Body image in athletes
-Andrew Kantor, B.S., M.S.
As members of a gym, I’m sure all of us are familiar with the concept of body image. To put it into exact terms, body image is the perception that an individual holds towards his or her body, including affective/evaluative, cognitive, and behavioral components (Abbot & Barber, 2011). If that didn’t make sense to you, good; now you think I’m smart. To put that into less pretentious terms, body image is how one views the body in terms of feelings and evaluations, thoughts and beliefs, and behaviors. Body image becomes of utmost importance during the adolescent years and the emphasis placed on the body never really dissipates. According to a survey of 45,000 Australians aged 11-24 by Mission Australia (2008), the top concern was body image, followed by family concerns and coping with stress. This helps to illustrate just how important body image is to both adolescents and young adults.
So why the heck am I talking about body image? Well, if you’re reading this, you most likely have a young child who is either playing a sport or thinking about it. While playing these sports, the children’s bodies are on display for a lot of people to see. Some sports, like gymnastics or figure skating, place a greater emphasis on the body, while in others, such as football, how the body looks takes a backseat to how it performs. This leads us to two different types of body image. The first is what is commonly associated with body image: how one’s body appears compared to others in a social manner, known as aesthetic body image. An example of this would be a female athlete being happy with her body because she appears more attractive to boys. The other lens through which evaluation can occur is satisfaction with the body in relation to success in sport (Karin, Raoul, & Bakker, 2007), known as functional body image. An example of this would be the same female athlete, while happy with the attention from boys, wanting to gain weight because it would help her become more successful in her sport.
So how do athletes compare to non-athletes when it comes to body image? Research has found that athletes do in fact have “more positive body image compared” to non-athletes (Hausenblas & Symons Downs, 2001) and that the functional body “is evaluated more positively than the aesthetic body” (Abbot & Barber, 2011). While this isn’t confined solely to athletics, it’s undeniable that athletes are constantly examining how their bodies are functioning. Both male and female athletes are generally quite satisfied with their bodies (Krane et. al., 2005), with female athletes having a higher functional body image than both physically active and nonphysically active females (Abbot & Barber, 2011).
The reason I wanted to talk about this is to encourage all you parents to keep your children in sports for as long as possible. They will obviously benefit by reducing their risk for obesity and other chronic diseases (Slater & Tiggemann, 2011), but the benefits extend further than that. Enhancements in mood (Biddle, 2000), self-perceptions (Fox, 2000; Miller & Heinrich, 2001), and enhanced self-esteem (Fox, 2000; Miller & Levy, 1996) showcase the utility of participation in sport. So keep on cheering on those kids, allow them to spread their wings and fly (how corny do I sound?), and let them reap the self-esteem benefits of sports
Abbott, B.D., & Barber, B.L. (2011). Differences in functional and aesthetic body image between sedentary girls and girls involved in sports and physical activity: Does sport type make a difference? Psychology of Sport and Exercise, 12, 333-342.
Hausenblas, H.A., & Symons Downs, D. (2001). Comparison of body image between athletes and nonathletes: A meta-analytic review. Journal of Applies Sport Psychology, 13(3). 3
Krane, V., Greenleaf, C., Henry, A., & Bonner, K. (2005, October). Sporting bodies: Exploring male athletes’ body images. Poster session presented at the annual meeting. Association for the Advancement of Applied Sport Psychology, Vancouver, British
Mission Australia. (2008). National survey of young Australians 2008: key and emerging issues. Retrieved 10/30/12
Slater, A., & Tiggemann, M. (2011). Gender differences in adolescent sport participation, teasing, self-objectification and body image concerns. Journal of Adolescence, 34, 455-