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‘Athletic’ is not a look

Hopping back on the blog after a little break - I reached the grand old age of 25 this week and so naturally have had to take a bit of time to come to terms with the fairly monumental reality that I am now in my mid-twenties. Anyway, I think I've come out the other side of that dark moment and there's no time like the present to continue exploring and learning about the way that we, as individuals and our society as a whole, are controlled by unrealistic body standards (that sounds insufferable - plz keep reading lol).

The horrendous allegations about British Gymnastics are just the latest of countless incidents of athletes being told that they are not thin enough, light enough, toned enough or simply just not the right shape to be an athlete in their chosen sport. Ellie Downie, a British Olympian and European Champion, recently revealed that she was constantly body shamed and told, as a young teenager, ‘to lose 6kg in two weeks or “there would be consequences”’. Despite coming forward with her own personal experience, supported by her sister Becky (also an British Olympic gymnast), two weeks ago the EIS (English Institute of Sport) failed to uphold the complaint. The nutritionist that was more focused on Downie's weight than her performance, and who allegedly requested daily photos of Downie in her underwear in order to ensure she wasn't lying about her food consumption, has been reinstated following a temporary suspension during the investigation.

It is genuinely staggering that in this day and age, where sports science and sports physiology is so advanced, the antiquated ideas about what female athletes should look like prevails above the evidence provided by Olympic gold medal winners. According to InfoFit - an American PT course provider, the ideal female gymnast is ‘small and slight, with a narrow body to permit speedy rotation, superb balance and a high strength to weight ratio and an even musculature.’ But 'ideal' means nothing. As Simone Biles has demonstrated, being muscular and strong, as opposed to thinner and lighter, has enabled her to perform skills never seen in the sport before.

Simone Biles, 2019. Denny Medley/USA Today Sports, via Reuters

Biles is quite literally so far in a league of her own that her skills are being penalized in competition in order to deter other gymnasts from attempting skills they are unable to do safely. It sounds ridiculous but it's true (you can read an analysis here). Rather than challenging boundaries and pushing the sport further, the gymnastics world is decidedly keeping female athletes in a box and systematically silencing anyone who dares to suggest that gymnasts don't have to look a certain way. Unsurprisingly, this has led to a proliferation of young gymnasts struggling with eating disorders or disordered eating.

But it isn't just gymnastics that has this problem. I listened to an interview with Anyika Onuora (ex-Olympic track and field athlete) which focused on athletes and body image. She talked about her experience at school level athletics that hugely resonated with me. Having to wear the classic gym knickers (vom) to compete in competitions meant that her mind was not on the race ahead of her. Instead, understandably, it was on the fact that she'd just been forced to take off the sports skirt she'd felt more comfortable wearing. "I'd be trying to focus on the race and on the laps but I'd constantly be thinking 'ugh is everyone looking at me in these weird knickers and thinking about how I look?'" I remember having similar anxieties about my own body. It wasn't good enough to medal in a race, it was important to look the part too. I'd be worried about whether my thighs were rubbing together when I was running and so I tried to adapt my running style. I'd not eat before competitions because I wanted to fit the look of a slim runner, rather than ensure I was fuelling properly to actually be successful. Needless to say, I recon I'd have achieved far more in athletics if I'd been able to simply focus on running instead of deploying every last brain cell towards hating my appearance.

When I've talked to friends and clients about their motivations to exercise, it almost exclusively revolves around changing their bodies. It's either losing weight, 'toning up', or looking more athletic, and it makes me so sad that this is the sole concern for so many of us. But the thing is (and why it has taken me until the 5th paragraph to get on to this properly is beyond me), athletic is not a look. The definition of athletic is broadly about being strong, fit and active. Nothing in there about perfect body shape or size. And surely that's obvious anyway? Generally speaking, anyone of any shape or size can take part in any sport. Body shape cannot be used as a method to determine whether or not someone is athletic. Different sports require different physiques anyway. Rugby and American Football players are considered athletes though their bodies will normally fall into the obese BMI category. In fact, many many athletes will be 'obese' due to their muscularity which is just an insight into how flawed the BMI system is (though that's definitely another blog post).

If I challenged someone who wanted to look more 'athletic' by saying "ahhh, so built like a rugby player then?", they'd probably be horrified (and hopefully a little sheepish) because what they really mean is thin. Thin is not so much of a socially acceptable goal for women any more but, if it's dressed up in a shroud of health and wellness, then say no more. 'Strong not skinny' is a resounding cry amongst the PT and fitness world at the moment. Fitspo has replaced Thinspo, and teenage girls and young women are now not just required to be slim, they are also required to have visible abs, have a muscular 'booty', and 'toned' arms. We struggle to read between the lines of marketing, media, celebrity culture, social media noise etc. as is demonstrated by the fact that the wellness industry is now worth over $4 trillion. How, if we adults struggle (and now I'm 25, I'm slowly accepting that I am one *sob*) can we expect young adolescent girls to stand a chance?

made in chelsea, women's health, health, abs, binky, weight loss, body, eating disorder
Women's Health, September 2020

The human body is an unbelievable thing and professional athletes do amazing things with their bodies. But we don't all have to aspire to that. 'Athletic' is not an aesthetic. It's not a type of appearance. We need to move away from disguising the 'thin ideal' as something healthy, energetic and central to our organic, quinoa eating, flat white drinking, yoga mat-touting wellbeing! It's not only damaging for the vast majority of us that are not athletes but, as I highlighted at the beginning, it is extremely damaging for professional athletes too. We've been sold such a pervasive idea of the 'ideal body', that even the top sports scientists, coaches and doctors are refusing to accept the evidence that athletes do not have to conform to the rigid body types and specifications in order to succeed.

I've just watched Freddie Flintoff's documentary 'Living With Bulimia' which aired on the BBC last night. He talks in fairly graphic detail about his experience of living with an eating disorder for the last 20 years and it was particularly interesting to hear him talk about the link between his sporting career and his body image issues. After being mocked in the tabloids, Flintoff was pushed up the order in his match at Old Trafford but then unleashed a match winning performance for England - scoring 42 not out. Once again, this example shows that body shape evidently does not have the intrinsically critical impact on sporting performance that we all seem to accept. Nevertheless, the impact of the headline (below) has left Flintoff suffering with a debilitating mental illness 20 years on.

cricket freddie flintoff, bulimia, body shaming, the sun newspaper, headline

The documentary is a difficult but vital watch and I hope it with bring much needed awareness to the struggle faced by lots of women, but also a vast number of men.

This post is a bit all over the shop really - apologies. There's a lot to touch on here and I wasn't really sure whether I was focusing on the professional athlete experience or whether I was calling out the aspiration that most girls and women now have to look 'fit' and 'athletic' - neither of which are descriptors of body shape or size. But if I conclude by saying that I was focusing on both then I won't need to go back and edit it all... and I'm quite looking forward to a glass of wine and a bath so... yah.

I'd like to end by sharing a picture of a page from Bill Bryson's book, The Body: A Guide For Occupants. I was sent this picture by a friend when I was really struggling and it took my breath away. Our bodies are amazing. Athletes are amazing. Becky and Ellie Downie are amazing. Simone Biles is amazing. Freddie Flintoff is amazing. You are amazing. I am amazing. You know what isn't amazing? Feeling like you need to change your body in order to gain self-worth or approval from others. Read Bryson's words. 'You are in the most literal sense cosmic.'

book extract bill bryson human body cosmic physiology anatomy amazing
Bill Bryson - 'The Body: A Guide for Occupants'


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