Let’s consider how sports shape our view of body image.
Society dictates the ideal body. For women, it’s thin with luscious hair. For men, it’s broad shoulders with lean muscles. And for students at colleges with deep athletic traditions, the pressure to have an “ideal” body intensifies because so many people are physically fit. As Michaela Artavia-High ’21 noted in her recent Mirror piece, “Buff: The Ideal Male Body,” the connection between the demands of athletics and body image adds a layer of complexity to how everyone, including non-athletes, views themselves.
Recent surveys by College Pulse point to this complexity. Dartmouth athletes are more likely than the general student body to rate their body as more attractive than average, and they are disproportionately comfortable wearing revealing clothing in public. In addition, they are less likely to report dissatisfaction with their bodies and less likely to agree that the media plays a role in shaping beauty standards.
But while Dartmouth varsity athletes report satisfaction with their bodies at a rate higher than the average student, they also report taking extreme measures to maintain that image at similar or even higher frequencies than non-athletes. These behaviors include skipping meals, intense exercise regimens and using medication. At first glance, this seems contradictory to the Pulse surveys. How can athletes simultaneously be comfortable with their bodies while also engaging in harmful behaviors to maintain their image?
A possible answer is that these athletes are only comfortable with their current body as long as they can keep it. What lies underneath is a fear of reverting back to an “unacceptable” body. And that, in itself, is a form of insecurity. Even though widespread athleticism can create unrealistic expectations of body image, we ought to note that athletes, too, fall victim to those standards.
Other research identifies coaches, policies and even fans as factors that lead athletes to obsess over body image. But perhaps the biggest factor influencing unrealistic perceptions of body image — in athletes and non-athletes alike — is the media. The damaging effects are especially present in movies geared toward children. Everyone’s seen those cheesy high-school dramas (think “High School Musical”) in which the dashing quarterback protagonist falls for the girl-next-door cheerleader. Needless to say, the football player is always lean and muscular, the cheerleader long-haired and voluptuous.
What one never sees in these movies, though, are the many football players who don’t fit this mold. Notice how the iconic football player seems to always be the quarterback. They have body types that are more appealing to Western beauty standards, as their roles on the field require them to be quick and agile. Contrast that to the offensive lineman or the defensive tackle. With a few exceptions, they are much bulkier and heavier. Their position requires it. In the movies, these characters are rarely cast in main roles, owing in no small part to society’s narrow standard of athleticism and attractiveness.
Just as positions in certain sports pair well with the “ideal” body, others require that bodies not conform to the ideal. Long-distance events, for instance, are best for those with long legs and thin bodies, which, for men, goes against the societal dictate of muscularity. Similarly for women, sports that require upper-body strength will naturally require large arms and broad shoulders, which conflicts with the Western norm of slim female figures.
To be sure, body image is a complex issue, and numerous factors can lead to insecurities. Dealing with those insecurities in a place like Dartmouth can be tough, but there are some practical steps that one can take, such as using respectful language when discussing body-image issues.
Additionally, while it may seem like athletes are the least prone to body insecurity, research suggests that athletes may be as insecure as non-athletes. On an institutional level, the Dartmouth athletics department should create programs in which athletes discuss ways to prevent harmful behaviors often induced by physical demands of sports and sports culture. Finally, as a community, Dartmouth must begin to value health and nutrition over image and aesthetics. This is hardest part, as so many ingrained biases push students toward the latter. However, bodies that are well-nourished and well-rested are the healthiest. Let us focus on that, not on an imagined ideal of athleticism, when we think of the ideal body.