen Grant MP and Tanni Grey-Thompson championing many of the issues – sport may slowly be waking up to some of these problems. UKA, for one, says it is investing in coach education resources on eating disorders and body image, while the national media are under closer scrutiny than ever following a public inquiry into women and sport last year.