Reshaping Sports, Not Reshaping the Body: Addressing Body Image In Youth Sports

I love sports.

Not simply watching sports, but playing sports. From my own experience as an athlete growing up, I have always seen such value in youth sports for the body and mind. From developing sportsmanship skills to increased cardiovascular fitness, there is a lengthy list as to why involvement in sports is beneficial to kids.

Despite my love for youth sports, particularly running, my seven-year old daughter has not had the interest in joining an organized sport just yet. Don’t get me wrong, she is extremely active and tires me out daily, but she is at the age where she just wants to do her own thing. I am more than fine with that, as it gives me added time to explore with her some of the less talked about aspects of female sports – body image, nutrition, and knowing how far is too far to push.

You may have seen the video piece last fall by the New York Times about athlete, Mary Cain. To briefly summarize: She was the fastest young female runner in America until she went to train with the famed Nike Oregon Project (NOP) coach, Alberto Salazar, who she says convinced her that in order to truly succeed she needed to get thinner…and thinner…and thinner.

The result: Her body broke down physically and she broke down mentally.

I was a huge fan of Cain and watched the deterioration as I followed her meet results online. Her story was a bit different as, based on her words, she seemed to have a coach who was causing more harm than help. However, her story sheds light on issues that go beyond the alleged practices of the NOP and to the areas that were all too familiar to me as an athlete – issues with body image and not knowing how much to push.

Despite my high school and collegiate success and being surrounded by great coaches, I too, fell into that grey area. I lost weight from training harder and I got faster, but I never changed my dietary intake to respond to the harder level of training. From anemia to amenorrhea, my body was out of whack and, as a teenager, I had no idea how to fix it. I would look at photos of my female runner idols, and they had the “look”…thin, fit, and fast.

I was starting to look like them, so how could anything be wrong? Thankfully, an appointment with a nutritionist helped me to understand more about the dietary needs of the body.

It helped me to see that we need to reshape the perceived notion of body size in sports, particularly in those seen as “lean body” sports, and not force girls to reshape their bodies to fit a preconceived mold. Please note, though, although the focus of this piece is on females, males can develop similar body issues – particularly those who participate in sports where that slim body is considered ideal for performance.

It can be hard, although never impossible, to combat a sub-culture or image that is embedded into a sport. But there are things you can do at home with your children to help them develop a healthy body image and understand what their own unique bodies need.

1) Check your own view of your body image. Not groundbreaking information here, but kids pick up on a lot. How we talk about our own bodies, especially if we say things in a negative way, can impact how a child perceives their own body type – and those they see around them.

2) Prioritize health over weight. Talk about being healthy and staying active, not numbers on a scale. I work out every day, but my daughter just looks at it as another way to stay healthy. I also try to incorporate fun family fitness activities, like bike rides or hiking, in which we can all do together.

3) Cook together. The nutritionist I saw helped me to understand what fuel my body needed and how much was required to keep me performing at my peak. Cooking with your child can help them to see how to prepare meals that are healthy and that fuel the body. Cookbooks like the New York Times best seller, “Run Fast. Eat Slow.” by NYC marathon winner Shalane Flanagan, provide recipes that are healthy, yet energy-packed and can be a great guide.

4) Find an activity that works for you – and your kids. I can do 10 miles on a treadmill and love it. Other people I know, no matter how fit they are, would absolutely hate that. Just like we find actives that we enjoy to stay active, help your child find the best fit for them. Exposure to different body types. Show your kids that fitness, strength, and beauty comes in different shapes and sizes.

My daughter is not yet involved sports. Who knows? Maybe she will never choose to play sports like me. But just in case, I want to do what I can to hopefully prevent her from changing her body for a sport. It’s the sports that need to reshape their image of female athletes.

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