The Olympics and Body Image: The Race to the Finish Line

It has been a great feat for the USA Olympic team in Rio.  As we watch our favorite athletes, old and new, exude confidence through their strength and resilience on their quest for the gold, one starts to wonder. What does it take to be the fastest, the greatest, the best?  What level of attention and discipline is required of the mind and body?  What happens when this intense focus on fitness contributes to, or is built upon an existing eating disorder?

Being strong is beautiful, but when does strong become fatal.  For many, athleticism equates to perfect – perfect form, perfect pace, and perfect body.  These athletes are no different from our cultural pressure to conform to the ideal body; for an athlete it translates into more muscle, less fat.  Competitive athleticism requires a balance of the needs of their bodies to maintain their sport; when the balance is unstable, it can come at a cost.  Eat less. Train more. It may start with poor body image and the belief:  if I can lose weight my performance will be better than before, better than my competitors.

Recently Misty Hyman, Olympic swimmer shared with, USA Today, her journey of resilience from an eating disorder, how it started with simply watching what she ate as a means to enhance her swimming.  “I started to have a sense of what I looked like to other people, and that became an important part,” Hyman said. “It was confusing to determine what’s best for my body in terms of my performance and, ‘Hey, I like getting this attention.’”

Many alike, the pressure to control weight and size, illuminate the harsh reality for many athletes’ relationship with food and their bodies.  Accepting their bodies in a competitive world is a brave struggle.  More athletes are coming to the stage to be a voice of acceptance and individuality. No two athletes are alike.  What one body requires will be different for another. Being the thinnest does not equate to being the best; in most cases it cannot be both.

Healing starts with introspection.   Hyman later shared “Now I see that as something that’s beautiful and strong, and I celebrate that. When I was a teen it was very hard to separate those ideas of what femininity is, what beauty is and what my identity was in relation to that as an athlete.” The reflection comes with support–surrounding yourself with others who have been through the same experience as well as others who can help you see your body and life through a different lens.

As athletes struggle to find their internal voice of freedom from their own critical words, it is our responsibility as fans to the Olympic games to speak acceptance for all, all bodies, all beings.  Appreciating differences, as cultures from all over the globe compete against each other is part of the beauty of the Olympics. That same appreciation for uniqueness can help the athletes learn to love themselves and help all of us truly appreciate the natural beauty of our world.