Bending beauty standards in athletics

Female athletes struggle to maintain body positivity as mainstream media illustrates unrealistic expectations

More stories from Nicole Bellford


Photo by submitted

Blugold swimmer Nicole Bellford, pictured alongside her teammates, shows that beauty comes in all shapes and sizes, even among athletes.

After a typical Saturday morning practice of weight lifting and a couple thousand yards in the pool, I head into the locker room to prepare for the day. Taking a glance in the locker room mirrors, I admire the visible strength in my arms after a painful workout, proud of my defined shoulders and muscular physique my hard work is paying off.

However, as I finish getting ready and take a trip to the mall, my optimism unravels in the dressing room. Not a single article of clothing fits correctly. From zippers unable to make their way up my broad figure, to every shirt clinging to my body when they are supposed to fit loosely, I end up leaving feeling ashamed, longing for the “look” of the social media models I see as I scroll through Instagram or the bodies of women plastered on magazine covers.

While such a scenario has played out a thousand times over in my own life, it is unfortunately a reality for a generous amount of female athletes especially within the young adult demographic.

A study completed by The Sport Journal found 31 percent of NCAA female athletes involved in “mainstream” sports (basketball, softball, tennis, volleyball, swimming, track, hockey and soccer) reported feeling dissatisfied with their overall appearance, and these athletes are approximately 40 percent more likely to exhibit bulimic behaviors and weight preoccupation than average college students.

The Eating Disorder Hope Foundation reports athletes have two different body images rather than one one in-sport, and one outside of the sport. This means impressionable, young female athletes are dealing with the pressure of living up to society’s “ideal” body expectations in multiple realms of their lives. This stress of comparing and “fitting in” is undoubtedly confusing and mentally damaging, especially considering the “ideal” body of an athlete versus the average woman are contrasting in themselves.

As a young girl, I recall experiencing this confusion often while seeing it unravel among my teammates as well. I constantly felt embarrassed among my non-athlete friends in high school, never being able to trade clothes with anyone because they didn’t fit, even after I attempted absurd diets that didn’t provide nearly enough calorie intake for what I was burning in the pool.

My heart has broken for teammates who have fallen victim to eating disorders, depression and anxiety all stemming from body insecurity. A couple of my teammates throughout the years have had to stop competing in the sport they love altogether to receive treatment for their illnesses such as bulimia and anorexia.

The pressure to fit in and look a certain way is nearly impossible to eliminate in an age of social media domination and overly edited models taking the covers of mainstream publications. While unrealistic beauty standards take place in media, however, they don’t have to take place in your community.

Even though I sometimes let my insecurities get the best of me, I feel lucky to have a team behind me that encourages beauty ideals far from mainstream media. We appreciate one another for our unique qualities, and define beauty as more than just aesthetic. My teammates are beautiful for their personalities, their work ethic and dedication to athletics and so much more. They have helped me to realize it’s pointless to hold myself to standards that don’t actually exist.

Beauty is curves. Beauty is muscle definition. Beauty is tall. Beauty is short. Beauty is size 0. Beauty is size 14. It’s nailing that serve and winning the game. It’s hitting a new personal best in the weight room. Beauty is anything we can celebrate that makes us unique and special from one another. But it should never, ever entail insecurity.