Tuesday, 29 May 2012

The issue of weight and female athletes - no wonder our female athletes struggle

Photo credit - peter_w
In the last week, I've read two stories about female athletes that have disturbed me greatly. The first was about Hollie Avil, the triathlete who has retired from her sport after beating an eating disorder which was triggered after a coach told her she would get faster if she watched her weight. She lost lots of weight to the point that it was dangerous and although she did run faster, her swimming times suffered. She has been so brave in telling her story - even though there is no shame in having an eating disorder, there is still a stigma attached to it - but I'm left wondering what sort of person says that to an elite athlete in the near peak of condition, and with what justification.

Then, and thankfully almost on the flip side to that, I heard that heptathlete Jessica Ennis's coach Toni Minichello has spoken out after an (unnamed) high ranking official from UK Athletics told him that "she's got too much weight." In other words, she's fat.

Thankfully, Jess is of strong mind and has a great relationship with her coach, who supports her all the way. She has more important things on her mind right now - a small matter of trying to win an Olympic gold medal in a matter of weeks - than whether she needs to lose weight. I suspect at this stage of the summer, most track and field athletes are in peak condition. She hasn't taken it personally, and her answer was to break the British record held for 12 years by Denise Lewis at an event in Austria over the weekend.

Hollie Avil's story reflects with this. It shows how easily a comment like that can destroy someone's self-esteem and can wreck their sporting career, with a wider impact on their emotional well-being and daily life. Jess has had a difficult year, losing her world title in South Korea last September with a below par performance in some of the disciplines. Heptathlon requires many skills and not all of them speed related - sprinting requires power and speed, hurdles and high jump require good technique, shot put and javelin a reasonable amount of strength, and 800m endurance. And there are no prizes for being the skinniest heptathlete in the competition, only the best ones.

 I can't add any of the photos on the internet of Jess, but just Google her and look at the recent pictures of her. Does she look fat to you? She has abs most men would kill to have and it's obvious that she is both slim and strong.

Are we setting female athletes up to fail here? Are we confusing fitness with thinness? What sort of a message does this send out to our children? Hollie Avil's story already proves that losing weight doesn't necessarily guarantee success. I don't know what the answer is but coaches really shouldn't be allowed to make throwaway remarks like that without some form of proof that it is negatively impacting the athlete's performance. Not all weight is bad weight anyway - if it's mostly muscle, then it could be a hugely positive thing and as we've seen, swimmers need a certain amount of fat to stay buoyant.

What bothers me most is that no-one would dream of commenting on the weight of a male athlete and yet, apparently females are fair game. I've linked to The Guardian as they are at least a responsible newspaper but others (*cough* Daily Mail *cough*) think nothing of printing stories featuring female celebrities, commenting on whether they look fat or not, so they can hardly take the moral ground here.

It saddens me that we're so quick to judge a woman by her perceived weight (which is actually her size as we don't, thankfully, walk around with our weight in a blue neon sign above our head). It saddens me even more than my children are growing in a society where women appear to be judged primarily by their appearance and not what they have achieved. It saddens me that Missy Woo will have to work harder on this front than her brother and I pray that I can instill the sort of confidence in her that Jess Ennis has and that stupid remarks like both she and Hollie Avil have been subjected to don't have a negative effect on her.

But that's probably too much to ask.

I'll now be wondering when I'm watching the British female athletes competing in the Olympics this summer just how many of them have been subjected to the same sort of thing. It stands to reason that if top athletes have been, then those further down the tree will also have had similar experiences. How many medal performances will this taint? How many medals will this cost us?

And, more importantly, how many lives will have been changed for the worse?

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