Instruments, Not Ornaments: Body Image and Sport

By Kaitlin Young

My first job out of college was working as a strength and conditioning coach at a volleyball club. I trained 272 girls from ages 11-18. Being so close in age to them was both a help and a hinderance, but there were many lessons to be taken from my time there. The most alarming part of the job was having a front seat and an adult view of the struggles many of the girls had with body image.

Body Image in Female Athletes

The required uniform for volleyball is a jersey, t-shirt or long sleeve shirt, with a pair of spandex shorts. And they are ridiculously short. During a game of running, jumping, and diving, these shorts become even shorter, riding up. Any insecurities these young women had about their bodies would be on full display, every time they practiced. In the weight room, we had mirrors intended for checking form during exercise, but they became a reminder of negative feelings.

“I wish my stomach didn’t have this little pouch, “one of them would say, pointing to the spot between her naval and hips. “I didn’t used to have it.” Never mind that it is a natural part of the female form,  even with a low percentage of bodyfat. Never mind that it did not appear because she was overweight or unhealthy but because she had gone through puberty as a female. It was to be used as fuel should her body encounter famine while carrying a child. But the function didn’t matter, only the fact that it didn’t look like the uber edited photos in magazines or on television. And why would the function matter to her? In upper middle-class suburbia, form ruled over function.

I’ll never forget a 13-year-old libero telling me that her mother followed her in the family vehicle while she was forced to run 5 miles because she had “eaten too much at a party” the night before. Or the strong 16-year-old outside hitter who fainted under the weight of a loaded barbell she’d normally warm up with because she’d been trying to train three times a day while taking part in the 1200 calorie diet her mother had carved out for the two of them. These were some of the best athletes in the nation being taught that the way their body looked in the mirror was far more important than what they could actually DO.

A Real World Example

Players often had a bit of a break in the summertime, which meant it was the perfect opportunity to increase their power. We ran a summer lifting program where athletes could sign up for 2-4 sessions a week and come in and do heavy lifting and plyometrics. I had two young women who’d manage to consistently book at the same time. I won’t use their real names, but for the sake of the story we’ll call them Anna and Lauren.

Both were 13 years old and heading into their first year of high school volleyball, both good athletes, and both severely underweight. Anna had come in to lift because it was the only form of activity her parents would allow her to do, due to her struggle with anorexia nervosa. The doctor had ordered NO exercise, so even training with us was a breach in protocol, but the poor kid was bummed out. Not only was she struggling with an eating disorder, but in being pulled from the sport she loved dearly she was also pulled from her social circle. Anna was quiet, barely talked, was friendly but always seemed pensive.

The young lady who would become her serendipitous counterpart was Lauren. Lauren trained at the club during the regular volleyball season as well and had an overactive thyroid. We’re talking SEVERELY overactive. She ate like a horse and was 5’8” and only 98lbs. I know this because she would openly discuss her weight with us daily. Lauren was loud, self-assured, and absolutely brimming with excitement about whatever the topic of the day happened to be. Lauren and Anna were nearly polar opposites but made good training partners as they we’re about the same size and strength.

At first, we didn’t know why Lauren couldn’t put on weight. Her father had her drinking a weight gainer protein shake between meals, and still, nothing. She had come into the weight room in tears one day, because the doctors and kids at school accused her of having an eating disorder. “All I do is eat! And I can’t gain weight! I swear, I don’t have an eating disorder.” Her frustration with not being believed was palpable, and even greater than her frustration with inexplicably losing weight. Finally, someone ACTUALLY listened and tested her TSH. It turns out, she’d have had to been eating over 10,000 calories a day to maintain her weight. While that sounds like it might be fun for a week, in real time, it was no easy task. The decision was made to kill her thyroid.

Each day that summer, Lauren would burst into the room, excited about her climbing weight. “You guys! Guess how much I weigh now?!” She’d celebrate every pound. And with her increasing weight came an increase in her max vertical jump, her back squat, and her deadlift. She’d look in the mirror and stare in awe of her growing shoulders. All the while, Ana stood by, offering a supportive smile and a word or two of congratulations as Lauren’s exuberance spilled over to us. Anna didn’t discuss her own weight, but was always there, quietly lifting along with Lauren.

I ended up moving on to another job shortly after the summer sessions ended. When I left, Lauren had already grown three inches and was up to a powerful 135 and climbing. She’d put on a whopping 40 healthy pounds over the summer. At her last lifting session of the season, Anna came in, almost in tears. She’d put on enough weight to be allowed to play volleyball again, however much that was. The relief and happiness she felt was the most emotion we’d ever seen from her. She’d finally be able to go back to her school volleyball program in a couple weeks for the fall.

How is Weight Viewed

I’m not sure how life went for either of them after that summer. From the sound of it, Anna had been struggling for some time to be ok with and allow herself to maintain her weight, let alone gain some back. What changed in her mindset? To be sure, we’d have to ask her. I suspect it had something to do with being exposed to a peer experiencing weight gain as a positive change and making the connection between body condition and performance. If we think about it, how often do young girls hear, “Hell yes. I just put on 5lbs!” coming from another female. Do they ever hear it? We can be sure they hear complaints from others experiencing the same change. We can be sure they hear judgements about weight gain in other women. Do they ever hear, see, or have any example whatsoever of women in their life saying, “I weigh more now, and that is a good thing.”? I’d bet most probably do not. Maybe never, not once. Sometimes it’s not only what we say that has consequences, but also the things that we do not say.

Martial Arts Caused Me to View My Body Differently

Before I started competing in martial arts, I’m not sure I had ever heard those words coming from another female. My first tournament was at age 14. I started in Olympic-style Tae Kwon Do, which has changed considerably over the years. They’ve since lessened the required contact to make it more “fan friendly” for the Olympics. Just like boxing, and now, Muay Thai, but that’s another blog.) At the time, you had to kick a person hard enough to displace their body in order for it to score. You couldn’t punch the face, but you surely could KO them with a kick, and you could punch the body. Mind you, the punch would have to be hard enough to knock them on their butt in order to score. The rounds were continuous with one-minute rest. That bit hasn’t changed much, but now power is significantly less of the scoring game.

The need for such power made me start viewing my body very differently. The legs that had irritated me with their size when shopping for jeans, became the legs that were strong enough to break my opponent’s arm with a single kick. The narrow hips that made some styles of dress look peculiar were the same ones narrow enough that they put less pressure on my knee joint, saving me from countless injuries over the years. As time went on and I began competing with more intensity and less rules, my appreciation for my body as an instrument increased dramatically.

Weight Has a Function

Among our team, it was commonplace to discuss our bodyweight openly. At the national tournaments, we’d spend several days walking around wearing a badge that listed our official weight in bold lettering. We’d have open discussions about which divisions we thought would be best for us and why, understanding that the 10lb difference between middle and welterweight was enough to warrant a bit of a different fighting style. During this time, I also began to understand that having greater weight and size can be a very good thing, especially if you’re still able to move fast. My best training partner was a woman who was the exact same height and weight as I was, so we frequently alternated going up and down in weight to avoid fighting in the same division. I began to view my body weight similarly to the way I’d view my hairstyle. I might like the way I look with more or less, but it was a temporary state, and certainly not anything to be used to make a value judgement.

Years later I transitioned to kickboxing and Muay Thai, BJJ, then followed by MMA. In MMA in particular, your most effective style will naturally end up catered to your body type and personality preferences. It is one of few sports without a strict body type that wins nearly all competitions. In that way, it is one of the healthiest for body appreciation. We may have very different physical features, and still love what they allow us to do in the sport of MMA.  Ronda Rousey touched this with her Do Nothing Bitch rant. The intent was not to shame those who did nothing, but to celebrate a body that has developed for a purpose. As a female, you become accustomed to having your physical body assessed with only it’s appearance in mind. This is something that changes when you become a combat sports competitor. Your opponent’s coach looking you up and down is likely to be assessing your condition and your strength, rather than if your shoes match your pants or if you look fat in that dress.

Function Over Form

If you’ve visited Thailand, particularly for training, you’re well-aware that people feel very comfortable commenting on your appearance. You might be called fat, but it doesn’t carry the same harsh judgement that it might in the West. You’re a little chubby for a fighter right now, and you probably know it. Not a big deal. It was there I first experienced live gambling during one of my fights. The gamblers take a good look at you, but they aren’t worried about you being beautiful. I was approached by a couple of older Thai women who greeted me and watched me warm up for a bit. They then approached, first grabbing my forearm, then upper arm, lower leg, thigh and squishing my stomach in by pressing on my naval and back at the same time. Apart from it being a bit intrusive, it was fascinating. I was being assessed in the way a person might assess a racehorse. They didn’t care if my waist was small, they wanted to know how many knees I could likely take and continue to fight. Their estimation of me and my opponent would affect how they decided to bet. They weren’t casual fans. They had something at stake. It was one of many times I’ve regretted not having the Thai language skills to have an in-depth conversation.  What are the things they consider when assessing the body only as an instrument?

Though TKD and all the others are combat sports, there are certainly some differences in fighting in a spectator sport with casual fans. In a Tae Kwon Do uniform, nobody sees much of your body. By contrast, once you’re fighting in MMA, you can trust that everyone you know, and many people you don’t, have seen you in your underwear. And people within the industry and outside of it have an idea of what a fighter is “supposed to” look like.  In that way, it can be very detrimental to a person’s body image should they not possess the traits they believe a fighter “should” have. Whether or not a fighter looks ripped doesn’t usually have all that much to do with their fighting ability. Curiously, fighters with a bit of a gut tend to have a pretty good gas tank, though certainly, we can carry extra weight that doesn’t help us and exposes us to having to fight much larger opponents.  It can be significantly easier to cut water weight with lower body fat. Most people who’ve trained a while will have stories of locking up with a guy who is roided to the gills, and finding his actual strength is significantly lacking. Some of the ideas about the ideal fighter body are exactly that – just ideas that don’t necessarily have a basis in reality.

“Our Bodies are Instruments, Not Ornaments.” – Gloria Steinem

For years, there has been research to suggest that putting young girls in sports will automatically improve their body image. More recently, some of the studies suggest that sometimes the opposite is true. Sports will only help if she is then appreciating her body for its utility rather than its appearance. Sports can be an avenue to make this easier, but at times, they can also make it harder. The answer to improving body image is not making every young girl feel beautiful; it’s making beauty a smaller part of their self-assessment. This will not be helped by saying, “It’s what’s on the inside that counts.” Meanwhile complaining about every three-pound weight fluctuation and gossiping about others packing on the pounds. Mindset has to be modeled. Our bodies are instruments, not ornaments, after all.