Dealing with Body Image in Girls’ Sports

“Every girl is expected to have Caucasian blue eyes, Spanish lips, a classic button nose, hairless Asian skin with a California tan, a Jamaican dance hall ass, long Swedish legs, small Japanese feet, the abs of a [gym owner], the hips of a 10 year old boy, the arms of Michelle Obama, and doll [boobs]. This is why everyone is struggling.”

~Tina Fey

 

“There is nothing wrong with your body, but there is a lot wrong with the messages which try to convince you otherwise.”

~Rae Smith

 

Being a girl is tough. There are many different pressures and expectations thrust upon us, from how we should act and communicate to how we should look, and this starts at a very young age. This isn’t always done overtly (although sometimes it is), but we are constantly bombarded with media that shows us what an “ideal” woman is supposed to be, and on top of that, sometimes people are just cruel. It’s no wonder that many girls start to develop unnecessary complexes and insecurities as early as elementary school.
 

[Before I go any further, I want to be clear that I know that boys struggle with the expectations society puts on them as well. Being a woman, though, I only have first-hand experience with what girls go through, so that is what I am going to talk about.]
 

There is a lot of shame surrounding body issues. For something that the majority of girls struggle with, people are very reluctant to open up and be honest about their experiences. Social media is also terrible for making us feel even worse about ourselves, as people are only posting the best parts of their lives, or the photos where they look amazing. That isn’t real life. As much as I wish that we could all just love who we are, I am here to tell you that you are not alone. We all struggle, Olympians and professionals included, and we shouldn’t be embarrassed to talk about it.
 

Body image is something I have struggled with for most of my life. Being very tall (I’m 6’5”), I have been hearing mean jokes and comments about my height for as long as I can remember. People try to sneak photos, showing how tall I am compared to their friends, or laugh as I walk by. Honestly, there are days when it is really hard to be in public. I get really sad sometimes because people treat me as though I am an object with no ears or eyes or feelings, instead of as a woman. I talked about this in a piece done by CBC Sports leading up to the Rio Olympics. You can watch it here.
 

When I was in high school I was extremely thin. Back then, I hadn’t started lifting weights, so I was very active without a lot of muscle mass. Kids at school called me anorexic. Then, when I got to college, I started lifting weights regularly, and put on a lot of muscle very quickly. My body had never experienced anything like that, and I was on my own for the first time, so it was a bit of a shock to my system. My body took some time to regulate itself under this new routine. People online speculated that I was on steroids.
 

Even as a professional, I deal with criticism on a regular basis. I have played for teams who told me I was overweight and fat. I have been called ugly, and have my appearance critiqued by people who have nothing better to do with their day than say mean things on the Internet. I have been called, “The Ice Princess,” because I didn’t smile enough when I played. The list goes on.
 

I think of myself as being strong and confident and secure, but experiencing these types of things everyday, and hearing these types of comments over and over will make anyone believe them. I got to that point, as I’m sure many others do. I started to believe the things that these people, who didn’t even know me, were saying and writing about me.
 

I used to let these opinions and comments get the best of me, and I found myself constantly worrying if I actually was too fat, or if I should smile more when I play. It was exhausting. Over time, though, I was finally able to truly believe, and not just say, that the cowards who say terrible things behind a computer screen aren’t worth my thoughts or my time. Their opinions don’t matter. Rude people on the street who make me feel insignificant don’t matter either, and I can’t let them affect my mood or ruin my day. It’s just not worth it.
 

No one has the right to call me anorexic or fat when it isn’t true. There is no perfect mold for what a volleyball player or athlete should look like, or how much they should weigh. At the end of the day, weight is nothing but a number. I have learned that if I am taking care of my body, eating well, performing well, and most importantly, feeling good, the number on the scale doesn’t matter. My job is to be the best volleyball player that I can be, and if that means that I weigh 20 pounds more than the girl next to me, so be it. It took a long time for me to be ok with these things, but when I decided that feeling great and playing great were my priorities, I noticed a shift away from those insecurities.
 

As women, we have the added challenge of always comparing ourselves to each other. I do not have a typical “athlete’s body.” I am very tall, and because of this, my muscles are much longer than the average person’s. I will never have chiseled muscles because it’s just not how my body is designed. My muscles are there, but they won’t look the same as someone else’s.
 

My body will not look the same way as my teammates’ or opponents’ bodies look in a swimsuit because I am shaped differently than them. I have a woman’s body, with hips and a butt and all. There is absolutely nothing I can do about my genetics, so comparing myself to other people will serve no purpose other than to make me miserable. We need to stop trying to be someone else, and embrace the bodies we were born with. We need to be proud of what we have, and make it work for us to the best of our ability.
 

Through all the heartache and tears, and wondering if what those people out there say is true, the thing I have come to remind myself of is this: I would not have lived, nor would I still be living, the life I am if I was in some other body. I wouldn’t have married the man I did, I wouldn’t have the career I do, and I wouldn’t have developed the strength of character and resilience necessary to overcome it all.
 

The comments hurt. Worrying about that number on the scale sucks. Wondering if you’re pretty enough or smiley enough is tough. I want you to know that it happens to everyone, and that you are not the only one having these doubts and thoughts. The important thing is to not let them overcome you or define you. There is a lesson to be found in all of it, and if you can teach yourself how to re-work it to come out stronger on the other side, you will have beaten down all those people and the society who tried to stand in your way. You only have one body…. love it and take care of it, and it will do magical things for you.
 

xo, Sarah

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6 Comments

  • Laura April 3, 2017 at 8:20 am

    Thanks for sharing your vulnerabilities, as you said, we all have them from time to time. I also agree with you that if young people can embrace the lessons you are sharing or we have learned later in life now, how much better their lives will become.

    Reply
  • Alex Ketrzynski April 13, 2017 at 2:46 pm

    I feel compelled to comment though my experience pales in comparison to your own. I only embraced my 6’5.5″ height after I weight trained and played on the Olympic team. I married a tall woman who endured infinitely more abuse and was profoundly affected by it. Thankfully my even taller sons have totally embraced their height and are sensitive to the differences of everyone else. I’ve known so many people who have experienced the harm of being shamed for their body shape. The people doing the shaming usually do so unconsciously. I appreciate the attention you’re bringing to the topic through your career and writing. I think you’re making some people think twice before making that unthinking and hurtful comment and helping others accept themselves more readily. Thank you.

    Reply
    • Sarah Pavan April 16, 2017 at 4:05 pm

      Thank you so much for sharing, and for your kind words. It makes me so sad that people have to endure harsh criticism over something they have no control over. I appreciate you reaching out!

      Reply
  • Kathy April 16, 2017 at 8:34 am

    Having a daughter who is was always very thin (as I was), the comments to her about it were very hurtful. So much of their self-esteem is wrapped up in how they look and so I have always tried to help build her confidence through sport. I always emphasize health to be most important and not your body. I also think it is really important for moms to send the right messages to their daughters and not complain about their body infront of their girls. I really appreciate you as a high profile athlete sharing your experiences so they know anyone can experience body image issues.

    Reply
    • Sarah Pavan April 16, 2017 at 4:06 pm

      I agree with you whole-heartedly. Thank you so much for your comments!!

      Reply
      • chris August 4, 2017 at 9:02 pm

        Sara,

        I think you have the most amazing body, Its perfect.

        Reply

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