November 14, 2016
“You’re so strong.” “You’re powerful.” “You have a great body.”
“You’re built like a man.” “If you lost 10 pounds you’d run faster.” “That dress would look better if your muscles weren’t so huge.”
Every day female athletes see, hear and internalize a variety of conflicting messages about their bodies. Look specifically at female collegiate athletes who are living away from home for the first time, moving to a higher level of play and whose education is dependent at least in part on their sport, and stress levels can get dangerously high.
To combat this, Texas Tech Athletics participated in a study that presented body-positive information to female athletes. West Virginia University (WVU) and the University of North Texas (UNT) created a curriculum, Bodies in Motion, to help women look at their bodies independent of the typical beauty norms society has created. Nutritionist Dayna McCutchin and sports psychologist Amanda Alexander led the Texas Tech group.
The purpose was to give student-athletes the tools they need to love their bodies, take care of them the right away and not judge themselves harshly when confronted with conflicting ideas.
“We just want them to feel empowered and just embrace who they are and what they look like and be proud,” McCutchin said.
Texas Tech was one of 10 Division I universities participating in this project. The format was simple: 16 women athletes elected to participate and given a survey before the curriculum began, answering questions about how they see their bodies. Half of the group then went through a four-week curriculum. (The other half is the control group; they will take the curriculum in the spring.)
Each week, the women met as a group with McCutchin, Alexander and each other for an hour. They talked about the curriculum, which included the varied messages women are given about their bodies; the societal origin of those messages and how to combat them; self-kindness, helping the women to walk away from the tendency to be their own worst critics; body acceptance and celebration; and tools to help the women get through this season, this year, this experience and the rest of their lives while maintaining good relationships with their bodies.
One of the assignments was to write a body celebration blurb, which McCutchin and Alexander felt was especially powerful. Their students felt the same way writing theirs.
In addition to the social aspect, each woman had a workbook in which she did homework through the week, and the entire group used a private social media page to interact with each other throughout the week.
At the end of the curriculum, all of the participants took the survey again to measure any change in their feelings about their bodies. The information will be processed across the participating schools to examine the program’s effectiveness.
If this curriculum shows success in helping women athletes improve their body image, the co-developers of the program plan to roll it out on a large scale in partnership with the NCAA, a step McCutchin and Alexander hope to see happen.
“I think this is definitely instrumental, with females in particular, in promoting and loving themselves for who they are and seeing themselves as powerful women and athletes,” McCutchin said. “I think it’ll just be awesome.”
The curriculum starts with discussing the existence of the female athlete body duality. Societal beauty norms celebrate women who are a certain size and shape and who behave in specific ways conducive to the generally accepted ideals of femininity.
To be good at her sport, however, an athlete’s body must be functional, strong and powerful, and she must be competitive, independent, and again, powerful.
There is overlap between these two, but there also are plenty of people online who call out tennis player Serena Williams for her muscular physique.
“We find a lot of times female athletes in the locker room feel a certain way – powerful, athletic and strong – and then they get amongst the general society women and feel big and not comfortable in their own skin because they look different,” McCutchin said. “It’s really trying to disconnect what society says they should look like and be like. A lot of female athletes struggle with that duality.
“It’s appearance vs. functionality of their bodies.”
Add in that college is a complicated time of life for these young women already, and the potential exists for serious identity crises.
“We know that college-age women developmentally tend to struggle more with body image and identity and just kind of being comfortable in their own skin just because of the phase of life they’re in,” Alexander said. “Combine that with being a student-athlete; they get a lot of mixed messages about what the body is supposed to do, what they’re supposed to look like, what they should feel, all of the pressures of maintaining certain physiques, a certain fitness level, certain energy levels, even certain weights in some cases.”
This program targets female athletes, and female athletes and women in general are more likely to be diagnosed with an eating disorder, experience disordered eating or be targeted by and possibly more susceptible to societal ideals of health and beauty. At the core, however, these are self-esteem and mental health issues.
In her four years at Texas Tech, McCutchin has seen issues unique to athletics. Athletes experience high stress when starting college; they’re moving to a higher level of play and more is at stake on and off the field. Fast forward to graduation and they’re experiencing high stress leaving college; these students have been known as athletes their entire lives, and most will no longer be competitive athletes when they leave.
Unsurprisingly, competition is a source of stress; much of that may relate to body image. Some athletes compete in very little clothing, which puts their bodies on display. For other sports, maintaining a certain weight is necessary for competition. For all the athletes, staying in good shape and at a good weight is critical to perform well. Those messages sometimes get misinterpreted so all the athlete hears is, “Lose weight so you can get better.”
For people who already eat what the nutritionist tells them to and works out far more than the average person, there are only so many ways to increase those efforts, such as extra workouts or purging immediately before a weigh-in or competition. These can be hard to recognize; purging or not eating enough doesn’t usually show itself right away and often comes in the form of a bad performance on the field, inciting more feelings of inadequacy. Additional workouts may be seen not as a red flag but as a sign of a hard-working athlete who wants to improve.
This starts out primarily as a way to exercise control over their lives. Without help, it turns into disordered eating, which if not found and treated becomes a diagnosed eating disorder.
“It’s a spectrum of risky behavior related to their weight, body and eating behaviors,” Alexander said. “Hopefully we catch them first and mitigate the development of an actual eating disorder, but sometimes we just don’t know until it’s already developed into that.”
They are constantly on the lookout for other symptoms: fatigue, crankiness, wanting to be alone, decreased performance level, cessation of the menstrual cycle. They even watch for signs of strain in relationships.
“They literally get so overwhelmed and tired that they just can’t even have normal relationships,” McCutchin said.
Although McCutchin is a nutritionist, it’s not uncommon for her to listen to athletes’ other problems – breaking up with a boyfriend or girlfriend, struggling with classes, not feeling able to balance all of the competing demands on time. She’s glad every time a student-athlete unloads on her, because she’s able to get them help.
Same with Alexander, who is a fairly recent hire. Texas Tech Athletics recognized its responsibility to keep student-athletes healthy beyond nutrition and physical therapy and brought her on, along with the creation of an athlete well-being team, to add student-athletes and also create a culture in which asking for such help was normal.
All are hoping this curriculum becomes standard nationwide because they see positive effects from it.
“We are able to provide unique support that is more normalizing, less clinical and offers a peer learning component, which is really important, especially because isolation can be a symptom,” Alexander said.
A major factor in Bodies in Motion is mindfulness, which Alexander described as paying attention non-judgmentally in the moment. They’re not trying to chase the negative thoughts away or train the female athletes to never have negative thoughts. Rather, Alexander said, she works with athletes to change their relationships to those thoughts and emotions.
“The point is not necessarily to try to change them or stop them, just to notice and then intentionally decide, ‘OK, is that important? Is it not important?’” she said. “Sometimes thoughts just come and go on their own, and if you can notice them without judging, critiquing or feeling harsh, then you can more intentionally decide how you want to respond to those things.”
For instance, she tells women, imagine seeing a picture of a model on the cover of a magazine. The initial response from the viewer may be a negative self-comparison: “I’m not as pretty or as thin or as well-dressed as she is.” Often that leads to a second, still negative self-judgment: “I’m comparing myself again. I always do that. Stop it!” Neither train of thought actually helps that woman.
Mindfulness, however, does. Alexander encourages women to focus on the rational, cognitive part of their psyche. Recognize the cover model’s picture has been Photoshopped. Remember she likely spent hours having other people do her hair, makeup and clothing, then sat down in front of a professional photographer. Maybe the comparisons will still come, but the empowered woman can pick out reality and choose how, or even if, to respond.
The same is true of social media, both said; users need to keep in mind their friends are consciously choosing pictures of good hair days, sunny vacations and perfect social interactions. Comparing one person’s real life to another’s Instagram account simply sets up the first person for disappointment. Distinguishing that difference and not introducing judgment allows the first person to move on with no negative emotions – just what the doctor ordered.
“Empowerment is the major focus of this group,” Alexander said. “It’s meant to be anti-shaming, anti-diagnostic. It’s more about strengthening their voices and their ability to feel comfortable in their own skin.”